The presidency always attracts media attention, but President Trump seems to have occupied almost every neuron of the collective media brain: There he is in scary clown makeup lurking in between the trees of The New Yorker’s cover — and catch him again in the next breathless cable-news panel! This Trump obsession may represent maximum brand saturation, but it also may cause both political and intellectual distortions. Donald Trump’s triumph in the GOP primary and his surprise victory last November were the signs of a broader political crisis, which may have deepened in the year since the election. A series of policy failures — including economic decline, administrative ineptitude, and frustration in foreign affairs — has helped foment public unrest. As the nation lurches from crisis to crisis, public faith in its core institutions weakens. And a governing elite unable to reform itself is one that will soon find itself embattled.
In order to understand our current political crisis, of which Donald Trump’s election is a symptom, we need to understand the context in which he rose. Laura Ingraham’s latest book, Billionaire at the Barricades, offers a polemical history of American politics over the past 30 years. Casting populism not as incidental to the rise of conservatism but as instrumental to it, she portrays President Trump as the response to long-simmering populist anger. Ingraham claims that many of Trump’s predecessors appealed to populists, but only Ronald Reagan tried to deliver on populist priorities. George H. W. Bush sold out the Reagan legacy, Bill Clinton surrendered his populist bona fides and unleashed a “NAFTA nightmare,” George W. Bush failed to live up to the “populist campaign promises” he made in the 2000 election, and Barack Obama similarly infuriated populists.
Not everyone will agree with Ingraham’s history, which is not exactly sympathetic in its portrayal of Trump’s Republican predecessors and his 2016 primary challengers (she even takes National Review to task for its “Against Trump” issue). Some conservatives might challenge Ingraham’s policy preferences or quarrel with her narrative of Republican politics since 1980. Those disputes aside, however, Ingraham’s work draws attention to some of the conditions that allowed for a Trump presidency, and it encourages conservatives to develop more worker-friendly policies. The failure to adapt conservatism to the realities of the 21st century and the Left’s indulgence in radical identity politics gave Trump a tremendous political opening, which he used to win the White House.
Ingraham homes in on the topics of immigration and trade, two areas in which the elites of both parties have (or at least until 2016 had) more in common with each other than with the general public. While top lawmakers of both parties have been fairly sympathetic to immigration maximalism, the general public is much more hostile to the idea of serial amnesties, giant guest-worker programs, and large increases in legal immigration. The Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations had many commonalities on trade policy, supporting trade agreements such as NAFTA and the ascension of China into the WTO. Populists on the left and the right have been skeptical of both open borders and many internationally managed trade compacts, and Ingraham situates Donald Trump as a successor to populist-oriented presidential candidates Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot.
Billionaire at the Barricades attributes the economic stagnation of the past 16 years in part to those trade and immigration policies: An influx of illegal immigrants and guest workers slashed wages for the working class, while trade (especially with China) shuttered factories and sapped America’s economic vitality. Economists and pundits will no doubt continue to debate exactly how much trade and immigration policies have contributed to economic decline, or whether they have contributed to it at all. What is less open to dispute is the way that debate on trade, immigration, and other policies has been short-circuited through bad-faith messaging and shame politics.
On immigration, the rhetorical distortions are legion. Our national immigration debate has been toxified by a host of broken promises of enforcement and efforts to shut down a rigorous conversation about what our legal-immigration system should look like. On trade, too, the promises of the powerful have fallen short. For instance, a 2000 letter signed by the heads of almost 200 high-tech companies and pushed by the Clinton White House projected that helping China enter the WTO would “increase U.S. jobs and reduce our trade deficit.” Despite that promise, the trade deficit has unambiguously increased since 2000. By 2005, the overall annual trade deficit had increased by over $300 billion since 2000; the trade deficit with China alone increased from about $84 billion in 2000 to $202 billion in 2005. Trade deficits have grown even bigger since 2005. One might argue, as some economists do, that a large trade deficit is not necessarily a problem. But a record of failed promises on trade, health care, immigration, and other issues has helped inject a radical distrust into political debates. And Donald Trump’s ascent was premised on that crisis of public trust.
Debate on trade, immigration, and other policies has been short-circuited through bad-faith messaging and shame politics.
Trump also benefited from the broader desert of nostalgia in which many Republicans (and not only Republicans) had lost their way. Instead of confronting the realities of current politics, too many leaders were content to indulge in ideological mirages, in which the policy proposals of 1981 would be eternal verities. Nostalgia often falsifies history, so turning to history can be one way of countering nostalgia’s distortion of the past.
Like Henry Olsen’s recent The Working Class Republican, Ingraham’s book returns to Ronald Reagan’s actual historical record, which complicates some of the conventional narratives of his presidency. Yes, Reagan often put a sunny face on conservatism, but he did not flinch from discussing contemporary shortcomings. While he championed limited government, Reagan often resisted austerity politics in the name of sustaining the social safety net. While sympathetic to the claims of “free trade,” he was also willing to take government action to support manufacturing; a 1988 Cato Institute report slammed Reagan as “the most protectionist president since Herbert Hoover.” Far from being an exemplar of ideological “purity,” Reagan governed in a way that combined principle with attention to real-world circumstances.
Ingraham argues that Republicans should expand their political coalition by reaching out to the working class and revising policies to speak to populist sentiments. At its outset, Billionaire at the Barricades insists that there could be a possible alliance between populism and conservatism: “Conservatism and populism overlap in their opposition to ‘big things’ — big government, big international organizations, big media, big business cronyism. These distant, uncaring entities rob people of decision making and ignore their interests.” Support for diffusing power and rebuilding local entities could indeed be one area where populists and conservatives could ally. A sense of withered community has helped fuel a broader alienation, and public trust has dropped in many national institutions in part because many of the powerful have responded to their failures not with humility but with increasingly shrill displays of self-righteousness. In domestic policy, rebuilding that community could also involve efforts to increase the incomes of working families. Increased and widely dispersed economic opportunity gives families more economic capital to invest in their communities (which, of course, need more than merely economic capital to flourish).
One might add that there are even areas of alliance (or at least détente) between populists and conservatives on foreign affairs, where tensions at times can be sharper. Over the last 70 years, the United States has been able to build and sustain many important international institutions in part because of its great economic strength and civic integrity. Decline at home almost necessarily guarantees withdrawal abroad. Economic hollowing-out makes it harder to maintain many of America’s international commitments, and internal political vitriol can have implications for U.S. conduct in foreign affairs. A nation in which political leaders declare a huge chunk of voters to be irredeemable “deplorables” is one that will be more vulnerable to foreign intrigue. American political leaders know that creating more economic opportunity and civic integration at home is a precondition for success in many affairs abroad. Furthermore, since many elements of the existing global order benefit the U.S. and other nations, a policy regime that prioritizes bettering the lives of Americans will often rebuke isolationism. In both domestic and foreign-policy efforts, reform might help more than rigidity to preserve what is good.
Whether Donald Trump can fuse conservatism and populism into a successful governing strategy may be one of the more significant political questions of our time. Laura Ingraham has great hopes that he will be able to accomplish this fusion, though her book also notes many points where the president has sabotaged himself by igniting unnecessary controversies. While circumstances might give a politician an opening, character, prudence, and discipline help determine whether he is able to make the most of that opening. Time will tell, but a failure to rise to the challenges of the moment could cause the president to face his own insurgency.
— Fred Bauer is a writer from New England.