Raucous cheers of “USA, USA, USA,” flowed through the crowds at President Donald Trump’s Saturday-night 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 sometimes quite humorous.
Trump then took time to critique a recent piece by Peggy Noonan, which ridiculed his demeanor as not “presidential.”
Trump mocked Noonan’s concept of what it means to be presidential. The enthralled crowd chuckled as Trump imitated a stiff, tight-lipped, rank-and-file politician.
Noonan, Trump added, “is writing like I’m some kind of Neanderthal.”
This may have seemed to be just another soundbite in a headline-filled Trump rally, but in reality it was a very revealing moment in the overall clash of cultures that animates America’s national discourse.
The coastal, cosmopolitan elites and their media comrades have denounced populism as nothing more than a dangerous and regressive political ideology. They argue that it misleads the masses by playing to their emotions and tempers, thus pitting them against the rule of law, the established order, and even their own best interests.
Populism, when done right, certainly rallies crowds, as Trump does, and there is nothing inherently wrong with that.
For decades, the American people have endured the sorts of lectures and pomp from the podium that Noonan wishes we still had. Americans grew sick of this hectoring. It is distant, unrelatable, and altogether foreign.
Trump’s use of language, theatrics, and his overall style is what awoke huge segments of the American electorate from their political slumber of apathy and non-voting, it is what created a movement, and led him to a historic victory. This populist awakening has radically changed the American political landscape forever.
The Left in America and the world over once understood this. They used the same style to rally the people and win power across the globe. It is no surprise that as the Left has abandoned populism to the trash bin of history so, too, has their political strength waned.
The Left swapped the working class, the middle class, and the broader public for a small, increasingly geographically marginalized segment of the population that resides largely in multimillion-dollar condos in San Francisco, Beverly Hills, and Manhattan. Such isolation from the rest of America helps explain why the Democratic Party has been reduced, according to many metrics such as control of state legislatures and governorships, to a regional party. It likely will keep losing ground for the foreseeable future.
Populism is not a concrete ideology at all, and certainly not exclusive to the Right. Populism does not gravitate along a typical Left-Right spectrum. The Left historically monopolized it while the Right usually spurned it. That is what makes Trump's mastery of it all the more remarkable. Trump is one of the few figures whose populism advances a mainly Right-wing agenda.
Populism is a political strategy: a strategy that can 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 that 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. Moreover, he has secured victories on many fronts for which conservatives have fought and lost for decades, such as chopping the corporate tax, drilling for oil in ANWR, and moving America’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
The sooner the Republican Party embraces populism and realizes it will not ideologically supplant conservatism, but rather is a political tool that can advance it, is the moment they will become the dominant political force in America. Luckily for us, the Democrats do not seem to be anywhere near that end.