The Problems With Populism Go Well Beyond Donald Trump

It is the worst possible vehicle for policy change.

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.”

But populism has a commonly agreed-upon definition: Namely, it is a type of politics that pits good and pure-hearted “ordinary people” against a self-serving, out-of-touch “elite.” As such, populism is inherently divisive as it singles out specific groups as distinct from the people (elites, immigrants, bankers, journalists). It is anti-pluralist as it treats “the people” as a homogenous entity. Finally, it has a penchant for authoritarianism: If one takes Trump’s “I am your voice” seriously, why should there be any limits to the power of the presidency?

Moreover, through its Manichean nature, populism introduces passions into politics—as opposed to an interplay between interests and abstract principles. And passions are only rarely useful for threading the needle on public policy. In fact, if stirring passions becomes the aim of politics, policy outcomes take a back seat. Neither the border wall, nor the “Muslim ban,” nor any other of the ex-president’s signature policy ideas were instrumental to achieving any real-world objectives, such as helping those who helped to elect him. Instead, their sole purpose was to keep the audience engaged and emotionally invested in the populist spectacle.

Furthermore, the debate on the future role of populism within the Republican party ought not to be limited to lessons from the Trump era. The bigger picture is not an encouraging one. For every Israel under Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership, there is a Hungary under Viktor Orbán, suffering from brain drain and dismantling its democratic institutions—or an India under Narendra Modi, gripped by social unrest and economic dysfunction.

In the GOP alone, recent manifestations go from Pat Buchanan through Sarah Palin and the Tea Party to Trump. Instead of yielding a governing strategy, the party’s attempts to embrace populism were akin to efforts to ride a tiger—before being eaten by it, like Eric Cantor or Lindsey Graham. Perhaps the tiger could be tamed, as the former U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May hoped with her efforts to reshape the Tories as a party of “responsible nationalism”—only to see herself be overrun by ever more extreme fringes.

It should not be too much to ask those who wish to keep populism as a lasting hallmark of conservative and Republican politics to address populism’s real-world record, instead of retreating to a purely abstract defense of politics that would supposedly take the concerns of working-class Americans more seriously than the Beltway elites. Yet, much like Soviet elites of the 1970s and the 1980s, who were not keen to defend the track record of “real socialism,” the high priests of populism today are keen to sell us a promise of an idealized populism to come, instead of accepting accountability for any of the mess that real populism of the past decade helped create.

There are important policy conversations to be had on the political right—and the left—about subjects such as immigration or industrial policy. But with its appeal to passions and grievance, populism is the worst possible vehicle for policy change.  

In Denmark, the left-of-center government of Mette Frederiksen is seeking without much ado to drive the number of asylum claims to zero, following years of restrictive immigration policy by Social Democrats. Any number of conservative, right-wing, or free-market-friendly governments—not least the Reagan administration in the United States or Margaret Thatcher’s government in the U.K.—have provided assistance to specific industries or protected them from foreign competition. Whatever one thinks of the merits of such policies, populism and the pursuit of the substantive agenda advocated by those who want the GOP to be a party of the working class are perfectly separable. 

If anything, populism makes thoughtful conversations on immigration, industrial policy, or social safety nets essentially impossible. On both sides of the Atlantic, the combination of the divisive us-versus-them rhetoric of populism on the political right with demands to curb immigration has been a surefire way to attract racists. And combining populism with an expansive view of the state’s role in the economy has been a one-way ticket to irresponsible, short-sighted economic policy mixes—as the legacy of economic populism in Latin America demonstrates.

By all means, let us judge each policy idea on its merits and leave no stone unturned. Yet insofar as insanity consists of doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result, to seek to perpetuate the GOP’s populism in the wake of the Trump disaster would be positively insane.

Dalibor Rohac is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington D.C. Follow him on Twitter @DaliborRohac.