For all the elite hand-wringing we’ve seen over the scourge of right-wing “populism” these past seven years, the awkward fact of the matter is that populism has never aligned very closely with the long-term goals of American conservatism. Originally an uprising among the self-styled producing classes of the early industrial age, Populism sought to broaden and deepen the fundamental precepts of American democracy via the direct election of senators, popular ballot initiatives, and a new system of currency designed to reward labor over the speculative accumulation of capital.
Contemporary centrist thinkers, following the lead of mid-century anti-populist scholars like Richard Hofstadter, have overlooked the historical roots of capital-P Populism in favor of an all-purpose definition of “populism” as anti-elite bigotry. This conflation permits the blurry, quick-and-dirty depictions of urban real estate scion Donald Trump as a raging populist and the misconstrual of the white Christian nationalist movement behind him as a byproduct of equally diffuse “economic anxiety.”
But as Trump mounts his third candidacy for the presidency—and faces the opposition of hard-right ideologue Ron DeSantis in the GOP primaries—something strange has happened. The always-errant specter of right-wing populism has lost a clear reason for being. The US economy is performing at something close to full employment, with robust, ongoing job growth unpleasantly surprising the austerian financial elite captained by Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell. Inflation is cooling even as Powell continues, needlessly, to hike interest rates to dampen it further. Even immigration, Trump’s pet demagogic crusade, seems unlikely to stir much passion in the GOP base, since President Biden is regrettably deporting people at a Trumpian rate, instituting an asylum ban, and weighing his own version of Trump’s grotesque family detention policy.
The theatrics of right-wing populism may lack a plausible outlet, but as Trump and DeSantis well know, they represent a first-order demand of the conservative base. The rivalry for the 2024 Republican nomination seems likely to become a populist pantomime twice removed, as both candidates market a resentment-fueled politics more divorced than ever from prevailing economic conditions.
But in view of the broader class dynamics of conservative politics, that may be a feature, not a bug. In 2016, Trump did score some early primary success in “the white misery belt,” says Joe Lowndes, a political scientist at the University of Oregon. “He brought a bunch of people in who had not been Republican voters before, and who were not interested in the neoliberal platforms of Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, or Marco Rubio.” But by the time of the Republican National Convention, Trump’s campaign had also brokered extensive elite buy-in. “I was at the 2016 convention and talked to a ton of delegates there,” Lowndes recalls. “There were lots of people who had not originally been Trump supporters but who were still hard-right opponents of Hillary Clinton, and they all moved into the Trump column pretty strongly. They were people from all kinds of class positions, so the narrative that it was always working-class authoritarianism…was never quite true.”
A curious feature of the politics of pseudo-populism is that it’s often untethered from conditions of economic distress—again in contrast to historical Populism. The authoritarian agenda of Ron DeSantis has taken hold amid an economic boom in Florida, as the governor himself is the first to remind voters. “I think that’s the reason DeSantis won [reelection] so convincingly,” Lowndes says. “The state was doing fine economically because of a continuous development boom. There’s no income tax, and continual construction, continual job growth, tons of funding for education and the university system”—assets that DeSantis has converted into blunt instruments of a rolling purge of state-funded schools. “It’s almost a lack of economic crisis that’s allowed the Florida Legislature and DeSantis to steamroll this agenda through,” Lowndes notes.
This could render the primary cycle a proving ground for candidates straining themselves toward the most reality-averse versions of populist campaigning yet developed. Trump would seem to enjoy a host of advantages, particularly since DeSantis prides himself on policy competence and focused messaging—two traditional electoral constraints that mean nothing to the former president. In his latest policy video, Trump introduced his sponsorship of a nationwide competition to build model “freedom cities” that repackages his pet causes as shiny objects of mogul-friendly innovation, from a proposal to jump-start the development of flying cars to a system of “baby bonuses” to fund a fascist-style plan to expand the national breeding stock.
Whatever else this Randian wish list might represent, it’s the antithesis of populism. The Populist movement was launched by a network of rural cooperatives, and its key organizing weakness was a distrust of urban America as a forcing bed of vice, luxury, exploitation, and corruption. Populists also rejected the concentration of economic power among industrial-age robber barons who built up trusts to control transportation technologies like the railroad—and yet here Trump is touting government support of the same ownership structure.
You’d think such proposals, over and above the question of their seriousness or practicality, would represent a breaking point in the pundit caste’s infatuation with the skybox populism of the American right. But you would be wrong. The press will witlessly record every unhinged Trump pronouncement as populist gospel, while DeSantis desperately tries to mimic Trump’s world-building hubris in the confines of his own far more schematic political imagination. While the first stage of the Trumpian revolution oversaw the rise of an anti-elitism without identifiable elites, its new baroque phase presides over the consolidation of a new brand of populism without the people.