Donald Trump’s shocking victory in 2016 prompted speculation that American politics might be undergoing a realignment. The Republican presidential candidate picked up working class voters from the Democrats while also alienating some moderate suburbanites. Even though Trump went on to lose in 2020, many in the GOP still believe this transformation is inevitable, and, from their perspective, desirable.
While a lasting shift is certainly possible, the parties show no signs of trading places on most economic questions. Since January 2021, it has been the Democrats who have aggressively implemented populist tax and spending policies, leaving Republicans to stoke cultural battles to burnish their anti-establishment bona fides. The result has been a distorted debate, with little substantive pushback on what the Democrats have advanced, and a notable shift toward policies that set aside the market in favor of government management.
For a time, it seemed as if the political terrain might actually shift substantively and not just rhetorically. After all, Trump blustered frequently about economic populism in 2016, and then also episodically while in office, with repeated attacks on the profits of drug companies and incomes of Wall Street executives. However, his term came and went with no discernible or lasting populist influence on actual economic policies beyond the regrettable bipartisan consensus on renewed protectionism. (As an aside, the tariffs he imposed on Chinese imports are not having their intended economic effects but should be evaluated from both a trade and national security perspective.)
Democrats have shown themselves to be far more willing than Republicans to embrace economic populism, as demonstrated by the policies they advanced during the first year-plus of the Biden presidency.