Skip to content
Breaking News Alert In Big Victory Against Lawfare, DC Court Of Appeals Smacks Down Jeff Clark Subpoena

What Populism Is And Why It’s So Compelling


A year into President Donald Trump’s term, there is still a lively debate over what his political philosophy is, and whether it is a philosophy at all. His contradictory statements lend themselves to every conceivable interpretation. Trump’s supporters see what they want—and even this varies from supporter to supporter—while his enemies are also free to divine any evil intent they wish. Trump’s stream-of-consciousness tweets and quotes to the press make him an open book, but one that everyone reads differently.

This has led some to suspect that there really is nothing there, that Trumpism is nothing more or less than an attitude, devoid of ideas. Last month in National Review, Ben Shapiro made this point, saying that philosophical Trumpism is “a hollow intellectualization of candidate Trump’s contradictory campaign statements; it was an attempt to mold a system of thought around one man’s political impulses.”

The point was well argued, but it misses the deeper issue. Trump is no philosopher, but there is an idea behind the movement that shifted so many voters to the Republican Party in the post-industrial heartland. Something there made them think voting for a loudmouthed businessman and political neophyte made sense. Somehow, Trump gestured at something lacking in the two-party system of the past generation and, whether he meant to or not, began the shift to a new system of conservatism, as different from the ideals of Ronald Reagan’s Republican Party as Reagan’s was from Dwight Eisenhower’s.

Populism Means Many Things to Many People

Beside the actually policy shifts—including a hostility to free trade and a lack of interest in cutting government spending—Trump has embraced the populist side of the conservative movement more than any president in recent memory has. It is fair to say, in fact, that he is our only truly populist president other than Andrew Jackson. But to say that requires defining populism, a difficult task in any age.

One element that characterizes populist movements of the Left and Right is a demand that power be returned to the people. The very word “populist” has this literal connotation. In that, Trumpian populism fits within the recent tradition of American conservatism in wanting to shift power away from Washington and back to state capitals, county seats, and individual citizens.

The fight between centralizers and localizers in America has been going on since the moment we declared independence from Britain. It takes place around the world, too, whether you call it federalism, devolution, or subsidiarity. At which level government power should be held is a debate that will never end.

What about Trump’s de-centralizing tendency makes him populist, then? And why did some people buy into it in a way they hadn’t when establishment Republicans offered the same arguments? Essentially, it is because many voters stopped believing that Republicans actually want to transfer power away from Washington. They were right to do so.

The political theory of federalism is deep in the Republican Party’s DNA, but those genes are often suppressed by the tendency, once in office, to accumulate power rather than dispersing it. Federalism is a part of Republicans’ “nature,” but every politician’s “nurture” is to grab whatever dominion he can reach. Until now, nurture has been winning.

It still may be winning. As with many things, it is too early to tell whether Trump will drain the swamp or become a creature of it. What is different this time for many American voters is the belief that Trump, a person so removed from the normal run of politician, might be the one to smash the political machine instead of taking the controls and running it for himself. Early efforts at deregulation hint at this possibility being real. Someone so different from official Washington might not even want to wield the levers of power. That is the populist ideal: a civilian Cincinnatus who takes power only to disperse it.

Power-to-the-people populism is more than a slogan or an attitude. It is a grassroots expression of a timeless argument, and one that drew many voters to Trump. That is nothing to sneeze at, and Republicans intent on winning their own elections should bear it in mind. They have been speaking of federalism for years. To benefit from the populist upswell, they must also convince voters that it means more to them than a means of getting into office.

Non-Ideological Ideology

In other ways, it is difficult to apply ideological rigor to populism, because much of what the people want in populism is a rejection of ideology. People who are sick of politics as usual are often also sick of ideology. For people who say they want a candidate who speaks from the heart and doesn’t care about micro-offenses or focus groups, ideology is not particularly relevant. That leads to a level of philosophical incoherence that most politicians will not tolerate in themselves. For Trump, and for armchair populists, it is not a problem.

That is a hard thing for the political class—including pundits—to understand. Much of politics these days is an effort to avoid self-contradiction, and much of journalism is focused on exposing it. As traditional morality fades among the secular elite, the only true sin that remains is hypocrisy.

For a class that prides itself on not judging people’s private lives, all that is left to shame in others is a failure to uphold the virtues they have publicly trumpeted. That makes it easier for politicos on the Left who, having eschewed traditional morality for years, now cannot be accused of violating it. You have to have morals to be a hypocrite.

Trump embraces his own contractions in a way that is shocking to someone who lives by a moral code, but should be nonetheless familiar to anyone who has conversed with the sort of average Joe who yells about politics. Similarly, Trump’s Twitter-trolling of athletes and celebrities seemingly serves no purpose, ideological or otherwise, but it should be familiar to anyone on social media as typical of a certain kind of person.

Talk to your biggest loudmouth friend or relative long enough, and he will eventually spout some nonsense that contradicts the other nonsense he said an hour ago. What’s more: he doesn’t care. Campaign advisors and focus groups weed out that sort of thing from a candidate’s platform before it gets to the voters’ ears. Your average blusterer—like our current president—does not care how many multitudes he contains, nor how they contradict each other. That non-ideology is an ideology of sorts, though it is easier to proclaim it in a campaign than to bring into practice in governing.

Rebirth of Romanticism

The choice to reject ideology is, itself, an ideological choice. Like the debate between localizers and centralizers, it is also an old one. It is one reason that populism, with its rejection of intricate central planning, has shifted from the Left to the Right, because central planning is a central tenet of modern leftist ideology. Old-time slogans of the far Left like the nineteenth-century Russian anarchists’ demand for “Land and Liberty” now feel far more at home at a Trump rally.

Our political system is a product of the Enlightenment and the rational thinkers who dreamed of a system of the world that avoided emotion and built upon pure reason. But the generation that followed them—including the people who elected Jackson—were steeped in a different tradition: Romanticism.

To dismiss populism as simple anger or frustration is a mistake, and risks undervaluing a serious force in American politics.

Romanticism was explicitly a rejection of the cold, universal logic of the Enlightenment and accepted emotion as a source of authority. In politics, this can lead to throw-the-bums-out populism as well as to nationalism, which emerged for the first time in Jackson’s day as a powerful force in world affairs. It has never left us, despite the generational predictions of its demise. Although it did not reject reason entirely, Romanticism legitimized the idea of intuition and feeling in politics.

The idea of American exceptionalism has a Romantic component. The belief in this country as a special place with a special destiny cannot be explained within the limits of reason alone. It is something that has reason—our system of laws, and our founding principles are indeed unique and demonstrably good—but it also has an emotional component that springs from our belief in ourselves and our vision of the future. It is unsurprising that President Obama rejected this idea, and it is equally unsurprising that President Trump accepts it. Nationalism, and all Romanticism, is more likely to appeal to a populist than an establishment figure.

There is an attitude here, but it is wrong to dismiss it as merely that and nothing more. The emotion of populism cannot be tracked through the logical arguments of a more standard ideology, but that does not mean it is not real, nor that it should be condemned.

Emotion is a part of our humanity. The feelings that swell in our hearts at the sight of the flag, the triumph of our Olympic athletes, or the march of our armies: all of it is real. It has been given mere lip service by politicians recently, but it is true for millions of Americans, many of them Trump voters.

Is any of this ideology? No, but it is more than mere attitude. To dismiss populism as simple anger or frustration is a mistake, and risks undervaluing a serious force in American politics. Much of Trumpian populism is in line with the conservative tradition, and all of it is something meaningful to millions. It is a power that both major parties will have to reckon with for years to come.