If the Republican Party is “populist,” then where are the people? GOP politicians more and more relish the pose of tribune of the ordinary man and woman, but little has changed in the ideological makeup of their party. The Republican platform remains, overwhelmingly, a blueprint for enhancing oligarchy. Populism on the right is more of a political affect than a system of commitments to righting the wrongs done to six-pack Joe.

“Populism” came about as an implicit rebuke to the vision elite conservatives had devised for reconstituting a more competitive Republican Party. Where their losing 2012 nominee, Mitt Romney, had bellowed about “self-deportation,” a new wave of Republicans would champion comprehensive immigration reform and revamp the party’s aesthetics to make them more multicultural. The model politicians for all this was Marco Rubio, who spent the months after Mitt Romney’s defeat whipping votes for a large bipartisan immigration overhaul.

The elite believed in Rubio, but the base wanted something with a hard, mean edge. And to their rescue came Donald J. Trump. Almost from the outset, observers described Trump as a “populist” politician, and to the extent that populism exists as a political style, Trump’s rage against “real” America’s purported enemies could plausibly have taken on the populist mantle. But from the start, Trump’s concrete political program was every bit as orthodox and hard-line in its emphasis on enriching the rich as a Club for Growth strategy memo.

As early as the summer of 2015, Trump proposed a tax plan that gave even larger tax reductions to the wealthy than his more conventionally conservative opponents would have distributed. When Trump got elected president due to James Comey’s ill-timed intervention, Trump followed the path blazed by orthodox right-wingers (who themselves were faithfully following a path blazed by Ronald Reagan himself). In a direct repudiation of his promise to give people “better” healthcare, Trump attempted to pass austerity legislation removing health coverage from 22 million people. When that failed, he and his policy Rasputin, the Randian fanatic Paul Ryan, jammed through an unpopular tax cut that gave almost all of its benefits to the wealthiest Americans. Early in the legislative process, Republicans tried to eliminate tax credits for student-loan payments and the adoption of orphans.

The policy commitments of the party’s more self-conscious “populists” are no more coherent. Senator Josh Hawley told a podcast host that he would have voted for the Trump tax cut. Hawley’s dour colleague Tom Cotton, another “populist,” happens to be a hardcore minimal-government conservative who once expressed the belief that a debt-default, and the epic suffering that would entail, might actually serve as the moral tonic a freeloading nation deserved. Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida began his political career as a Tea Party anti-tax ultra, and there is little to suggest that he has changed his mind on economic policy by a single iota.

True, a coterie of right-wing intellectuals has emerged to craft a “populist” agenda for the purportedly new GOP. But to the extent that these people (nearly all men) have a signature idea, it’s to expand the Child Tax Credit. The trouble for them is that President Biden did expand the Child Tax Credit, and every single Republican voted against it. Mitt Romney’s similar plan for a “child allowance” has picked up minimal support from his Republican colleagues, almost all of whom would rather rage against inflation in an effort to regain power so they can pass another round of regressive tax cuts and business-friendly deregulation.

What’s behind this fraud? Partly, the Republican donor class. GOP oligarchs hold extremely conservative views on economic policy, and in this donor-beholden era a Republican politician would risk defunding his own campaign by transgressing the taboos donors have set against tax increases or labor laws. But the more important factor is that the people behind this fraud are largely frauds themselves. People like DeSantis and Cotton really want to be president and have bound themselves to the populist fad in order to bamboozle uneducated primary voters into signing onto campaigns that are marked with little if any sincerity. Heaven knows it’s worked before.


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