Does Conservative Populism Exist?

Having just read Matt Purple's comments on The American Conservative as to why "Bannonism will live on," I thought I'd weigh in as a critical observer of what now passes for the "conservative movement."

Like Bannon, I have generally chastised that movement from the right.  But like Mr. Purple, I find President Trump's erstwhile adviser downright inept in selling his conservative populist message.  Bannon has behaved like an egomaniac, who viciously turned on the president he was supposed to be assisting.  He couldn't even serve the populist cause he purports to believe in without making it entirely about himself.  Some of Bannon's more widely publicized political choices, such as favoring Judge Roy Moore for the vacant senatorial seat in Alabama, are a case in point.  His involvement in that race gave him ample opportunity to exhibit himself on camera, in his bag man attire and four-o'clock shadow.  But we know how disastrous that race turned out.  Despite his supposedly persuasive rhetoric, moreover, I don't think I've ever heard Bannon say anything memorable or notably coherent.

My criticism goes beyond Bannon's demeanor and extends to the populist brand that he's selling.  Although I'm not categorically against the right embracing populist tactics, I just don't think these tools can work well in the U.S.

Populism assumes a high degree of homogeneity, cultural, historic, and ethnic, among the "majority" to whom a populist leader appeals.  The white working-class base that Bannon and Trump have targeted includes no more than about 35% of the voting population, and at least that number of voters and probably more are allied to the cultural and social left.

Bannon, Stephen Miller, and the American Greatness crowd are always claiming they'll bring American blacks into their populist alliance.  But in Alabama and Virginia, black turnout for Democratic statewide candidates, in what was at least partly an expression of anti-Trump sentiment, was over 95%.  It doesn't matter that Trump's policies have helped blacks and hispanics economically.  There's no indication that help is even minimally appreciated, and even less that racial minorities are running to join an expanding populist alliance.  Ditto for college-educated, upwardly mobile women, who are running toward the social-cultural left in droves.  Despite the continuing protests of pro-Trump populist websites against the legalization of DACA DREAMers, 69% of American adults polled in favor this measure.  Although there may be good reasons to oppose the legalization, "the people" and the democratic will are not among them.

Much of what Bannon has advocated as populist nationalism seems to be a grab-bag of his own preferences, combining tough trade deals with the Pacific Rim, increased solidarity with the Israeli government, and a general relaxation of relations with Russia.  Although Bannon may be able to defend his individual positions, I'm not sure they amount to a populist posture.  And while I fully share Bannon's traditionalist views on social moral questions, I doubt they represent what a majority of the American population believe about any of them.  When the Trump administration ordered the firing of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Shayrat air base in Syria in April 2017, Bannon opposed that move as not being in America's interest.  Are we supposed to think that Bannon was taking a "populist" position because it was he who took it?  If so, would his stance have been equally "populist" if it had been the opposite of the position he took, by virtue of the fact that he took it?  In contrast to our situation, leaders of the populist right in Hungary, Poland, and Serbia usually speak for the views of most of their citizenry.  They don't have to fabricate their "people."

Allow me to offer a much less exuberant description than Bannon's of what the American right might be reduced to if present demographic and cultural trends in the U.S. continue.  And please note that I'm referring to the "real right," as opposed to GOP deal-makers and centrists who are eager to compromise in order to stay in the political game.  A moment of disenchantment for this right is bound to come sooner or later.  At that point, it will have to stop deluding itself that "the people are behind us," when most of them are not.  The wisest strategy may be for cultural and social traditionalists (and those are the ones I'm addressing) to protect themselves against the "popular will," as more and more of that will is likely to be found on the enemy side.

The right must limit immigration if for no other reason than because it increases the electoral power of a well organized left, and it must decentralize administration in order to allow non-leftist minorities to have influence over their political fate.  Least of all should the right (as opposed to neoconservatives) be interested in having the U.S. play the role of global policewoman or try to impose what it considers "human rights" on societies that have no interest in them.

One might wish that "conservative" foundations devoted the same energy and resources to these stands as they do to promoting the purchase of new weaponry by the Pentagon.  But that may be more than one has a right to expect. 

Having just read Matt Purple's comments on The American Conservative as to why "Bannonism will live on," I thought I'd weigh in as a critical observer of what now passes for the "conservative movement."

Like Bannon, I have generally chastised that movement from the right.  But like Mr. Purple, I find President Trump's erstwhile adviser downright inept in selling his conservative populist message.  Bannon has behaved like an egomaniac, who viciously turned on the president he was supposed to be assisting.  He couldn't even serve the populist cause he purports to believe in without making it entirely about himself.  Some of Bannon's more widely publicized political choices, such as favoring Judge Roy Moore for the vacant senatorial seat in Alabama, are a case in point.  His involvement in that race gave him ample opportunity to exhibit himself on camera, in his bag man attire and four-o'clock shadow.  But we know how disastrous that race turned out.  Despite his supposedly persuasive rhetoric, moreover, I don't think I've ever heard Bannon say anything memorable or notably coherent.

My criticism goes beyond Bannon's demeanor and extends to the populist brand that he's selling.  Although I'm not categorically against the right embracing populist tactics, I just don't think these tools can work well in the U.S.

Populism assumes a high degree of homogeneity, cultural, historic, and ethnic, among the "majority" to whom a populist leader appeals.  The white working-class base that Bannon and Trump have targeted includes no more than about 35% of the voting population, and at least that number of voters and probably more are allied to the cultural and social left.

Bannon, Stephen Miller, and the American Greatness crowd are always claiming they'll bring American blacks into their populist alliance.  But in Alabama and Virginia, black turnout for Democratic statewide candidates, in what was at least partly an expression of anti-Trump sentiment, was over 95%.  It doesn't matter that Trump's policies have helped blacks and hispanics economically.  There's no indication that help is even minimally appreciated, and even less that racial minorities are running to join an expanding populist alliance.  Ditto for college-educated, upwardly mobile women, who are running toward the social-cultural left in droves.  Despite the continuing protests of pro-Trump populist websites against the legalization of DACA DREAMers, 69% of American adults polled in favor this measure.  Although there may be good reasons to oppose the legalization, "the people" and the democratic will are not among them.

Much of what Bannon has advocated as populist nationalism seems to be a grab-bag of his own preferences, combining tough trade deals with the Pacific Rim, increased solidarity with the Israeli government, and a general relaxation of relations with Russia.  Although Bannon may be able to defend his individual positions, I'm not sure they amount to a populist posture.  And while I fully share Bannon's traditionalist views on social moral questions, I doubt they represent what a majority of the American population believe about any of them.  When the Trump administration ordered the firing of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Shayrat air base in Syria in April 2017, Bannon opposed that move as not being in America's interest.  Are we supposed to think that Bannon was taking a "populist" position because it was he who took it?  If so, would his stance have been equally "populist" if it had been the opposite of the position he took, by virtue of the fact that he took it?  In contrast to our situation, leaders of the populist right in Hungary, Poland, and Serbia usually speak for the views of most of their citizenry.  They don't have to fabricate their "people."

Allow me to offer a much less exuberant description than Bannon's of what the American right might be reduced to if present demographic and cultural trends in the U.S. continue.  And please note that I'm referring to the "real right," as opposed to GOP deal-makers and centrists who are eager to compromise in order to stay in the political game.  A moment of disenchantment for this right is bound to come sooner or later.  At that point, it will have to stop deluding itself that "the people are behind us," when most of them are not.  The wisest strategy may be for cultural and social traditionalists (and those are the ones I'm addressing) to protect themselves against the "popular will," as more and more of that will is likely to be found on the enemy side.

The right must limit immigration if for no other reason than because it increases the electoral power of a well organized left, and it must decentralize administration in order to allow non-leftist minorities to have influence over their political fate.  Least of all should the right (as opposed to neoconservatives) be interested in having the U.S. play the role of global policewoman or try to impose what it considers "human rights" on societies that have no interest in them.

One might wish that "conservative" foundations devoted the same energy and resources to these stands as they do to promoting the purchase of new weaponry by the Pentagon.  But that may be more than one has a right to expect.