Published November 14, 2017
Can Trumpist ideas, populist and nationalist, survive the polarizing and thus-far stumbling presidency of Donald Trump? What is Trumpism after Trump, in domestic and foreign policy, and is it possible to imagine a new infrastructure that would champion populist and nationalist ideas within the party and make them something more than just angry anti-elitist gestures? Ross Douthat, a New York Times columnist, recently hosted a discussion of these questions with Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and Daniel McCarthy, the editor of Modern Age and an editor at large of The American Conservative.
Ross Douthat: Henry, Dan, thanks for joining me today. You are both prominent champions of the view that Donald Trump’s election represents a chance for the Republican Party to reinvent itself, to shake free of ideological sclerosis, abandon discredited ideas and better serve the common good. For Henry this would mean transforming Trump’s campaign-trail economic populism into a conservative agenda genuinely geared toward the middle and lower-middle class. For Dan it would mean following Trump’s nationalist instincts away from both liberal interventionism and neoconservatism and toward a recovery of foreign-policy realism.
These are both goals with which I’m sympathetic, despite my skepticism that electing Trump was an effective way of reaching them. So my first question to you both is how you see those “Trumpist” ideas — the good ones, I mean — faring so far under this presidency? Is there any sign that Trump’s administration has been effective at advancing them? Is it possible to pursue an ideological revolution when your administration has such a shambolic style? Is Trumpism alive in Washington?
Henry Olsen: The economic populist agenda is going nowhere. Nothing to concretely help bring manufacturing back to the United States; nothing in the tax bill that really helps the working class; nothing going on with infrastructure; no effort to rethink the entitlement state or safety net to encourage interstate migration or use government to help people get out of the working-poverty trap. Pretty much standard business-faction Republicanism so far. #Sad!
Daniel McCarthy: In foreign policy, my realist friends are dismayed by what they’ve seen so far, but I’m not. The fundamental thing that Trump has done is to break up old expectations and points of view. There are questions being asked about foreign policy — in the White House, in Congress, in the media and in the think-tank world — that need to be asked but had been ignored too long. Starting with what the purpose of our foreign-policy should be: national interest — “America First” — or the promotion of a global economic system or a set of universal cultural ideals?
Douthat: I agree that he’s raised those questions, Dan, but he did that during the campaign, too. In some sense people assume that campaigns pose questions and that administrations supply answers. And at the very least, one answer this administration has supplied is that personnel is policy, and that if you don’t have people standing by and ready to implement an agenda, it doesn’t matter what you campaigned on — you’ll get bog-standard pre-Trump Republicanism, whatever rhetorical gloss you put on it.
Olsen: That’s certainly true for the economic policy agenda. No one tasked with administering policy in any of those areas is supportive of a new approach. So they’re giving the president either small-government conservative options (like Mick Mulvaney at the Office of Management and Budget), business-G.O.P. choices or a hybrid of the two (almost everyone else). Immigration policy is the one exception, but that’s also the area where Trump’s ideas already overlapped with a significant Republican faction’s approach. I often imagine that Trump has these instincts and no one around him with knowledge wants to go there, so he gets options that don’t come close to matching what he campaigned on.
McCarthy: We’ve seen other candidates, even a Democratic president, champion a different kind of foreign policy — more restrained or at least less fixated on “exporting democracy” — in recent years. Two Republicans named Paul (Ron and Rand) advanced ideas in that vein, and Barack Obama was elected as a foreign-policy reformist. But their softer, more cerebral approaches didn’t shake up the way Washington thinks about the world nearly as much as Donald Trump has done. The “shambolic” quality of Trump is precisely what is opening up these questions in a way that posing them intellectually never seemed to do.
Douthat: So where do you see this shake-up happening most, Dan? Is it happening in think tanks and other institutions? Among the people Trump has appointed (to the extent he has appointed them) to staff the State Department and Defense Departments? It seemed like Obama did create a faction within the Democratic foreign policy establishment, or at least within his White House, that was committed to an Obama-ism defined in part by its resistance to hawkishness and interventionism. Is such a faction coming into being on the right outside the realist and paleocon periodicals?
McCarthy: It’s happening at every level. It’s significant that National Review has hired more foreign-policy realists or noninterventionists recently, such as my old American Conservative colleague Michael Brendan Dougherty. Among congressmen and think-tank types that I talk to in D.C., I find much more questioning about the purposes and instruments of United States foreign policy than I did before. Not all of that is because of Trump, but he’s accelerated it. As yet, though, there’s no single institution that really embodies the new questions, let alone systematic answers. American Affairs has broached them, but I find the foreign-policy views there less penetrating than the rest of the journal.
Douthat: And Henry, from your more pessimistic perspective, are any Trumpist or populist ideas gaining traction within the G.O.P. but outside the White House? It seems to me that many of the ideas for a more middle-class agenda that you and I share already have a lot of support within the conservative commentariat. But that’s been true for a while now, really since the Tea Party wave ebbed. What’s been missing is a sense among Republican politicians that these proposals — even something with as much support as a larger child-tax credit — should be the center of their agenda rather than just window dressing for the usual upper-bracket or business tax cuts. On the evidence of the new tax legislation, that’s still true — but does it have to be?
Olsen: The G.O.P. remains intellectually wedded to dying dogma. The congressional party really wants to do nothing other than cut taxes for businesspeople and the top bracket based on what can only be called religious devotion to supply-side theory. I do not think they represent their voters, and Trump’s nomination is proof of that. I think it will take a big defeat, though, before mainstream Republican pols start to realize the old ways aren’t politically sustainable. Just the sort of defeat that an inept reaction to last week’s election thrashing would create — and, boy, it sure looks like the first reaction might be exactly that!
Douthat: And yet in Steve Bannon, you have someone with real prominence who keeps saying that the party needs to change in something like the direction that you advocate — who talks about building a “workers’ party,” ditching libertarianism and even doing outreach to minority voters with economic-nationalist themes. But then when it comes to the specifics of his strategy, Bannon always seems more inclined toward seeking out racialized cultural fights, or linking himself to substance-free resentment vehicles like Roy Moore, than toward pursuing the economic-policy shift he’s officially in favor of accomplishing. What do you think of the frequent liberal argument that this is a problem inherent to right-wing populism — that the lurches toward race-baiting are inescapable, that the effort to build a pan-ethnic conservative populism is foredoomed?
Olsen: We have to remember that Bannon is really a political newbie, and one who doesn’t like or really “get” the Republican Party to begin with. So he has been very ineffective inside or outside at promoting a positive agenda that can work within the existing G.O.P. His primary challenge strategy is basically one that creates an alliance with the Tea Party groups but ignores the real political differences populists ought to have with them. So he will be forced to either avoid those differences in the candidates he backs, which means they will campaign only on immigration and Muslim terrorism, or he’ll let them go whole Tea Party, or they’ll just attack Mitch McConnell and “the establishment” on a contentless, personal campaign. None of those approaches will build real support for a workers’ party. A serious attempt to do that requires a language of citizenship rather than resentment and a policy agenda beyond “let’s get the foreigners.” Unless and until he does that, Bannon will continue to be suspected of simply peddling racialized populism.
McCarthy: If I can add to Henry’s point, the line between right-wing media and politics has blurred to the point where we can’t tell if Bannon is a media figure aiming for ratings and clicks or a political figure aiming for policy and elections. Trump seemed like a media figure — and then he became president. I used to think Fox News and talk radio were Pied Pipers getting Republican voters to support Bush-type politicians who were actually a bad fit for those right-leaning voters. But now the right-wing populist media isn’t doing anyone’s bidding — and in fact, politicians may be helpless before it, for good or ill.
Douthat: But Bannon was, for a brief time, trying to actually be a political figure, trying to work inside the White House, inside the system, to advance Trumpism. And while he was there he didn’t do much to advance Henry’s economic-populist vision, or his own promise of a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill.
Olsen: Bannon’s economic populism really consists of two things: restrict trade and restrict immigration. That’s got loads of problems, not the last of which is that trade helps many workers, too. And it takes the business-conservative faction inside the G.O.P. head on without sufficient support from the broader Tea Party wing, at least on trade. So he was always going to have a terrible time on that unless Trump was willing to tell aides who don’t agree with him to just do something specific that Trump probably doesn’t know enough to describe. The G.O.P. will become a workers’ party only when enough people within it see both the justice and the necessity of it becoming so — and that is still a ways off.
Douthat: But Bannon did fight a bunch of battles on your territory, Dan — taking the less interventionist line on a range of issues, from Syria to Afghanistan to maybe North Korea. And he lost most of those battles, not to the ideological neoconservative types, but mostly just to Trump’s generals. So we’ve ended up with a foreign policy in which the generals are the custodians of the foreign policy status quo, right?
McCarthy: You’re right that Bannon is serious about policy, Ross, in his way. When it comes to blurring the line, I should emphasize I don’t mean that Bannonism is “fake politics.” It’s real, but it’s radically different from the politics we’re used to. It’s a new hybrid: a media-political entity. Democrats thought that Ronald Reagan was such a thing, but this time it’s come true. As for the generals, they’re not advancing a grand ideological program in foreign policy, although they may be loyal to the ghost of one simply by force of inertia. They’re keeping up a degree of surface continuity, but the foundations of our policy have been called into question. You’re right that that’s not enough, but it’s where deep change has to start.
Douthat: O.K. — but then who follows it through? Trump is president, we assume, for another three years, and then he (presumably) will run for re-election. As long as he’s bestriding the Republican world, it seems that no G.O.P. politician is going to emerge as a clear champion of the next Republicanism, whatever it might be. Or maybe that’s wrong. But it seems to me that he has only a few figures right now who are even would-be heirs — Tom Cotton certainly (whose foreign policy views I suspect you strongly dislike, Dan) and maybe even Ivanka Trump, depending on her ambitions, but beyond them nobody obvious at all.
Olsen: True, but it takes only one to start something. Fear, and a lack of policy-specific work in a host of specific areas, are the major things holding back the next iteration of conservatism, and fear is by far the largest. Once pols start taking the leap, however, and see they get cheers from voters, the numbers will start to swell. The fact is there are very few Republican voters who really care about the issues the party’s donors and the Wall Street Journal editorial board are pushing. Had any establishment Republican — say, Scott Walker or John Kasich — been willing to explore these themes, they would have pre-empted Trump and the rest of the field. There is a large market for a conservative-populist party, which is exactly what Reagan tried to create during his lifetime.
McCarthy: What Trump has done is to re-politicize basic questions of policy, including foreign policy, that for a long time had been the domain of a narrow range of expert opinion. When it comes to who follows through, I don’t think we should be looking for a single figure, we should be looking rather for a national discussion, a political discussion, throughout our institutions. There’s no blueprint, as some of my realist friends in the academy sometimes seem to believe, that can be smoothly applied to create a new foreign policy. There has to be political give and take — ”political” in the broad sense, in the media as well as in Congress, and among the public. Once Trump no longer personally bestrides the Republican scene, there will be a whole host of squirming and wriggling new mutations evolving their way out of the new environment — I just couldn’t guess what’ll they look like when they’ve all grown up.
Douthat: But do you worry at all, Dan (and this goes for you too, Henry), that if Trump is perceived as a crashing failure — or for that matter if he’s somehow ejected from office — that the ideas that you think he’s tacitly championed will be seen as inherently tainted and discredited as well, even or especially among the people who might otherwise be interested in taking them up, in having the kind of conversation you envision?
I share a lot of your views, I think, when it comes to the intellectual bankruptcy and persistent failure of the Western elite. But I also don’t underestimate that elite’s capacity to retain a hold on power when their critics are self-marginalizing or self-destructive. And among my many concerns about Trump from the first was that he would discredit even the good ideas that I do think he’s elevated, both by associating them with darker tendencies (realism with xenophobia, populism with racism) and by associating them with simple incompetence.
Olsen: Yes, there is that risk, but in one sense the fact that Trump has really abandoned populist domestic policy helps to insulate that against his implosion. Someone who tackles trade in the way it should be, encouraging fair trade and providing real adjustment support for workers subject to global pressures, isn’t really engaging Trump. Anyone who says, “Let’s cut payroll taxes, not corporate taxes” is plowing new ground. And so on. Immigration restriction would be a policy that is tainted by Trump failure, but the fact is pure Trumpism is D.O.A. on that score, too. Immigration restriction will become law only as part of a larger deal that is much more like what Tom Cotton proposes than what Ann Coulter promotes.
McCarthy: In part I’m not worried about what you describe, Ross, precisely because Trumpism is so inchoate. If Trump falls, is it Trump the realist who falls or Trump the “Jacksonian” hawk? But more important, politics should carry precisely these risks. It’s not that you want to be indifferent to your associations, but ultimately you can’t think you’ll curry favor with everyone and offend no one — that’s an anti-political ideal.
Douthat: Yes, and I do think the problems in the West run deep enough that Trumpism’s association with Trump, even if he’s seen as catastrophic, will not prevent these ideas from returning to the surface in some form.
McCarthy: We can also look at past examples: When Barry Goldwater was blown out in 1964, pundits were certain that conservatism (Goldwater-style) was permanently discredited. The joke was on them.
Olsen: Well, if you had asked that question about conservatism generally on Oct. 26, 1964, you would have had to say no. But then Reagan gave his “A Time for Choosing” speech on Oct. 27. American politics is very fluid and open, and it doesn’t take much or very long for someone to break through.
Douthat: Yes, I thought that if Trump had lost, there would have been room for someone smart to step up and play Reagan to his Goldwater — to give a big speech embracing some of his themes, promising to carry the cause forward, and so on, and claim the mantle away from the island-of-misfit-toys figures who attached themselves to Trump’s campaign. But Reagan, of course, was not an officeholder at the point when he gave his speech. So perhaps it would have needed to be someone out of politics, because Republican officeholders are so timorous.
But I am not at all convinced that having Trump be the president is helpful to the process of finding Trumpism’s Reagan (unless it turns out to the Rock), to that process, since it seems to me to be trapping the Republican politicians who should be arguing and experimenting on all these fronts. And I also feel that we’ve all been having these conversations, in our world of punditry, since the crackup of the Bush administration 10 years ago now, without having anyone except Trump really taking up the ideas that they imply.
McCarthy: The world of punditry has been having the conversation at some levels, and you’re plugged into them, Ross. But you never before had someone expressing the views that, say, Tucker Carlson now routinely does, in prime time on Fox. The conversation is becoming a public one in a way that it had not been before: It was very narrowly restricted to a few thinkers ahead of the curve.
Douthat: Fair enough! Still, at some point a new synthesis needs a bold politician or politicians to actually champion it, the way Trump himself sort of did. We journalists have described the world of conservatism, but the point is to change it. So at the risk of trying too hard to pin you guys down: Is there any right-of-center political figure, now on the American scene, who gives you hope for the G.O.P. after Trump? (I’ll offer my own non-answer after yours.)
McCarthy: There are plenty of Republicans who are smart and principled and in some respects forward-thinking, but who nonetheless seem to be pre-Trump figures — I have in mind Mike Lee and Rand Paul in particular. Whether they become more or less salient post-Trump is something I’m interested to see. My guess is that the really salient figures will be newer ones who aren’t yet on my radar.
Olsen: The conservative-populist alliance is increasingly becoming obviously the only way forward for non-Social Democrats who don’t want to become catchall centrists like Emmanuel Macron or Justin Trudeau. It is the $1,000 bill lying on the ground waiting for someone to pick it up. Eventually, someone will. I think Cotton is farthest along in pursuing it. Nikki Haley is more hawkish than Dan will like, but she would be very well positioned to take up that mantle if she were to leave the United Nations after 2018 and become more of an “all purpose” political figure. We also need more pundits to show some courage, too. Conservatism itself needs to be redefined, and you can’t create a revolution of the heart and the mind simply by adding a couple of tweaks here and there. That’s triangulation, and triangulation always disappoints.
McCarthy: I agree with Henry. Haley is not someone I’m fond of, and neither is Tom Cotton, but they’ve both acclimated themselves to the Trump era very effectively. I hope Republican realists can adapt as well. That will require them to be a bit more right-wing or populist in their mass appeal; for too long, they’ve been too wonkish and above-the-fray.
Douthat: My sense of things is that on the domestic front, you have a lot of different Republican figures who have sympathy for a genuinely populist agenda, ranging from Cotton to Marco Rubio to Mike Lee and others.
Olsen: Sympathy for some aspects, yes. But the populist mind-set starts, as it did with Reagan, with the average person as your touchstone. Rubio, like most Republicans, always talks about the striver, the person who wants to get ahead. His dad’s stint as a bartender, for example, seems to have value for him because it led to his being able to go to college, not because it was worthy in and of itself. That’s just not the way to think about economic populism, so it’s not too surprising to me that he remains distinctly orthodox in what he’s willing to do.
Douthat: Yes, I agree: Even now, figures like Cotton and Rubio are wary of going too far with it, of getting too far away from Reaganite orthodoxy. Neither of them are likely to (for instance) blow up the tax bill because it isn’t friendly enough to the middle class, the way Ted Cruz blew up various deals to build his brand. They’re not sure there’s enough support there for strong populism, as opposed to populist gestures.
Olsen: I regretfully agree that no one who seems sympathetic to populism is willing to blow up the tax bill, but they might not have to: They might be correctly figuring that Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Susan Collins of Maine, John McCain or Bob Corker will do it for them first.
Douthat: But then on foreign policy, the fact is that most of these proto-populists (with the exception of Lee) are also more hawkish, not less, than the Republican norm. They’re closer to Trumpism or Bannonism or whatever on domestic policy, but not on foreign policy. Which was what made Trump so distinctive: He combined ideas that go together in the minds of many voters, but not in the mind of Republican elites. I sometimes liked to say, before 2016, that the G.O.P. needed a synthesis of Rubio and Rand Paul, and that’s strangely part of what Trump’s campaign delivered. But I am much more skeptical than you, Dan, that this synthesis has gained ground since.
McCarthy: Ross, I don’t really agree that Rubio, for example, is close to Trump on domestic policy. And I think there are different senses of populist and distinctly different ideas of what a middle-class economic policy looks like. I’ve found it telling, actually, that the “other side” from me, who tend to be aligned with neoconservatives in foreign policy, talk a lot about tax-code tweaks and measures that might be intended to foster a “pro-family” welfare state, but they rarely if ever get into industrial policy. Whereas the populists I’m more sympathetic to in foreign policy, including Trump and Bannon and, in the classic case, Pat Buchanan, do seem interested in trade and industry. Even “libertarian populists” like Ron Paul, interestingly enough, tend to make hay about the iniquities of Nafta while not, of course, favoring tariffs.
Douthat: Those are both fair points. I agree that Trump went much further than Rubio or any broader “reform conservatism” in questioning the foundations of economic policy. And certainly immigration is a big dividing line, and a place where someone like Cotton has separated himself from those would-be reforming Republicans who still back the Bush-era elite-Republican consensus. But at the same time the Rubio-Ivanka partnership on family policy is basically the only place where Trump’s campaign promises have had even a modest effect on Republican negotiations on Capitol Hill.
Any last words?
Olsen: Conservative-populism will only come about when a group of Republicans decide they want it. Anyone who seriously looks at popular opinion should realize that the business-Jeb approach is D.O.A. within the party and won’t gain enough millennial or minority voters in any event. Cruz-Flake-Paul-style conservatism is deader than Jacob Marley. Someone reading this exchange will see the logic of a conservative-populist alliance, just as an on-the-decline actor was reading Human Events and National Review back in the 1950s but had enough common sense to see how it could be blended with something else to really take off. Our time will come, and much sooner than most pundits think
McCarthy: Your point about Capitol Hill is well taken, Ross, but then, that’s why Bannon is unleashing primary attacks against Republican incumbents. We still have a Bush-Republican Congress, and the next phase of the Trump insurgency, or the populist insurgency, will be to storm the House and Senate. I’ve said in other venues that in some ways the “revolution” was premature, it happened right at the top, at the presidential level, before lower levels of politics had been changed or any outside institutional support structure was in place. But you have to take what you get, and not imagine the world will play to your plans.
Douthat: Well, I’ll close out by imagining a world where Steve Bannon manages to recruit one of you two for a Senate primary campaign — and by thanking you both for a stimulating conversation.