Why the new “Populist” GOP is the worst of both worlds
There is hype of a political realignment with a new populist GOP in contrast to an oligarchic democratic party. Trump initially made inroads with formerly democrat-voting working class voters while Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden appealed to wealthier swing voters, but the characterization of a total realignment on class is overly simplistic. The problem with this new populist GOP, under Trump and post-Trump, is that it sparks the ire of the establishment without being radically anti-establishment, the polar opposite of Teddy Roosevelt’s “speak softly and carry a big stick.”
The MAGA wing of the GOP still takes many conventionally conservative, oligarch friendly, stances on economic policy but is treated by the establishment as a threat to liberal democracy. Because this new populist conservatism is perceived as more prole than the GOP of the past, it turns off a higher IQ or elite demographic, but without actually waging class warfare against the 1%; those from a lower economic status end up supporting policies that benefit those from the class that excludes them. One should either get support from the elite or go full populist, and call to nationalize big tech, and Wallstreet, but the current rightwing populism is more cultural rather than economic.
Many of the MAGA figures will say outlandish and provocative things but don’t actually propose policy that radically challenges the power structure. This is the case with figures like Marjorie Taylor Green, who take certain anti-establishment positions, but are overall ineffective as they have an image of kookiness and extremism plus more conventionally conservate policies. This was the case with Trump, even if he ran for president in 2016 as a populist and outsider. MAGA failed as a populist movement because Trump had to rely upon the existing GOP elite power structure. Trump’s presidency energized the left and the establishment against nationalism and populism but his legislative accomplishments were conventionally conservative, cutting taxes and regulations. Those who benefited economically from Trump’s policies were not the same people as those who sacrificed their social status and livelihoods in supporting him.
This was also evident with the defeated California recall and Larry Elder’s campaign for governor. At best Elder winning may have been a short term symbolic blow to the democratic establishment. Larry Elder’s shtick was saying controversial things about race and gender that your average White conservative could not get away with, while also being for corporate tax cuts. The former got him painted as an extremist, derided as a White Supremacist in Black Face, and turned off more affluent voters, while his economic policies, such as opposing the minimum wage, prevented him from making inroads among lower income Californians, as it is already an uphill battle for the GOP in California. There are segments of the GOP, such as neo-cons or the economic far right Koch Brother types, that are especially abhorrent but I’d much rather see a generic 90s era moderate Republican make peace with the establishment than something that is so radically self-defeating
Trump’s election saw a shift away from the Reaganite conservative coalition of foreign policy hawks, fiscal conservatives, and the Religious Right, but came short at either winning significant elite support or making enough gains among working class swing voters. To the degree that the GOP still has elite support it is reliant upon segments of the manufacturing and energy industries, and wealthy geriatric donors whose heirs are more liberal. Populism fails because any movement that doesn’t have elite support will be overrun by grifters. This was apparent with MAGA losing support from the old elite. Like previous generations of conservatives, it focused on electoral victories while neglecting the importance of building new institutions, including cultural.
The irony of the “Trust The Plan” meme, is that the MAGA movement has no long term winning plan or strategy, nor a coherent set of principles beyond “owning the libs,” on the national question, culture war, and economics. On the question of identity the right is starting to shift away from color blind Americanism and flirting with identity politics as the left does. Tucker Carlson, who is an overall force for good in contrast to the rest of MAGA, is Breaking a major taboo by discussing the Great Replacement and Charlie Kirk, who epitomizes the worst grift of conservativism inc, echoed Tucker Carlson’s points on the replacement of White Americans after long saying that America is just an idea.
I see this kind of anti-immigration rhetoric as becoming the new wedge issue as abortion and gay marriage were for the GOP of the past, as the demographic transformation is set in stone. Speaking openly about demographics and identity is a positive sign but the cope of taking back America to how it was in the past plus all the outrage porn, is a distraction from the question of how we adapt to this inevitable diverse future.
What is crucial is offering an alternative system that is superior to what the establishment offers. There needs to be calls for and a political framework that encourages the formation of alternative institutions in education, media, technology, and finance, and on the national question an alternative version of multi-culturalism such as Pan-Enclavism plus freedom of association.
Populism must come secondary to counter-elitism as successful movements need some elite support or a serious plan to build up new elite institutions. It is important to win over a segment of those with wealth and power and the most intelligent young people, and there is a huge opportunity right now due to elite over production. There needs to be this elitist vanguardism that has a radically subversive appeal but without the lack of culture and aesthetics, and the anti-science, and anti-intellectual elements which turn off those high-IQ individuals who could help build this new counter-elite.
While a lot of the democrat establishment’s policies benefit the ultra-wealthy there are certainly many cases where wealthy liberals vote against their economic interest because they find the other side aesthetically revolting. The essence of politics is building coalitions of tribes based upon a certain aesthetic preference as much as it is economics or morality. Among liberal elites there was an aesthetic reaction against Trump supporters yet part of Trump’s initial appeal was his aesthetic, even if gaudy. The Trump aesthetic of 80s Retrofuturism meets Rococo, was promethean and aspirational, and channeled into a kind of counter-elitist fantasy. The aspirational Trump aesthetic, however, was replaced by the more prole county fair aesthetic, ironically sponsored by the donor class. Conservatives neglect the importance of aesthetics but Trump shifted his aesthetic when he shifted from being a celebrity to being a politician.
The left has had a monopoly on the arts and even a decade ago, had a tribal appeal of being more aesthetically sophisticated, capturing the most talented from the creative class and calling for more things like walkable, aesthetically-pleasing communities. This has become less the case, however, as the aesthetic of modern liberalism has become a Sterile minimalist corporate aesthetic plus a stance against beauty hierarchies and an attack on Eurocentric or hierarchical aesthetics. This decline of creativity on the left and in the corporate media plus elite over production creates a huge opportunity for a cultural counter-elite.
While the Democrats are more successful with institutional power and coalition building their coalition is vulnerable to fragmentation, struggling to unite socialists, the corporate establishment, and newer upper middle class suburbanite swing voters. The fragmentation of the Democratic coalition, combined with Biden’s declining approval rating, creates a huge political opportunity for the GOP that they very well could blow. I’m not 100% pessimistic about GOP populism long term, because there are major generational shifts, but as things stand the current state of MAGA populism has done far more harm than good, and beyond a biased and hostile media, much of it is of its own doing.