Is the Future of the GOP a More Polished Populism?

At his CPAC speech in Orlando Sunday, former President Donald Trump hinted he might run again, putting to rest speculation he was out of the game and giving those who simply cannot quit him fodder for the next four years. But on a second issue that many were curious about, he did more than hint: he straight up announced he had no interest in starting a third party to espouse the tenets of “Trumpism.”

“We are not starting a new party…we have the Republican Party [and] it is going to unite and be stronger than ever before,” Trump said. “I am not starting a new party; that was fake news. Wouldn’t that be brilliant? Let’s start a new party and divide our vote so you can never win? We are not interested in that.”

This is an important point because many have been wondering — within the establishment GOP as well as those who found a kindred spirit in the conservatism of Donald Trump — if there was room for the Trump faithful in the traditional GOP. After all, Trump tends to speak directly to, and professes to work on behalf of, the voters themselves. Establishment types call this populism, and not often in a complimentary way. Trump’s base, on the other hand, believes it’s simply the way politicians should behave.

An interesting article from The Conversation postulates there may, in fact, be room for Trumpism in the established GOP, just a less in-your-face version of it. They call it “polished populism” and it’s, theoretically, a blending of the two.

The contemporary conservatism associated with Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and George W. Bush in the 2000s has several facets and factions, but it can be summed up in the phrase, “You keep what you earn, it’s a dangerous world, and God is good.”

The economic, national defense and social conservatives of previous decades tended to agree that human nature is untrustworthy and society is fragile, so the U.S. needs to defend against external enemies and internal decline.

Populist conservatism accepts those views but adds something different: the interests and perceptions of “ordinary” people against “elites.” So populism rejects the notion of a natural aristocracy of wealth and education, replacing it with the idea that people it considers elites, including career politicians, bureaucrats, journalists and academics, have been promoting their own interests at the expense of regular folk.

That’s not a bad summation, really, and it acknowledges what’s happened to the Republican Party as it morphs into the party of the working class, something Democrats have always considered their purview. There are plenty of current GOP leaders — Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, for example — who have embraced this new direction. Others have most decidedly rejected it. Wyoming Republican Rep. Liz Cheney comes to mind (she also happened to be one of a number of GOP politicians Trump named onstage at CPAC as members of the sitting GOP that should be repudiated).

The Conversation piece acknowledges the divide between the two conservative approaches and frames the differences in terms of personality and rhetoric, specifically pointing out that Trump’s way of speaking breaks with tradition and embraces an effective but coarser use of language, “more like a guy in a bar.”

But when it comes to the policy preferences, well, they’re nearly indistinguishable.

Polished populists take a different approach, arguing for the same policies that Trump did – limiting immigration, redistributing wealth toward the working class rather than just the poor, opposing the woke policies of social justice movements, promoting “America First” foreign and trade policies – but without his overtly antagonistic language.

Some Republicans are now arguing for a rejection of populism and a return to traditional conservatism. Those long-standing GOP priorities include limited government, strong national defense of American interests abroad, religious values and, perhaps most importantly, ordinary political personalities.

Here’s how Trump defined “Trumpism” from CPAC’s main stage Sunday:

“Many people have asked: what is Trumpism?,” he said. “What it means is great deals… not deals [that] give away our jobs. It means low taxes and eliminating job killing regulations. Trumpism means strong borders; people coming into our country based on a system of merit… it means no riots, industry; it means law enforcement. It means very strong protection for the 2nd Amendment, and the right to keep and bear arms. It means support for the forgotten men and women who were taken advantage of for so many years… it means a strong military, taking care of our vets. The mission of our movement and the Republican Party must be to create a future of good jobs, strong families, safe communities, [and] a vibrant and great nation for all Americans… our party is based on love for America and the belief that this is an exceptional nation, blessed by God.”

The Conversation makes a great point that the future of the Republican Party is one with a more populist message that’s delivered in a traditionally politically appropriate style. But if Trump’s CPAC speech is any indication, he’s moving in the direction of a more polished populism himself. Which means that the establishment GOP is going to have to figure out another way to set themselves apart from Trump if they want to win GOP voters back to their style of communicating and, by extension, governing.