The Right struggles to understand Trump and populism

Summary: With victory at the GOP convention appearing more certain every day, the Right struggles to understand the resurgence of populism, so long suppressed. Here are two essays showing how they’re doing so far — by a neocon and conservative. Both remind us that populism is a political movement distinct from conservatism, and need not ally with it (the populist-progressive alliance created the New Deal). Tomorrow’s post looks at similar analysis from the Left. The new coalitions now forming will shape US politics for a generation.

“Equal Rights for All, Special Privileges for None.”
— 1828 Slogan of Andrew Jackson’s populists. Still revolutionary. Works even better today, after slavery.



  1. Typical establishment denunciations of Trump: he is a “monster”.
  2. The GOP must reinvent itself to survive the populist revolt.
  3. Conclusions.
  4. Other posts about Trump & the new populism.
  5. For More Information.

(1) Typical establishment denunciations of Trump as “monster”

Trump is the GOP’s Frankenstein monster.
Now he’s strong enough to destroy the party.

By Robert Kagan (Brookings Inst), WaPo op-ed, 25 Feb 2016.

This sad op-ed shows that people in these establishment’s institutions still believe they are taste-setters and opinion-makers for the US public, and that many listen to their discredited voices. Here Kagan sings a largely content-free song to encourage people to follow their betters. Kagan gives vivid imagery and exaggerations rather than discussion of Trump’s actual policies (lest people realize how popular many of them are).

Kagan describes himself as a “liberal interventionist“; he’s one of the architects of our disastrous “interventions” since 9/11. Of course he opposes populists and their skepticism of overseas military adventures. Does his support gain more votes for Trump on the Right than the votes it loses for Hillary on the Left?

Reihan Salam

(2)  The GOP must reinvent itself to survive the populist revolt

Folks Before Kochs
By Reihan Salam at Slate
“To save itself, Republicans must finally put the working class ahead of the donor class.”

Excellent analysis of the GOP, among the best I’ve seen. He is an Executive Editor for National Review and co-author of Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream (2008). See his Wikipedia entry for more info. Excerpt:

In the years since the financial crisis, populist insurgencies have devastated mainstream parties of the center right and center left in virtually every market democracy. Barack Obama’s rhetorical gifts mask the many ways in which he is a deeply conventional political figure, a man who trusts the wisdom of technocrats rather than seeking to overturn the established order. One could argue that the Obama presidency rescued America’s upper classes from a more ferocious post-crisis backlash, at least for a time. The twin insurgencies of Trump and Sanders demonstrate that the anger is still there — that it was just waiting for the right person to conjure it up. What separates the two politicians is that Sanders is in tune with the ideological orthodoxies of the left while Trump has no regard for those of the right. This iconoclasm is one of the sources of his power.

More than anything else, Trump has demonstrated that white working-class voters have minds of their own. They will not simply line up behind the candidates selected for them by hedge-funders and industrialists during the “invisible primary.” If we define working-class voters as those without a college degree, Ronald Brownstein of the Atlantic estimates that this bloc represents 53% of Republicans, split almost evenly between those who are conservative Christians and those who are not. The Pew Research Center reports that in 2012, 53% of Republicans were part of families that earned less than $75,000 a year. These groups, which tend to overlap, are Donald Trump’s base. Ever since the Nixon era, Republicans have relied on the white working class to achieve political victories. Now, it has revolted against the GOP elite.

Why wouldn’t they be furious? The Republican failure to defend the interests of working-class voters, and to speak to their hopes and fears, has made Trump’s authoritarianism dangerously alluring. Trump recognized that elite Republicans — a group rooted in affluent coastal metropolises and dominated by members of the credentialed upper middle class, which has shielded itself from the social and economic devastation that has wreaked such havoc in less-privileged corners of the country — often fall prey to wishful thinking about the rank-and-file voters who actually elect GOP candidates. They imagine that working- and middle-class conservatives are passionately devoted to the things they care about — tax cuts and entitlement reform — when these voters are far more passionate about other issues: economic nationalism, limits on less-skilled immigration, and minimum-wage hikes.

Having recognized this chasm separating the Republican donor class from the grassroots, Trump has exploited it brilliantly. He has defended entitlement programs, and he has bashed bankers. He has defied the elite consensus on trade and immigration. He is channeling the Republican id, and in doing so he may have already dashed conservative hopes of winning the White House. Why can’t his GOP opponents convince Republican voters that they would do a far better job than Trump of defending middle-class economic interests? The answer is that they are trapped by the delusions of the donor class, and they can’t break free.

Note that even in this sound analysis Salam cannot bring himself to actually describe Trump’s policies. All he can do is denounce them as “authoritarian”, with this daft summary:

“Trump has built his campaign around the promise of an unlimited government that will solve every problem that ails America, provided it is fully under his command.”

This is the standard establishment condemnation of populists and progressives going back to William Jennings Bryan in 1896. Trump’s speeches advocate “unlimited government” in the same way as did FDR’s or Obama’s (i.e., it is a wild exaggeration). This shows an important but seldom understand fact: conservatives sometimes ally with populists, but they are different political movements.


(3)  Conclusions

In 1964 Goldwater started the revitalization of conservatism, bringing the South into the GOP and breaking the New Deal coalition which had ruled for three decades. Five decades later the resulting new coalitions have grown decrepit. Both Left and Right are alienated from their leaders, who advocate policies that do little for them.

The stress has accumulated for a generation. Now comes the reckoning. The Right has snapped first, with resurgence of long-suppressed populism — fracturing their alliance with conservatives.

Unfortunately probably neither populist nor progressive movements are strong enough to win by themselves. Will they ally with Left and Right, reforming the coalitions that have ruled since 1964? Or will they ally with each other?

Their alliance built the New Deal. We can do it again, this time with policies suited for the challenges of the 21st century. That requires the Right to accept the Left as other than enemies of America, and the Left to accept workers as more than ignorant proles requiring their leadership.

Or we can let the 1% continue to gain power and wealth, and accept whatever they choose to give us.

(4)  Other posts about Trump & the new populism

See all posts about Trump and the New Populism, especially these…

(5) For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.  For ideas about what you can do see Reforming America: steps to new politics. Also see these books about the problems of and potential for reform on the Right…

Why the Right Went Wrong
Available at Amazon.
The Right Path: from Ike to Reagan
Available at Amazon.

21 thoughts on “The Right struggles to understand Trump and populism”

  1. This morning Mitt Romney urged decent Republicans to shun Trump. I am sure that Trump was greatly entertained by this message.

    The elite are SO out of step they are beginning to look like the Keystone Cops. Can they get it together before the convention? Probably not, which leads to a great many possibilities; all of them horrific for the Republicans in the short-term. I’ve put a few possibilities below but the list is ridiculously incomplete.

    – Will the Republicans use dirty tricks to keep Trump away from the nomination? That risks permanently splitting the party
    – Will the elites try to come to an accommodation with Trump and make a deal? Trump is a master negotiator and they’ve said a lot of stupid things (see above) that they will have to take back. Hard on their egos and they are likely to make a bad (for them) deal which will have later ramifications
    – Will the elites decide to intentionally lose the election to discredit Trump? That risks losing 53% of their party as the populism-fueled anger looks for a party that will channel rather than block their fears and energy
    – The smart thing is to do as Salam recommends but the Republicans are so beholden to their donors (as are the Democrats) that I doubt they can even envision that as a viable strategy.

    1. Pluto,

      Perhaps you are correct. But I’d bet otherwise on all points. Such linear forecasts, assuming great stupidity by smart people, are almost always wrong.

      (1) Your forecasts are like those in 1932 saying that FDR would start a revolution. He made deals with US elites, mixing reforms in with policies that benefited them (e.g., cartelization of the US economy). My guess is that GOP elites — and if Trump wins in Nov, US elites — will make deals with Trump. He is, after all, the master of the deal — and a fellow plutocrat.

      (2) I suspect you don’t understand how people — rich and poor — deal with power. Events make opinions, as seen by looking at extreme examples from the past. Here is what I wrote 2 months ago; I suspect you’ll see this dynamic in the next few weeks.

      In 1815 Napoleon broke his exile on Elba and marched to Paris. See the headlines in Le Moniteur Universel reporting his progress.

      The cannibal has left his lair. — March 9.
      The Corsican ogre has just landed at the Juan Gulf. — March 10.
      The tiger has arrived at Gap. — March 11.
      The monster slept at Grenoble. — March 12.
      The tyrant has crossed Lyons. — March 13.
      The usurper was seen sixty leagues from the capital. — March 18.
      Bonaparte has advanced with great strides, but he will never enter Paris. — March 19.
      Tomorrow, Napoleon will be under our ramparts. — March 20.
      The Emperor has arrived at Fontainbleau. — March 21.
      His Imperial and Royal Majesty entered his palace at the Tuileries last night in the midst of his faithful subjects. — March 22.

      This is what I expect to see if Trump wins in the early primaries. Americans love a winner (doubly so for our journalists and other opinion-makers). Trump the outcast will become Trump the star.

    2. FM: “Perhaps you are correct. But I’d bet otherwise on all points. Such linear forecasts, assuming great stupidity by smart people, are almost always wrong.”

      Your thinking is, as always, logical. My sole concern is that the OODA loop for these very smart people might be running so slowly that they cannot adapt in the next 4 months. Mitt Romney (who is a very smart person) looked foolish today chastising Republicans who favor Trump.

      Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell have made some statements that will be hard to take back and will certainly provide the Democrats with some fun quotes for the main campaign.

      The Donald is revealing a new political landscape to the Republican elites at a rapid pace and is benefiting from keeping them off-balance (another tool of a master negotiator). He is a proud man and statements that they have made likely irritate him so he is likely to thoroughly enjoy rubbing their noses in their own foolishness.

      I don’t say that this will prevent a deal from being made. It will just make the Republican leaders more uncomfortable and will likely cause the deal to be less beneficial to the Republican leaders in the long term than they hope.

      FM: “I suspect you don’t understand how people — rich and poor — deal with power”

      I suspect that you are right, that I do not understand how individuals deal with power. What you have described is an interesting personal response by a French editor to Napoleon’s unexpected rise. Other individuals would make different choices.

      You have correctly described the group dynamics of everybody in the US loves a winner but the Republican leadership is a collection of individuals. Some (such as the uncomfortable Christie and the insufferable Palin) will make accommodations with Trump. Others will not. The ratio of accomodators to hard-line anti-Trump people will determine the leadership’s response.

      You make the logical prediction that the party will accept Trump, I am not yet in a position to feel comfortable with it. Time will give us the answer and I am content to wait for it.

      1. Pluto,

        “Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell have made some statements that will be hard to take back”

        The dogs bark but the caravan moves on.

        “will certainly provide the Democrats with some fun quotes for the main campaign.”

        This the inside baseball that the Outer Party gets off on, much as the lower classes do about the latest football news. Nobody really cares about this nonsense.

        “It will just make the Republican leaders more uncomfortable and will likely cause the deal to be less beneficial to the Republican leaders in the long term than they hope.”

        Don’t make your analysis contingent on insights about people’s interior life, unless you are Professor Xavier. Instead assume that they will act as they have in the past. That’s why intel agencies compile dossiers with what — to the layperson — seems like trivia.

    3. Pluto,

      “Will the elites decide to intentionally lose the election to discredit Trump?”

      Can you give an example of this happening in US history? If not, the answer is almost certainly “no”.

      Despite the hysteria (the “crisis crisis” at work), this is not an extraordinary election. Populists and progressives have challenged US elites several times before, and will again. The nutty commentary reflects not the circumstances of Campaign 2016, but our amnesia. We’ve lost our past, and so find the present bewildering.

  2. As usual, good summary with snippets of wisdom added along the way. Read both of these before and distributed widely (probably from your prior Links). Response was ….oh, yes that is exactly so.
    Watershed moments behind and up ahead. False starts are a part of most of life when changes are being encountered/made. This one is deep and not easily discounted. Obama said he was the only thing between the Pitchforks and the Bankers. The Elites trembled….and realized that was perhaps so.
    That Anger did not receded.
    If a major Event occurs, this could forment even more.
    The Conversation will only get more prominent it seems.
    And the Democrats best not ignore what they snicker about in the Repubs seeming demise!



    1. Breton,

      “Obama said he was the only thing between the Pitchforks and the Bankers. The Elites trembled….and realized that was perhaps so.”

      Obama successfully defused the anger at bankers after the crash. That was a great accomplishment, done with support by the Right (who co-opted the Tea Party, born as a protest movement against bankers, into a force supporting pro-banker Republicans).

      The long-term price paid, however, was that the underlying tensions grew worse. Both the economic stress, as the post-recession gains were creamed off by the 1%, and the social tensions as people realized they had been connned by Obama (Mr. Hope and Change). Now comes the next round.

  3. I am sadly watching the political rhetoric heat up. The ad hominems are flying thick and fast. The disdain for the electorate from the right and left is manifest.
    What continues to be ignored are the underlying issues that have created and powered Trump and to a much lesser extent Cruz and Sanders.

    My sense is that none of these three will damage the Republic as much as the rhetoric that will flow from the usual suspects if any of them actually get elected. It will be the first year of Reagan all over again. The media will have a fit and enjoy every moment of it!

    1. Bernie,

      I suggest ignoring the rhetoric. It’s business as usual in politics. We think of Jonathan Swift for the sly humor of “Gulliver’s Travels”, but the people of early 18th Century England knew him for his brutal political commentary. The mudslinging began early in America, with brutal rhetoric about the revolutionary ambitions of Jefferson (we’ll have the trumbels carry people to execution) — plus insults about Jefferson’s slave mistress and Jackson’s bigamous wife. Here’s an article about the mudslinging in 1828 between Adams and Jackson (you can see it on Google News). Then there was “Ma, Ma, Where’s my Pa, Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha” — about Cleveland in 1884.

      Much of what they say about Trump repeats the attacks on Reagan. And of course Bush Jr was Hitler. As is Obama.

      “The dogs bark but the caravan moves on.”

    2. Bernie,

      “The media will have a fit and enjoy every moment of it!”

      I disagree with the framing. Journalists are service providers. They write what we want to read. Political invective is the sizzle in the product. As I have said so often…

      They provide entertainment and catharsis for the outer party …The outer party is politically impotent, but likes to believe themselves otherwise. So they consume information (becoming well-informed). In effect they become fans cheering and booing political actors. …It’s no longer in many (most?) American’s world view that we have responsibility for the actions of our government, which would mandate our involvement — or even that we have the power to run America, which would imply political action as a personal priority for each of us.

  4. When 90% plus of the media self identify in one political direction I do not see the media as championing the cause of the “outies”.

    On the other hand and as you say, any student of history knows that the rhetoric in US politics has been pretty vicious since the times of James Callender.

    1. Bernie,

      “When 90% plus of the media self identify in one political direction I do not see the media as championing the cause of the “outies”.

      An odd statement. Fox perfectly “champions the cause” of the older conservative elements of the Outer Party. The other networks do so as well, although none focus on one demographic. That’s why they’re in business. It’s a highly competitive biz. Anyone not able to attract large audiences will die fast, abandoned by their customers (the advertisers).

  5. Granted that Fox is the outlier and may have way more than 10% of the eyeballs. However,it has a small % of the working journalists given the size of the major networks. Besides the WSJ what is another nationally distributed Conservative newspaper? Locally, there is probably a more equal distribution. In Boston we have the Globe and the Herald – and they are on opposite ends of the political spectrum and have roughly equal circulations.

    1. Bernie,

      The two major nationally circulated papers in the US are the Wall Street Journal and USA Today (i.e., major compared to circulation of local papers beyond their home territory). The first is quite conservative; the second is moderately so. A distant third is the liberal NYT. The wire services are as or more important than those 2, and are more politically neutral — since they serve local papers, which are often far more conservative than the nations.

      In any case “nationally distributed newspapers” are a small faction of the news media. The combined circulation of the top 3 is 6 million vs. 125 million households in the US (actual comparison would make them smaller, omiting HHs getting two and foreign readers).

      None of this is really relevant to my point. Their audience sees them as good entertainment, which is why they’re watched. You appear to see them serving some other role, which imo is quite unlikely except for a small minority.

  6. To the writer: I commend you. You are truly onto something here. Furthermore, I have never before heard your description of the alliance that brought the New Deal, but knew you were right the moment I read it. Electrifying, sir.

  7. Conservatives go bonkers over Trump

    With people rebelling against the plutocrats’ lackeys that run the GOP, the conservative establishment strikes back.

    The complete guide to how Trump can make himself the first American dictator” by Eric Posner (Prof of Law at U of Chicago), at Quartz. You can feel his anger that the proles refused to accept their appointed leaders. This essay is especially rich coming from an advocate of almost unlimited Presidential power.


    “If Trump is elected president, will constitutional law and American political institutions protect us from a would-be dictator? Europeans worry about the emergence of Caesarism in the United States, just as the founders did when they invented the presidency. Authoritarianism is making gains around the world; why not here? Of course, Trump may not want to be a dictator. He has repeatedly stated his desire to make “deals,” implying a willingness to cooperate with Congress. But there is no reason to believe anything he says; many of his actions and statements are those of someone with a dictatorial mentality if nothing else, and his popular support derives from his authoritarian image: he appeals to people who yearn for a strongman to protect them.”

  8. Pingback: The natives are restless — LimbicNutrition

  9. Pingback: Matt Taibbi visits the GOP convention. We can learn from what he doesn't see. – Fabius Maximus website (blog) – The Liberty Extra

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