A Populism We Can Live With

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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In his Friday column, Matthew Continetti notes that paroxysms of populism are cyclical and that economic growth is the cure. He’s correct, but there’s no guarantee that will happen.

It’s also true that Donald Trump is an especially dangerous kind of populist. This is due in part to his authoritarian tendencies and his impressive ability to demagogue. But it’s also because he (unlike, say, Pat Buchanan—a devout Catholic and an experienced pol—who served in the Nixon and Reagan administrations) is unmoored from any faith tradition or principled worldview. As the Economist notes, Trumpism “blends America First nationalism, paranoia worthy of Joseph McCarthy, George Wallace-style nativism and Hugh Hefner-ish lechery…”

It may turn out that this final ingredient is what did him in.

Still, if Trump manages to win states like Ohio and loses the General Election, it will be fair to at least speculate that a kinder, gentler form of Trump-ism (economic populism, minus the racism and sexism) may still be the best short-term hope the GOP has of winning back the White House in 2020.

Now, as Continetti argues, this could change if the economy starts taking off—but we have little reason to suspect it will. As I noted last week, “The notion that things will just go back to the way they were before Trump seems unlikely. That means that if Trump loses, odds are that the future GOP—should it not be torn asunder—would incorporate the popular (and populist) aspects of Trumpism, while eschewing its more untenable and unseemly aspects.”

Though economic populism isn’t my cup of tea, this shift wouldn’t have surprised me even a few years ago. Although I was slow to spot Donald Trump as the avatar of modern populism, I was among the few who saw the potential for someone to tap into what I called an “underserved constituency.” As I wrote four years ago: “There seems to be a strong indication that many working-class whites in the rust belt simply couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Barack Obama or Mitt Romney. There is an opening for a political party to address these populist concerns. Will anyone answer the call?”

Unfortunately, Donald Trump responded to that siren call.

But what does the future hold? The Economist sees Sen. Tom Cotton as the candidate to “reconcile Mr Trump’s burn-it-all-down followers with conventional conservatives.” I have suggested that Mike Pence might be the logical Trump heir. It’s too early to know for sure how this will shake out. But even in defeat, Donald Trump might serve as an important transition figure: a bridge to a new, more populist, GOP.