A major lesson of the 2016 election was that the neoliberal consensus of the prior thirty years was not the panacea its advocates claimed. Trump’s candidacy was premised on the notion that the national government should work for the interests of the nation’s people, not on behalf of globalist concerns and aloof cosmopolitan elites. Government could be reformed to strengthen the nation, rather than operating as the piggy bank for and protector of internationalists.
It’s interesting to reflect how entrenched the assumptions of neoliberalism were prior to 2015-2016. When Trump began his historic campaign, virtually no one on the Right was talking about tariffs, other than Pat Buchanan (and a long essay on the necessity of a trade war with China that Oren Cass wrote for National Review in 2014). The outsourcing of jobs overseas was assumed to be a short-term sacrifice that would result in more efficiency (ergo, lower prices on consumer goods) and more skilled jobs here. We were a “nation of immigrants,” so we’d better throw the doors wide open.
With Trump’s election, a long-dormant populist wing reemerged, consisting both of conservative Republicans and disgruntled Democrats. Tariffs became an important foreign and domestic policy tool. A trade war with China soon began, and the United States renegotiated the NAFTA agreement with Mexico and Canada. Manufacturing jobs began returning to the United States, and immigration laws began to be enforced (so long as those Hawaiian judges didn’t get in the way). The economy, rather than contracting as the free trade hardliners warned, grew exponentially, and even now is recovering at a remarkable clip after The Age of The Virus temporarily sidelined it.
Indeed, Trump’s message of good government reform in the interest of American citizens—the “America First” platform—appealed broadly to white, working class Americans, the very folks who were harmed the most from globalization. These voters, by dent of their dirty jobs and their race, were ignored or actively hated during the long Obama years. They weren’t glamorous, cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic, or educated, so they didn’t matter. Trump gave them a voice again.
Trump’s first term was hobbled by a bogus Russian collusion investigation; a Ukrainian collusion impeachment (I wonder which scary Eastern European country the Democrats will choose next?); entrenched resistance from the D.C. Swamp and its allies in the media, universities, culture, and institutions; lower court judges acting as unilateral stops on legitimate executive authority; the outbreak of a Chinese-engineered virus; and massive looting and rioting, motivated in part by ginned up racial animus. Even in spite of those difficulties, though, Trump accomplished a great deal, and the populist message of 2016 will win again in 2020.
James Kirkpatrick spells out some ways President Trump can reiterate his America First message by emphasizing three areas: abolishing affirmative action, restricting immigration, and reinforcing economic populism.
In our hyper-racialized age, in which major corporations pander to a domestic terror organization to avoid being looted, the first plank seems unlikely politically. Nevertheless, it would resonate loudly with Trump’s core supporters, who don’t benefit from affirmative action and who intuit—correctly—that it’s completely unfair. As Kirkpatrick points out that “If conservatives are serious about defending a common American civic identity, they must be serious about removing racial privilege in American law.” Affirmative action is just that—a “racial privilege.” No nation can enjoy true equality before the law in such a regime.
Restricting immigration is, I would argue, the key to Trump’s election in 2016, and will be again in 2020. Kirkpatrick points out that Trump is finally making some headway in this area, but he’s inexplicably “leaving his greatest weapon on the table—a remittance tax that would pay for the border wall.” When I was learning about Trump’s seemingly ludicrous claim that Mexico would pay for the wall, the idea of the remittance tax made the ludicrous completely sane. Mexican immigrants, legal and illegal, send billions in remittance payments to Mexico via wire transfers. Tax those transfers, and the wall pays for itself. It’s elegant in its simplicity, and the tax primarily burdens Mexicans on either side of the border—that’s America First, if you ask me.
For economic populism, Kirkpatrick seems to call for a second wave of TrumpBux. Those kinds of payouts always make me uncomfortable as a fiscal conservative, but let’s face it—at this point, the national debt is an abstraction for most Americans. Tossing another trillion onto the fire isn’t going to change anything, and the first wave of $1200 checks didn’t seem to inflate prices.
But there is some wisdom in getting cash into the hands of middle-class families. In an interesting parallel, Poland’s ultra-conservative President Andrzej Duda won reelection on a populist-nationalist platform. Part of his appeal was the creation of monthly family stipends that have transformed poorer regions of Poland:
Duda’s presidential reelection campaign focused on defending traditional family values in the predominantly Roman Catholic nation of 38 million people, and on preserving social spending policies.
Law and Justice party policies include hugely popular monthly cash bonuses of 500 zlotys ($125) per child to all families irrespective of income. They have helped alleviate poverty in rural regions and have given all families more money to spend.
Poland enjoys a large degree of social and ethnic cohesion, as well as a strong Catholic tradition, all of which bind the nation together. But following the collapse of the Soviet Union, extreme income inequality emerged as the nation soared to new economic heights. Duda’s per-child family bonuses have apparently revitalized huge chunks of the country.
Conservatives are always fearful of government spending, and we should be wise in how we expend our resources. These kind of pro-family policies, however, reap dividends in the long-run, and incentivize a strong middle-class, rather than encouraging the importation of virtual slaves from poorer nations.
Regardless, populism is a winning platform. President Trump would be wise to restore that populist emphasis as the campaign gears up heading into the fall.
2 thoughts on “Populism Wins”
Reblogged this on Corporate History International and commented:
Good summary of Trump’s appeal but fails to me the case that the majority of American voters will buy it. As a corporate history researcher, I documented Wall Street shipping jobs, factories, and capital to low-wage countries for 30 years.
Of course China was the chief beneficiary of all that, with Bill Gates crowing about lifting one billion of its citizens out of poverty, never mind the Hillbilly Elegy / opioid epidemic blowback. But the tide has turned, at least in the more elevated corners of The Swamp; consider “Honey Badger” AG Bill Barr calling out the Chinese Communist Party for all manner of aggressions.
“It’s the economy, stupid” was the George Stephanopolous sloganeering that guided Bill Clinton into the White House; today I would say it’s the wage gap. It’s striking to see even right-wing governments freely signing checks, but that’s how apparent it is; it’s the common denominator of 2020, from the death of opioid zombie George Floyd to the astounding coronavirus work and travel restrictions that hit the poorest the hardest, while bolstering the case for universal health care. The last time we tried Reaganomics, all the money went to China and a few elites; that is not a scenario favorable to conservative social values or populism in general.
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