The Future of Populism is Conservative, Not Liberal

Populism gives Trump the opportunity to save the Right from its lassitude. And to conjure up the worst nightmare for the Left, a revival of national unity and purpose; the fear of which has already sparked hate speech and flag-burning at that dark end of the spectrum. Such acts will further alienate populist-nationalists, pulling them into the Republican orbit if the partys leaders are wise enough to embrace them.

By William R. Hawkins l January 5, 2017


A December 5 New York Times story was headlined “House G.O.P. Signals Break With Trump Over Tariff Threat.” This reaction to President-elect Donald Trump’s promise to change decades of failed trade policies was not unexpected, but still disturbing because it shows that the Republican leadership has not learned anything from the past two years of public revolt against the establishment.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) was quoted as saying, “I don’t want to get into some kind of trade war” in response to Trump’s threat to place a 35% tariff on production outsourced by companies overseas who then want to import the goods back into the U.S. The motive for such a business decision is to substitute cheap foreign labor for American jobs. This trade war on U.S. manufacturing has been waged for many years without any defensive measures taken by our government. McCarthy’s statement is akin to declaring after Pearl Harbor was attacked that we don’t want to get into a war by fighting back.

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) was quoted as proposing the same tired GOP one-note economic policy that has crippled party thought for a generation: tax cuts! There is a need for tax reform in several areas, especially in reducing the corporate tax rate. The U.S. rate is the highest among advanced economies and does puts American firms at a disadvantage. Yet, such reforms alone will not balance the books on international trade in the future any more than they have in the past. It is going to take very active, targeted measures to induce manufacturing to not just stay in the U.S. but to move back. The trade deficit in goods hit a disastrous $745.6 billion last year ($367.1 billion of which was with China). Besides tariffs, a vital measure is “Buy America” requirements for infrastructure and military projects to make sure that taxpayer dollars keep taxpayers at work. But Ryan is known to oppose such rules in the name of “free trade.”

There is, however, a larger issue behind the debates over particular policies. The large shift of working class votes that broke the “blue wall” of Midwestern “rust belt” states to give Trump his victory has been seen as a “populist” revolt against a globalist elite that has sacrificed the American dream of a national prosperity that benefits everyone willing to put in the effort. The “progressive” ideal which re-emerged after the Cold War envisioned an integrated world of peace and equality based on the liberal triad of world government, disarmament and open borders. In other words, the elimination of the nation-state. This doctrine has spawned transnational corporations with no allegiance to any land or people. Their desire to make money regardless of the impact on local communities has generated a growing income inequality between their investors and everyone else. While this has been an unintended consequence of the progressive creed, it has only sparked complaints, not any retreat from the underlying ideology.

Take for example, a column by Tobita Chow, head of The People’s Lobby, written for the liberal website (Nov. 23). Chow advocated “what is sometimes called progressive internationalism: an agenda to pursue a progressive agenda across borders to create a more just and sustainable global society. And since, as progressives, we understand that the labor movement is central to all our struggles, this means that a core goal of progressive internationalism must be to increase the power and status of workers internationally.” This is the website of The Campaign for America’s Future which claims to be “the strategy center for the progressive movement.” Chow rejects Trump’s “nationalistic politics” and particularly his “protectionism” that concentrates on foreign threats (a view he finds distasteful). Chow’s fall back to the old Marxist “workers of the world unite” agenda will not save American jobs because they are not his focus. He will likely find the case for helping the “poor” (and numerous) Chinese more compelling. Thus, the “populist” response has been more successful on the patriotic Right than on the cosmopolitan Left.

The revival of “nationalism” to bring policy back into line with the needs of the general public has set off alarm bells among the liberal elite. Fareed Zakaria argued on his CNN show December 4 that “The Republican Party has been able to profit electorally at so many levels because it has found a way to emotionally identify with working-class whites as they watch their country get transformed. Globalization, automation and immigration all generate enormous social change. Republicans signal that at a gut level, they are uncomfortable with this change and like America the way it was. That is why states with older, working-class white voters, such as Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin, all have Republican governors and statehouses.”

As a global-elitist, Zakaria doesn’t like this “populist” trend, but he is right about its grass roots appeal. What he didn’t point out, but what the New York Times story did, is that the GOP leadership in Congress doesn’t like it either. it is still in the pocket of the transnational corporate interests (donors) who are pushing the trade and immigration agenda the grass roots oppose because it has injured them so deeply. Trump needs to change this outlook at the top of the GOP, which is what his whole “movement” is about.

But liberals (in both parties) assert that history is linear and we cannot go back to a better time. We can only move “forward” even if it is downhill and off a cliff; the use of brakes and steering disallowed because they interfere with freedom of movement.

What Mark Lilla, a professor of Humanities at Columbia University, thinks of those in the populist-nationalist movement is summed up in the title of his new book: The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction. They are “shipwrecked” in the rapidly changing present, “rooted in ignorance” and suffering from “nostalgia” for an idealized past when America was in command of its own fate; a fate that still held the promise that Americans could improve their lives. Lilla traces this “reactionary” view to conservative-classical thinkers like Eric Voegelin and Leo Strauss and those in the European Right who have waged a rear-guard action against the Enlightenment ideas that burst forth during the French Revolution (a revolution that failed and was replaced by the imperium of Napoleon).

Of course, the unemployed factory workers in Lilla’s home town of Detroit have never heard of this academic discourse or care about ideology. They voted for Trump because they saw America crumbling around them, ravaged by foreign rivals and domestic traitors who hauled down the flag as they transferred wealth and power to distant lands – some of which, like China, are strategic adversaries of the U.S.

The intellectual elite provide the moral (immoral) justification for an American decline in part by claiming it is inevitable and in part because they do not believe American preeminence is legitimate. The United States became the world’s largest economy and most powerful nation due to protectionism at home and imperialism abroad; by the conquest of North America and its development by capitalism. Its material success is allegedly evil because it supported traditional values at the same time that it plundered the environment. It was an America First culture that mocked the cosmopolitan pretensions of academe. Since it was not built on “progressive” values, the U.S. should give way to those who might base their rise on different ideas.

Yet, why would American citizens not want to “make their country great again?” And why can’t a country with the vast wealth, resources and power possessed by the United States not be able to keep its position at the top of the world? The descendants of the colonists who boldly declared their independence in 1776 turned an empty continent into the world’s only superpower. The American Century dawned in the era of Teddy Roosevelt. Today, the U.S. is in a stronger position now than then; it just needs the will to defend itself. It is the question of will that is at the heart of the current political turmoil. Does national policy take up again the tools that built the country or does the anarchy of special interests and decadent sophists continue to tear society apart?

The establishment thinks it is above the apocalypse, secure in its country clubs, faculty lounges and tax havens. In a democracy, however, the “populists” expect their leaders to act in the national interest; an inclusive mandate to provide work, security and dignity to all citizens. Populism gives Trump the opportunity to save the Right from its lassitude. And to conjure up the worst nightmare for the Left, a revival of national unity and purpose; the fear of which has already sparked hate speech and flag-burning at that dark end of the spectrum. Such acts will further alienate populist-nationalists, pulling them into the Republican orbit if the party’s leaders are wise enough to embrace them.

William R. Hawkins, a former economics professor and Congressional staffer, is a consultant specializing in international economics and national security issues. He is a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis, of the conservative-online-journalism center at the Washington-based Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.