Ask any political analyst what explains Donald Trump and Brexit and he will reply, “Populism.” But ask that person what he means by that term and you are likely to get a confused, contradictory, or unhelpful reply. We all know we are in a “populist moment,” but what exactly that means is open to debate.
But conservatives looking to understand populism and its relation to conservatism are in luck. A helpful new book of essays edited by The New Criterion’s Roger Kimball gives the curious reader a guide to the uncharted wilderness of democratic populism.
Each of the essays is well worth reading, from Tory MEP Daniel Hannan’s Brexit- and U.K.-focused piece to James Piereson’s explanation of how the Founders’ Constitution constrains the rise of truly dangerous populism to Fred Siegel’s examination of how German nihilist philosophy helped to spread the idea of the “rule of experts.” Victor Davis Hanson and Conrad Black provide fine interpretations of how populism both explains Donald Trump and is a good thing for America.
The essential questions any conservative will want the answers to, however, are best examined by the book’s other essays. Andrew McCarthy and Roger Scruton differ on what conservatism’s heart is, which leads them to very different answers as to whether Trumpian populism is good for America and for conservatism. George Nash sets populism within the context of the history of the conservative movement, which helps us understand something about both movement conservatism and the needs of our current time. Finally, Barry Strauss looks at the example of how populism destroyed republican Rome, a tragedy that helps us understand how wisdom and prudence are necessary to the survival of any free regime.
The McCarthy–Scruton debate is essentially one about the role of the idea of liberty in forming conservative doctrine. For McCarthy, the American conservative, the answer is clear: Conservatism’s essential element is its “‘Don’t just do something, stand there’ nature.” Since populism normally demands government action to right perceived wrongs, it is inconsistent with conservatism because it “is notoriously content to have big-government preening overrun limited-government caution.”
Scruton, the English conservative, argues that caution, not liberty, is conservatism’s heart. For him, “the leading virtue of conservative politics . . . is the preference for procedure over ideological programs.” This means that “conservatives believe that the role of government is not to lead society towards a goal but to ensure that, wherever society goes, it goes there peacefully.” Accordingly, Scruton sees contemporary populism of the Right to be good because it is insisting that the people, not experts or elites, decide where society should go in this age of globalization and migration.
The sharp eye might detect that these definitions are incompatible only in their extreme forms. Might conservatism be concerned both with liberty and with process? Or, to put it another way, is there only one way to define conservatism?
George Nash takes on this problem with gusto, walking the reader through the 60-plus-year history of the modern American conservative movement to demonstrate that it has at least five identifiable elements: “libertarianism, traditionalism, anti-Communism, neoconservatism, and the Religious Right.” Conservatism in America is not, to Nash, an idea; it is a political coalition.
This coalition was challenged in important ways by Trump and his populist followers. Libertarians were aghast at Trump’s protectionism and his embrace of government action. Traditionalists could be frightened that Trump’s commitment to democratic norms was only a veneer and that, when threatened, the authoritarian inside would emerge to push aside the rule of law. Anti-Communists, who have now morphed into the conservative foreign-policy and defense establishments, were appalled at Trump’s willingness to cast aside long-time allies and look at Russia as a potential friend rather than a tyrannical adversary. And the religious Right, now known as social conservatives, looked askance at a thrice-married New Yorker whose brand of Christianity was anything but Evangelical and whose commitment to core policies such as opposition to abortion was weak, to say the least.
Only one among the movement-conservative groups might have been predisposed to like Trump: the neoconservatives. The original neoconservative intellectuals were former liberals who were “mugged by reality” and moved rightward in the aftermath of the War on Poverty and in the face of the rising power of the Soviet Union in the 1970s. These people remained committed, however, to a large welfare state: They wanted to restore Franklin Roosevelt’s primacy, not tear it down. The voters who rallied to their concerns were the Catholic, Jewish, and non-WASP working classes who historically have dominated the Midwest. These voters have always liked strong personalities — they liked FDR, Reagan, and Bill Clinton. Trump’s personality and policy approaches bore similarities to those of their earlier heroes, and it should have been no surprise that they turned out in droves to back Trump in the primaries and the general election.
Understood in this way, Trump’s populism was simply the expression of one crucial but underrepresented element of the original conservative coalition, fighting back to achieve some measure of respect and equality. They were joined by a newer conservative group, the paleoconservatives, who arose in the early 1990s under Pat Buchanan’s leadership. On economic matters, they were Trumpian well before Trump, opposing large-scale immigration and the expansion of free trade decades before these issues reached critical mass.
Nash rightly asks whether the conservative coalition can withstand this challenge and maintain some coherence. Trumpian economics is in many respects inconsistent with libertarian economics. Trump’s foreign policy places less importance on maintaining America’s global reach than today’s defense conservatives would like. And if he starts to undermine the rule of law in the name of enacting cherished conservative policy goals, traditionalists and others might find his form of populism to be unacceptable.
The question Nash leaves unasked, though, is whether the conservative movement has any choice but to find such an accommodation. The combined might of the five core groups of movement conservatism had been unable to win a presidential election since 2004, and has carried the popular vote in only one presidential election since the fall of the Berlin Wall. If the point of a coalition is to win, so that its supporters could rule, pre-populist movement conservatism had done a very poor job for decades.
Whether modern conservative populism is good or bad, therefore, turns in large part on whether one believes that the populist demands themselves are legitimate. As Ronald Reagan wrote in these pages in December 1964, “human nature resists change, and it goes over backwards to avoid radical change.” If populist voters are embracing radical change, it is likely because their concerns have been ignored, belittled, or denied for so long that they see no other option than to tear down the system that shuts them out. This, rather than the policies they advocate, is what makes populism truly dangerous: that, in the pursuit of justice, populists might trample upon rights.
This is why Strauss’s essay is the most vital in the collection. He recounts how the populist tribunes in ancient Rome tried to undo the appropriation of their land by, and the allocation of conquered public lands to, the moneyed few. Roman soldiers at that time were citizens who owned a small amount of property; they fought Rome’s wars but returned home to find their lands seized and their ability to make an honorable living shut off. Rather than accommodate this desire to provide rewards for those who risked their lives, the senatorial elite killed the tribune who first raised this cause. Over the ensuing century, Rome was ravaged by civil war after civil war, each one involving landless soldiers, led first by tribunes and then by generals against a shrinking group of senators and their allies. In the end, the landless got their land — at the price of turning the Republic into the Empire under Augustus’s rule.
Strauss argues that Rome’s senators could have preserved their privilege, their wealth, and their country’s freedom had they simply addressed the “genuine grievances” that “underlie populism’s appeal”: “The more the elite treats politics like a big tent, in which no one should be left out, the less likely they are to face populist challenges.” This is the challenge of our times. If conservatives believe, as many do, that one more Democratic victory will end America as we know it, then conservatism simply must adjust and accommodate legitimate populist demands. How to do that is a subject for another book. But helping conservatives recognize that they must do that is perhaps this volume’s greatest contribution, and for that reason alone it should be required reading for anyone who wants to begin to think about how to save our movement and our nation.
– Mr. Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and an editor of UnHerd.com. He is the author of The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism.