The 2024 Republican presidential primary is already underway, and the battle to inherit the mantle of Trumpism is at the center of it all. There is no clearer sign of this than the colossally stupid attacks that the would-be Trumpist 2024 hopefuls are already lobbing at President-elect Joe Biden’s nominees.

Case in point: Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas has now debuted a new attack line on Neera Tanden, Biden’s nominee to run the Office of Management and Budget.

Cotton told Fox News that Tanden would rather send relief checks to undocumented immigrants than to American families. This comes after another 2024 Republican hopeful — Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri — attracted widespread scorn for suggesting that Janet Yellen, Biden’s nominee to head the Treasury Department, is simultaneously “corporatist” and driven by “Marxist” impulses.

There is a more respectable way to advance Trumpism’s mantle — under the rubric of what’s usually called “conservative populism” — but early indications are that these folks will seek to distinguish themselves in no small part with race-to-the-bottom gutter Trumpism.

“Neera Tanden has no chance of being confirmed,” Cotton said on Fox on Wednesday morning. “This is a woman who wants Congress to hold up coronavirus relief to the American people so we can give checks to illegal immigrants.”

This is highly misleading, and when you understand how, it becomes obvious that it’s basically an attack on Tanden for the sin of … being a mainstream Democrat.

A silly attack

Cotton’s attack echoes an earlier round of GOP attacks on Democrats for blocking a woefully underfunded GOP stimulus bill this fall. Republicans offered a paltry $300 billion — Democrats wanted $2 trillion — and Democrats opposed that offering on numerous grounds, including its lack of direct payments to all individuals, never mind undocumented immigrants.

As a Reuters fact check demonstrated, Democrats did not block this bill due to its failure to send money to the undocumented.

It’s true that House Democrats did pass a $3 trillion bill last spring (the Heroes Act) that made undocumented immigrants eligible for payments. But so what? The mainstream Democratic position, which is shared by the Center for American Progress (which Tanden runs), is indeed that it would be better to include undocumented immigrants.

But this is for good reason: Many are essential workers helping the country weather the coronavirus crisis, and channeling stimulus spending through them as well will help mitigate our economic crisis.

Regardless, this isn’t the obstacle to getting help to American families. Republicans are the obstacle to this. Democratic and GOP leaders disagree on much bigger fundamentals: whether to include badly needed aid to state governments and direct payments to all individuals.

The Senate GOP leadership opposes those things right now. The idea that it’s somehow disqualifying in an OMB chief to support the widely held Democratic desire for undocumented immigrants to be included is silly. This would disqualify most mainstream Democrats.

Worse, this contains hints as to where Trumpism will be taken by its most ardent 2024-eyeing champions.

What’s next for Trumpism

On Fox News, Cotton also attacked Yellen by claiming that she presided over a “low-growth, stagnant economy that didn’t create the kind of jobs and wages that working class Americans need.”

Yellen was chair of the Federal Reserve during the Barack Obama presidency, which did see a grueling recovery after the Great Recession. Let’s put aside the fact that the Trump economy was almost entirely a continuation of trends inherited from Obama until Trump wrecked it by failing catastrophically on coronavirus.

As Paul Krugman points out, the Obama recovery cited by Cotton was harder than it needed to be in part because of austerity imposed by Republican senators who were actively trying to hurt the country to cripple the Obama presidency.

And during those years Yellen largely got it right by prioritizing fiscal policy to combat the recession and unemployment over worrying about inflation. That’s why many economists see Yellen as a pro-worker choice: While she hasn’t been perfect in those priorities, she’s widely seen as trying to get that balance right in a way that emphasizes benefits to workers.

This is something that self-styled pro-worker conservative populists like Hawley and Cotton should support. But here’s Hawley spouting utter gibberish about how Yellen will sell out American workers on manufactured culture-war grounds:

Others have made short work of this (see Paul Waldman and Jonathan Chait). But I’d like to suggest something else: We could have an actual debate about whether the conservative populism championed by Hawley and Cotton and others of their ilk might find genuine crossover with Biden’s priorities.

Conservative populists, driven by nationalism, support things like industrial policy to build up American manufacturing in the face of the China challenge. Biden has offered his own version of industrial policy, including using federal procurement to stimulate demand for U.S. manufactured goods, investments in technological development, and building medical stockpiles to reduce dependence on China and on vulnerable global supply chains amid emergencies.

No, the overlap isn’t perfect — Biden’s ideas lean more toward investing in clean energy than conservatives might like, and he will seek forms of international cooperation that anti-globalists such as Hawley and Cotton won’t stomach — but there’s potential for fruitful debate here. Biden is now signaling that he may try to build consensus with conservative populists around the idea that competition with China can create common ground for agreement on such industrial policies.

But it seems likely that conservative populists’ main champions — focused on 2024 — will be more preoccupied with feeding Trumpist impulses by playing to the GOP primary bleachers with crude, bad faith nonsense. That will make such debates far less likely. It’s too bad.

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Post Senior Producer Kate Woodsome talks to Americans who voted for Trump, or simply don't feel like denouncing him, about why they feel wrongly scorned. (The Washington Post)

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