Populist conservatism, often dubbed Trumpism, has been floated as the future of the Republican Party. But some have cautioned conservatives against adopting a populist agenda out of fear of its potential consequences, likening it to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ vision of a political revolution. Both movements tell a story about America and the American people, identifying similar problems faced by the common man. But those movements tell fundamentally different stories about the nature of America and what its future should be.
Populism is a worldview that has existed for thousands of years. It manifests in ways unique to a country’s culture, history, or values. It isn’t a substantive, clearly-defined philosophy, but it is a powerful tool for a political leader to use in a democracy. That leader, the “populist,” tells a story about the hardships of the people and their plights, imposed specifically by the “powerful.” The populist rallies the people around his or her story and against the powerful, ideally to create a government with the interests of the people at heart.
Figures like Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — both proponents of Democratic socialism — share a narrative in which the common man has been hoodwinked by the elites of private industry, and that they must collectively fight against these forces through the power of democracy in order to change America. This theme of progressive populism can be fairly understood as “American possibility” — the nation was fundamentally flawed since its inception and designed to benefit only a small group of privileged people, but capable of change.
In her remarks at the 2020 Democratic National Convention, Ocasio-Cortez described her progressive populism as “a movement striving to recognize and repair the wounds of racial injustice, colonization, misogyny, and homophobia,” one which aims “to propose and build reimagined systems of immigration and foreign policy that turn away from the violence and xenophobia of our past,” and “realizes the unsustainable brutality of an economy that rewards explosive inequalities of wealth for the few, at the expense of long term stability for the many.”
Just prior to the convention, civil unrest and violent riots broke out across the country. Businesses were looted and statues of historical figures, such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Ulysses S. Grant, were targeted and toppled. The progressive populist sees these events as necessary elements of America’s transformation. By eliminating the old foundation, you make space to build anew.
Conservative populism doesn’t assign blame to America writ large. Instead, it blames those tasked with being our leaders for failing to provide the promises of the American dream to the common man. The central theme of its story is one of “American greatness,” which was abandoned by the country’s leaders.
“America is a nation of believers, dreamers, and strivers that is being led by a group of censors, critics, and cynics,” said then-candidate Trump at the 2016 Republican National Convention. “No longer can we rely on those elites in media, and politics, who will say anything to keep a rigged system in place. Instead, we must choose to Believe In America. History is watching us now. It’s waiting to see if we will rise to the occasion, and if we will show the whole world that America is still free and independent and strong.”
Some skeptics of populism may describe it as a negative excess of democratic rule. To an extent, this is true. Revolts and revolutions can arise from populist movements, and they aren’t always fruitful or just. For example, the populist movement of the French Revolution grew out of frustration with the French monarchy’s treatment of its people. Once in power, it executed thousands of dissidents and abolished Christianity in favor of state-sanctioned worship of “reason” and “freedom.” However, the movement effectively ended in failure with Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise as a military dictator.
That kind of populism is dangerous, de-stabilizing, and immoral, but it’s not remotely the kind advocated for by American conservative populists today. In fact, it’s the opposite. Iconoclastic, French Revolution-style populism runs counter to the story of “American greatness.” Conservatives don’t seek to do away with our nation and the traditions that make the country exceptional. It seeks a prudent solution to the problems imposed by our political leaders which affect those Trump often refers to as the “forgotten.” Even when those who have governed our country fail to protect the people’s ability to pursue their own American dream, it doesn’t negate the goodness of the dream itself.
But some also claim that Trumpism isn’t principled conservatism and appeal to the ideology of former President Ronald Reagan as the guiding mantra for the future of the Republican Party. That criticism ignores the important historical context of Reagan’s popularity.
Prior to Reagan’s landslide victory over former President Jimmy Carter, the United States faced extremely precarious economic challenges, specifically during the 1979 Energy Crisis. Reagan attributed many of these problems to the government’s involvement. “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem,” he said in his inaugural address. “From time to time, we have been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. But if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?”
The story Reagan told from the beginning of his presidency was a populist one. He argued that the United States government, and its leaders, had forgotten its duty to the people and promised to be their champion. As time goes on, the nature of our problems change and the policy solutions to rectify those problems also change. Reagan’s policy solutions were different from Trump’s, but their populist instinct was the same.
Despite the fact some may try to draw similarities between populist conservatism and populist progressivism, the two are built on entirely different foundational principles. The former believes in the American experiment, the latter would likely turn the American dream into a nightmare.
The views expressed in this piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.