For those who flirted with parts of the ex-president’s populist message, there is a straightforward line of defense: While Trump obviously failed, real Trumpism was never tried.
The problem was the deeply flawed, unhinged and amoral champion of the populist cause, but not the cause itself, which continues to be relevant. As my AEI colleague Michael Brendan Dougherty writes, “political conditions will continue to call for a Trumpist response for some time.”
Trump’s idiosyncrasies surely go a long way toward accounting for the wholesale failure of his policy agenda, as well as for his disgraceful departure from office. But conservatives have to confront the possibility that populism itself was an important component of the failure—and indeed that any populist politics carries the seeds of policy failure.
The proposition will not sit easily with those who, in the wake of the Trump disaster, are seeking to rehabilitate the term. According to the American Compass’ Oren Cass, for example, “there’s a way in which populism also means … taking seriously the concerns that people have, understanding that they will not all express them in the same terms a Beltway debate might.”