Senator Mike Lee: Conservatives and Populists Are Natural Partners

The campaign season and particularly the election of Donald Trump has exposed in higher resolution some of the fault lines within the GOP. The same fault lines exist in the Democrat party but winning has a way of exposing divisions in a way that losing never can.


Probably the first inkling came in 2008 when large number of Bush voters abandoned John McCain for the opioid called “hope and change.” That should have been a hint that something big was at play. The Tea Party rage of 2010 was the clearest sign that many conservatives and all of the GOP establishment feared the Tea Party much more than they feared being a minority party in Congress. In fact, Boehner and McConnell did everything but proclaim that from the top of the Washington Monument. In 2014 we witnessed the shameful spectacle of the GOP openly courting Democrat voters in primary elections to defeat popular insurgent candidates. Even though the energized voters of 2010 and 2014 were portrayed nearly everywhere as conservatives, looking back it is clear that the impulse was populist and the exact same impulse that put Trump in the White House.

Utah Senator Mike Lee has a useful piece in National Review that explains why conservatives shouldn’t fear populism.

While congressional Republicans tend to identify as conservatives, President-elect Donald Trump is a populist. Many observers, including some Republicans, see this as an un-squareable circle.

I disagree. For all the challenges a President Trump may present conservatives during his term, his populism need not be one of them. Far from contradictory, conservatism and populism complement each other in ways that can change history — as did the most successful populist in recent decades, Ronald Reagan.

The chief political weakness of conservatism is its difficulty identifying problems that are appropriate for political correction. Conservatism’s view of human nature and history teaches us that problems are inevitable in this world and that attempts to use government to solve them often only make things worse.

This insight actually makes us good at finding solutions. At our best, conservatives craft policy reforms that empower bottom-up, trial-and-error problem-solving and the institutions that facilitate it, such as markets and civil society. At our worst, though, we can seem indifferent to suffering and injustice because we overlook problems that require our action or resign ourselves to their insolvability.

Populists, on the other hand, have an uncanny knack for identifying social problems. It’s when pressed for solutions that populists tend to reveal their characteristic weakness. Unable to draw on a coherent philosophy, populists can tend toward inconsistent or unserious proposals.

The rough terms of a successful partnership seem obvious. Populism identifies the problems; conservatism develops the solutions; and President Trump oversees the process with a veto pen that keeps everyone honest. Call it “principled populism”: an authentic conservatism focused on solving the problems that face working Americans in a fracturing society and globalizing economy.


He goes on to explore how conservatives and populists can work together on trade and immigration to achieve the best outcome. In his view, and I agree with it, the first priority has to be ensuring that our border is secure and that penalties attach to hiring illegal aliens. Once we’ve taken steps to ensure American workers and communities aren’t damaged by illegal immigration, then we can look at how to improve the immigration system. Lee is a fan of free trade but he’s enough of an adult to realize that when nations use the absence of tariffs to dump products from state owned industries in America (here, we’d be looking at you, China), then you no longer have free trade.

As principled populists, Republicans would not only apply conservative insights to solve discrete problems but also anchor conservatism to the Constitution and radically decentralize Washington’s policymaking power. The new Congress should seize back its Article I legislative authority, ideally with President Trump’s help. Only by putting Congress back in charge of federal lawmaking can Trump make good on his promise to put the American people back in charge of Washington.

And as quickly as Congress recovers its policy portfolio, we should transfer as much of it as possible to the states. The election map once again showed how divided our nation is. To those who would centralize power, this diversity is an obstacle. But constitutional populists can make diversity a real strength by liberating blue and red states alike from the arbitrary rule of an imperial president. Let states, cities, and towns govern themselves, according to their own values. Let every community engage in the global economy on its own terms, prioritizing growth, economic security, environmental protection, social solidarity, or whatever else inspires its civic spirit. In this way, the people will be empowered to protect their own interests from hubristic elites even after this Trumpian era ends.


Will this work? I have my doubts. Too many conservatives have spent too much time belittling Trump, his voters, and the concerns of his voters for a lot of them to ever sign on to this program. Many conservatives are actually liberal Democrats who spout conservative talking points and they are as fearful of federalism and the autonomy of the people as any big city machine Democrat. No small numnber are simply petulant losers and would rather see the next four years an abject failure that any measure of success by Trump. Trump’s faction is beset with the same “I won” hubris that Obama brought into the White House in 2009. They are, rightfully, angry and bitter at the way they have been, and still are being, portrayed by many conservatives and it may be quite a while before they are in the mood to cooperate.

In short, Lee offers an adult vision for how the two ill-matched bedmates, conservatism and populism, can make a better nation. I’m just not convinced there are enough adults about to make it happen.

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