Populism: Savior of conservatism
Raucous cheers of "USA, USA, USA" flowed through the crowds at President Trump's most recent rally to support Republican congressional candidate Rick Saccone in Moon Township, Pennsylvania.
The speech was quintessentially populist, or rather, "Trumpian" – free-flowing, direct, personable, braggadocious, and quite humorous at times.
This fact was pointed out by Trump himself when he critiqued a recent piece by Peggy Noonan that ridiculed his demeanor and deemed it not "presidential." He publicly mocked her concept of what it means to be presidential with a stiff and tight-lipped imitation of a conventional politician, to the chuckles of an enthralled crowd. He concluded that Noonan "is writing like I'm some kind of Neanderthal."
This may seem to be just another sound bite in a headline-filled Trump rally, but in reality, it is a revealing moment in the overall clash of cultures taking place in the national discourse.
Many have been led to believe, primarily through the lecturing of coastal cosmopolitan elites and their associated media, that populism is nothing more than some dangerous and regressive political ideology that seeks to mislead the masses against their best interests by playing to their emotions and tempers to pit them against the rule of law and the established order.
While populism certainly does rally the crowds, there is nothing inherently wrong with that.
For decades, the American people have been subjected to the sort of lecturing from the podium and pomp that Peggy Noonan wishes we still had. They grew sick of it. It is distant, unrelatable, and altogether foreign.
Trump's use of language, his theatrics, and his overall style are what awoke huge segments of the American electorate from their political slumber. Trump's approach is what created a movement and led him to a historic victory. This populist awakening has radically changed the American political landscape.
This was something this country's left once understood. They used the same style to rally the people and win power around the globe. It is no surprise that as the left has abandoned populism, so too has its political strength waned.
Leftists traded the working class, the middle class, and the broader public for a small, increasingly geographically marginalized segment of the population that resides almost exclusively in the multi-million-dollar condos of San Francisco and the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It is for this reason that the Democratic Party has been reduced to a regional party by many metrics and will likely continue to lose ground for the foreseeable future.
Populism is in truth not a concrete ideology at all, and certainly not exclusive to the right. You cannot place populism on any left-right spectrum or political axis. Historically, populism was more often than not spurned by the right, especially in this country, while monopolized by the left. That is what makes Trump's mastery of it all the more remarkable: he is one of the few figures to utilize it for the purposes of advancing a right-wing agenda, much to the chagrin of the ivory tower.
Populism is a political strategy – a strategy that can be and has been used by both the right and the left. Many political pundits and commentators can scoff at what they perceive to be Trump's childishness and crudeness, but what they fail to grasp is how relatable he is to the public at large.
Those same pundits have often incorrectly joked that a billionaire from Manhattan is hardly a man of the people, as Trump presents himself. In reality, he represents the American mythos, a self-made man from the outer boroughs of New York. This is something he always keenly understood, and the fact that he has built such support from the white working class demonstrates that he really is the "genius" from Wharton after all. If he had listened to the orthodoxy, the mainline opinion, and followed the historical trends, he would be nowhere – and as he said, the crowds would be "bored." By virtue of going against the grain and revitalizing populist sentiment in this country's heartland, he has been able to build a coalition to support traditional conservative policies of tax cuts, deregulation, strong borders, and smaller government.
The sooner the Republican Party embraces populism and realizes that it will not ideologically supplant conservatism, but rather is a political tool that can advance it, the sooner it will become the dominant political force in America. Luckily for us, the Democrats do not seem to be anywhere near that end.
Gavin Wax is the former deputy political director for the Nicole Malliotakis mayoral campaign and the New York State director for the 2016 Ted Cruz presidential campaign. He is also a small business-owner. His work has appeared in the Daily Caller, the Federalist, the Washington Examiner, the Hill, and Newsmax. You can follow him on Twitter at @GavinWax.