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The Bankruptcy of Right Populism

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) gestures toward a crowd of supporters of President Donald Trump gathered outside the U.S. Capitol to protest the certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s electoral college victory Jan. 6, 2021 at the US Capitol in Washington, DC. Some demonstrators later breached security and stormed the Capitol. (Francis Chung/E&E News and Politico via AP Images)

Daniel Luban has a good piece in Dissent about the total bankruptcy of so-called “right populism,” which is nothing but hypocritical language attempted to cover up an agenda of tax cuts for the wealthy and austerity forced upon the very people who vote these people into office.

To no great surprise, Trump didn’t move left on economics. Workers did benefit from the hot economy of his first three years in office, which MAGA ideologists spun as proof of the president’s unique business acumen (much as Third Way ideologists had once taken the 1990s economic boom as proof of the virtues of Clintonism). But instead of an infrastructure bill, there was a massive corporate tax cut; instead of a family leave plan, there was a failed attempt to strip healthcare from tens of millions of people. Up and down the federal bureaucracy, a familiar cast of industry shills set to work dismantling labor rights and environmental protections. Trump’s most durable accomplishment was the rubber-stamping of scores of Federalist Society judges, each one a devoted steward of the interests of capital.

If Bernie Sanders had won the White House only to spend his presidency cutting Social Security and deregulating industry, his core supporters would have reacted with fury. The reaction of avowed right populists to Trump’s abandonment of their ostensible program was strikingly different: they did nothing. Figures like Tucker Carlson and Josh Hawley lined up in support of the administration, while the MAGA faithful bristled at any suggestion that Trump might not be keeping his promises.

This dynamic came to a head in recent months, as Trump—by this point getting his advice from figures like Larry Kudlow and Stephen Moore, high priests of supply-side theology—dithered in pressing for a second coronavirus relief bill. Perhaps a forceful push from his base might have stirred him to bully Senate Republicans into passing a bill. The push never came, as the populist right instead focused its ire on Anthony Fauci and Black Lives Matter. Trump’s failure to press for relief in the run-up to the election might go down as the final fatal blunder of his presidency. To the bitter end, movement publicists like Sohrab Ahmari were still issuing fawning odes to the leader for having “addressed the plight of the working class as an affront to national greatness.”

The striking thing about this record is not so much the lack of outright defections from Trumpism (with rare exceptions like Julius Krein, whose magazine American Affairs has been the most heterodox voice of the movement). It’s the lack of any sustained criticism, even as Trump made it ever-clearer that he had no interest in the agenda that right populists ascribed to him. This doesn’t look like the behavior of a faction genuinely dedicated to winning ideological battles.

The character of Trumpism—less a fleshed-out ideological movement than a personality cult built around sharp friend-enemy divides—may help explain this timidity. Right populists make a point of sneering at the Republican “donor class,” but the true plutocrats have been on board with Trump since his election—after all, he gave them everything they wanted. (Stephen Moore and Arthur Laffer’s exuberant supply-side tribute Trumponomics is hackwork, but it offers a more honest defense of the president’s record than anything produced by the populists.) Likewise the Tea Partiers: despite stylized contrasts between “libertarianism” and “populism,” Trump’s strongest congressional supporters (and his last two chiefs of staff) came from the zealots of the House Freedom Caucus. The real enemies on the right were defined not by any particular economic philosophy but by the bare fact of disloyalty to the leader.

I’ll also note here that when Jacobin got popular, I knew a lot of lefties who were happy to have a new, energetic magazine for the left to replace stodgy old Dissent. Well, I don’t know that Dissent was stodgy, but I do know that it publishes a quality of material far, far beyond the average Jacobin article.

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