Can Populism Be The Savior of Conservatism?

Raucous cheers of “USA, USA, USA,” flowed through the crowds at President Donald Trump’s Saturday-night rally to support Republican congressional candidate Rick Saccone in Moon Township, Pennsylvania.

The speech was quintessentially populist, or rather, “Trumpian,” free flowing, direct, braggadocious, and sometimes quite humorous.

Trump then took time to critique a recent piece by Peggy Noonan which ridiculed his demeanor and deemed it as not “presidential.”

Trump mocked Noonan’s concept of what it means to be presidential. The enthralled crowd chuckled as Trump imitated a stiff, tight-lipped, rank-and-file politician. 

Noonan, Trump added, “is writing like I’m some kind of Neanderthal.”

This may have seemed to be just another soundbite in a headline-filled Trump rally. But it was a very revealing moment in the overall clash of cultures that animates America’s national discourse.

The coastal, cosmopolitan elites and their media comrades have denounced populism as nothing more than a dangerous and regressive political ideology. They argue that it misleads the masses by playing to their emotions and tempers, thus pitting them against the rule of law,the established order, and even their own best interests.

Populism, when done right, certainly rallies crowds, as Trump does. There is nothing wrong with that.

For decades, the American people have endured the sorts of lectures and pomp from the podium that Noonan wishes we still had. Americans grew sick of this hectoring. It is distant, unrelatable, and altogether foreign.

Trump’s language, theatrics, and overall style awoke huge segments of the electorate from their political slumber, apathy, and non-voting. These factors created a movement and fueled his historic victory. This populist awakening has changed America’s political landscape, radically and forever.

The Left in America and the world over once understood this. They used the same style to rally people and win power around the globe. No surprise, as the Left has abandoned populism, so, too, has their political strength waned.

The Left swapped the working class, the middle class, and the broader public for a small, increasingly geographically marginalized segment of the population that resides largely in multimillion-dollar condos in San Francisco, Beverly Hills, and Manhattan. Such isolation from the rest of America helps explain why the Democratic Party has been reduced, according to many metrics such as control of state legislatures and governorships, to a regional party.  It likely will keep losing ground for the foreseeable future.

Populism is not a concrete ideology at all, and certainly not exclusive to the Right. Populism does not gravitate along a typical Left-Right spectrum. The Left historically monopolized it while the Right usually spurned it.  That is what makes Trump’s mastery of it all the more remarkable, Trump is one of the few figures whose populism advances a mainly Right-wing agenda.

Populism is a political strategy equally available to the Left and the Right. Many pundits scoff at what they call Trump’s childishness and crudeness. However, they fail to grasp how much the general public relates to his style.

Those same pundits often have joked incorrectly that a Manhattan billionaire is hardly a man of the people In reality. Trump represents the American mythos, a self-made man, not from Midtown, but from Queens. Trump always keenly understood this. The movement he has built shows, ironically, that he really is the genius from Wharton after all. If he had listened to the orthodoxy, accepted mainline opinion, and followed the conventional playbook, he would be nowhere. As he has said, his crowds would have been “bored.” By going against the grain and revitalizing populist sentiment in America’s heartland, has aggregated a coalition to support traditional conservative policies of tax cuts, deregulation, strong borders, and smaller government. Moreover, he has secured victories on many fronts for which conservatives have fought and lost for decades, such as chopping the corporate tax, drilling for oil in ANWR, and moving America’s Israeli embassy to Jerusalem.

The Republican Party should embrace populism and realize that populism  will not ideologically supplant conservatism. Instead, it is a political tool that will advance the conservative agenda. Once Republicans figure this out, they will become America’s dominant political force. Luckily, Democrats seem nowhere near this epiphany.


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