Under President Donald Trump, many conservatives started calling themselves populists. The term hasn’t been popular in significant numbers since the late Ross Perot ran unsuccessfully for president as a third-party candidate in 1992. He was no conservative, falling somewhere between the left and the right on the spectrum. So what is this all about, some conservatives taking the term for themselves?
Just like with Perot, there are elements of populism that overlap with conservatism and elements that tilt more to the left. It sounds great; power to the people, not ruled by the elites. Trump railed against the deep state, vowed to drain the swamp and denounced the fake news media.
But some conservatives go so far as to declare that populism is not conservative. Longtime radio talk-show host Michael Medved devoted an entire article to arguing that it’s not. He says populism puts too much focus on being a victim, whereas true conservatism is all about individual responsibility. Ryan Streeter, writing for the American Enterprise Institute, condemns this focus even more, blaming Trump for building up the mindset of conservatives as victims under the guise of populism.
Scholars Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris take a less negative analysis, contending that people are drawn to populism due to not liking how society is changing.
The typical characterization we usually hear is Trump is a populist due to his strong opposition to illegal immigration, his leanings toward trade protectionism and scaling down U.S. military operations overseas. Well, all three of those have been considered regular conservative positions over the years. Reducing military involvement abroad used to be called “paleoconservative,” as opposed to the more interventionist “neocons.” Trade protectionism used to be characterized as “nationalist” and less libertarian. And opposing illegal immigration has been a consistent conservative position except for occasional exceptions over the years pushed by moderate business interests in the party, such as successfully implementing a guest worker program under President Ronald Reagan in 1986.
Colin Dueck, writing for the American Enterprise Institute, says the problem is people have different views on what populism means. While many of those on the right currently think of it positively, the left has come up with an “extremely sinister” definition of it, describing it as authoritarian.
He says the left has cleverly defined populism as those who “oppose political pluralism and minority rights … regularly indulge in conspiracy theories; favor aggressive forms of identity politics; disparage political opponents including ‘the establishment’ as downright illegitimate; erode constitutional norms; deliberately undercut civil society; press toward authoritarian forms of government; and thereby threaten the very bases of liberal democracy itself.”
Obviously, all of these are false or distortions, cleverly crafted by the left to make anyone on the right look bad. Business as usual.
The left lumps Trump in with authoritarian leaders like Hugo Chavez, Benito Mussolini and Vladimir Putin; interchangeably calling them fascists and populists. Look at articles from the mainstream media, especially the Associated Press; they use the same negative terms like “radical extremists” to describe leaders responsible for killing thousands or millions of people as they do Trump.
Dueck thinks a lot of voters who switched from voting for Barack Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016, particularly during the primary, embodied the “classic populist position,” conservative on social issues but center-left on economic issues.
If Dueck’s definition is accurate, then it obviously is not the same as conservatism and represents a radical shift. But there is nothing about Trump that goes along with a center-left position on economic issues. While he did little to stop spending from increasing – in order to get much done he made that compromise with the left — Reagan also failed to reign in spending as president, and no one ever called him a populist. And most Trump supporters don’t identify as fiscal liberals.
It’s impossible to solely identify populism today as complaining about the status quo. While it’s true that populism rejects the status quo of rule by elites, there are far more reasons today than in Reagan’s era to complain; society has gone so far downhill in terms of both economic and social conservatism. The Democratic Party of today looks more like the Socialist Party of the Reagan era. And they’ve gotten away with it because they’ve outsmarted us. Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals” used to be something merely used by hardcore grassroots fringe activists on the left. Now it’s everywhere, in every news article from the MSM, the same talking points using brutal tactics against the right. So regular conservatives everywhere are complaining about the status quo; their voices just appear magnified due to the internet and now social media.
Some of us are merely getting annoyed with all the complaining because while we’re doing it, the left has already plotted several chess moves ahead of us, outsmarting us. They constantly put us on the defensive, such as making the dialogue incessantly about Jan. 6 – while ignoring the violent Antifa and BLM rioting that has occurred repeatedly for years now. The same talking points all call it an “armed insurrection,” “threat to democracy” and discuss “storming the Capitol.” Instead of wailing when the left brings up Jan. 6, we should respond, “Did you see any Trump supporter at the rally who appeared to want to injure or kill anyone?” and change the topic, such as by bringing up a list of specific violent incidents by Antifa and BLM.
While there isn’t really much of a difference between conservatives who call themselves populists and other conservatives, it’s important to realize what is being done to the term. The left has mastered taking words and stigmatizing them to make the right look bad. If you’re America First, you’re xenophobic. If you praise Western civilization, you’re racist. Next, they’ll tackle “conservative” and figure out how to make that look nefarious. So it’s impossible to discuss Trump conservatives as populists unless you’ve got a lot of free time. They merely think they’re Trump supporters, but the left has twisted the meaning.
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