The Departure of Populism from Traditional Conservatism

1. Populism vs. Conservatism

On Saturday evening, March 10, 2018, President Trump held a rally at a Pittsburgh’s airport (in Moon Township, Pennsylvania) in an effort to help Republican Rick Saccone to win a western Pennsylvania congressional district in the special elections of Tuesday, March 13. The president won the district by 20 points during the 2016 election.

The speech was vintage Trump 2016, displaying, in the midst of an enthusiastic crowd of supporters, both the president’s achievements since he has taken office on January 20, 2017 and his electoral promises that he has yet to deliver in the years to come.

There were, however, some new, some would say unconventional, elements of the president’s populism that were prefiguring a departure from the traditional conservatism, as we know it, of the Reagan-Bush era.

2. The North Korea Issue

President Trump asserted that this issue “should have been handled over the last 30 years, not now.” Past presidents, including Republicans (George W. Bush), treated North Korea with kids’ gloves, where diplomacy and payoffs were the rule, and the military option was not taken into consideration. In 2008, President George W. Bush removed North Korea from the Department of State list of terrorist countries.

President Trump has taken a new and bold approach, to the despair of diplomats and pundits in Washington, DC. He has put very strong sanctions against the Kim Jong-un administration, requesting with insistence, and eventually obtaining, China, South Korea and other regional actors’ involvement for achieving this goal.

In addition, the president’s famous aggressive rhetoric has also played an important role.

Speaking at the U.N. General Assembly on September 19, 2017, Trump threatened to “totally destroy North Korea”. His January 3, 2018 tweet about his “bigger nuclear button,” although regarded as ill-advised and “infantile,” proved to be effective. “Little Rocket Man” (Trump’s nickname for Kim) decided to talk “complete denuclearization” with the United States “as soon as possible”. This has led to the first direct meeting between the American and North Korean leaders (without China’s traditional brokerage), set up for May.

3. The Trade Issue

A second issue where Trump went on criticizing past Republican presidents (George H. W. Bush, “the first,” and Ronald Reagan) was trade. Trump complained that these presidents “were not great on the trade,” as exemplified with China. Cars exported by the United States face a 25% tax from China, while China has a 2.5% car tax from the United States. This has generated a trade deficit with China of US$ 500 billion a year, which the president has promised he would fix in a year. “Plenty of presidents and people who work for them allowed this to happen,” bitterly remarked the president.

One of the solutions promoted by the president (in fact, an electoral promise that he wants to deliver to his base of supporters) is his new set of tariffs for steel (25%) and aluminum (10%), which ignited not only the revolt of the pundits in Washington, DC, but also of part of his own Republican party.

4. The Tax Cut Issue

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, adopted with no Democrat votes, and signed into law by President Trump on December 22, 2017, is considered the most extensive rewrite of the U.S. tax code in more than 30 years and “the most massive tax cut since Reagan.”

With this remark, Trump criticized to the previous Republican administrations of George H. W. Bush (1989–1993) and George W. Bush (2001–2009). Bush the father, otherwise, has been notoriously known for raising taxes, despite promising not to, and losing the 1992 elections in favor of Bill Clinton.

The Tax Cuts Act of 2017 reaches beyond fiscal matters to tick off a wish list of conservative priorities that include the elimination of Obamacare mandate (the fine levied on Americans who do not buy health insurance) and opening Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling.

5. The Drug and Opioid Addiction Issue

The President reflected on the possibility, and proposed for national debate the problem, of death penalty for drug dealers (following the examples of countries with “zero tolerance policy” like China and Singapore). “Drug dealers kill thousands of people and get 30 days in prison” (as opposed to criminals who kill a person and get the death penalty), noticed the president.

“We have the opioid problem” and also “we have to go after the drug companies,” said the president. It was a call for a national discussion about this pressing issue. References were also made to MS-13 and other gangs, against which building the Wall is an efficient solution. The president spoke of our “toughest” American officers sent in Long Island to grab the gang members “by the neck and throw them out” of the country.

Less than two weeks before, Trump suggested “very strong penalties” to help address the nation’s growing problem with opioid addiction.

In May 2017, President Trump congratulated Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte for a “great job” in his crackdown on drugs.

Although tougher sanctions are reference measures for any Republican administration, the Republicans’ reaction to the president’s new criminal justice proposals is yet to be seen.

6. The Presidential Style Issue

President Trump derided past presidents (including the Republican ones) as “stiffs and lousy entertainers.”

In particular, he criticized the Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan, a former primary speech writer and Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, for deriding his lack of “presidential” style and behavior, comparing him with “some kind of a Neanderthal.” Noonan was quick to reply that she did not call President Trump a “Neanderthal” because “that would not be fair” to Neanderthals, who had a “certain artistic complexity.”

This is an obvious disconnect between the old generation of traditional conservatives (suspected to have become or acting more like neo-conservatives) and Trump’s base of populist supporters. Acting “presidential,” said Trump (who also mimicked a stiff “presidential” tone for a short while during his speech) is “much easier” than how he acts and what he does (which is “smart”). With a deep understanding of the profile and life philosophy of his base, he concluded that he “wouldn’t have won” otherwise. His supporters, he explained, “love the country” and many of them never voted before, but “they are coming out of the hills, they are coming out of the valleys […] because they never saw anybody they wanted to vote for” until 2016.

7. Populism, Conservatism, and Radical Right Nationalism

In the end, a question remains: has President Trump opened a path for an avant-garde populism or is he trying to attune the traditional conservatism of the ’80s, the ’90s, and the early 2000s to a new era of pragmatism?

There is also the problem of populism splitting in more radical factions, like the one promoted by Steve Bannon, a former senior advisor to President Trump. Bannon went to a world tour “to learn” from the experience of other populist-nationalist parties, in his quest to craft a more radical right American nationalist movement.

So, for the near future it remains to be seen not only if populism departs from, or incorporates traditional conservatism, but also if populism splits, more or less, into a variety of nationalist factions.

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TIBERIU DIANU is a Washington, DC author of articles and books of law and politics. See:

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