The plight of Sen. Josh Hawley, Republican of Missouri, has devolved into a cautionary tale with an unmistakable moral: If you want to become the primary keeper of the flame of Trumpism, you risk getting badly burned.

Hawley hoped to become chief steward of a respectable version of Donald Trump’s “conservative populism.” But, given Trump’s hold over GOP voters, Hawley gambled that leading the former president’s effort to overturn the election in Congress would secure instant national prominence. Ever since that effort incited the insurrection, Hawley has been furiously working to erase its stain.

This tale demonstrates how Trump’s continued grip on the GOP is complicating the salvaging of a constructive agenda from the wreckage of the Trump presidency. Instead of carrying out that mission, Hawley is gaining scrutiny for his ridiculous defenses of his enabling of an unprecedented assault on our democracy grounded in QAnon-level crackpottery.

But this Trump effect is also creating a big opening — one that President Biden and Democrats, intentionally or not, are already rushing to fill, with potentially lasting consequences for our politics.

A new Biden synthesis?

In the early policy moves we’re seeing from Biden and Democrats, a pattern is emerging: They might be developing an answer to the Trump years and, more broadly, to Trumpist populism.

We might be seeing the development of a new policy synthesis. It seeks to be both more progressive and populist on economics and more unabashedly ambitious on issues that are supposed to be difficult for mainstream Democrats — race, immigration, climate change — than they have recently been willing to risk.

Biden just rolled out new executive orders designed to combat racial inequities, including one strengthening measures against discrimination in housing. This comes after Biden canceled (pun intended) Trump’s report downplaying the legacy of slavery in U.S. history.

President Biden on Jan. 26 outlined his executive orders to tackle racial injustices and promote equity. (The Washington Post)

While anti-discrimination activists say much more is needed, we’re about to see a comprehensive reversal of Trump’s racist legacy. Biden is expected to fully overhaul the Justice Department’s approach to civil rights and police brutality so it much more aggressively combats systemic racism.

Meanwhile, Biden has rolled out a very ambitious immigration-reform agenda. It includes legalizing millions of undocumented immigrants, returning to pre-Trump levels of asylum and refugee flows, and major investments in mitigating root causes of migrations in Central America.

This, too, is a diametric turnaround from Trump. It breaks with cruelty-as-deterrence and assumes asylum-seeking families can be managed. It restores human rights and faith in international solutions as guiding lights. It treats immigrants primarily as assets and not as either criminals or vague threats to native wages or cagily constructed communitarian ideals.

Biden also rejoined the Paris climate agreement and just announced new executive orders that will place combating systemic environmental racism at the center of his climate agenda.

Meanwhile, as labor writer Rich Yeselson outlines, Biden is already putting forth a surprisingly ambitious pro-labor agenda, one that prioritizes boosting unions and worker power. Biden has also proposed a $1.9 trillion stimulus package. Democrats just introduced a proposal for a $15-per-hour minimum wage.

Biden has pledged to invoke the Defense Production Act to a far greater degree than Trump to fight the coronavirus, with an emphasis on getting help to rural Trump country. Biden has signaled the wartime mobilization that Trump only pantomimed.

A challenge to conservative populism

If successful, such a combination could pose a serious challenge to conservative populism. It could show that progressive populist economics — a serious expansion of activist government — and ambitious actions on race, immigration and climate can make for a potent combination.

Perhaps the lead promoter of a conservative populist future is Ross Douthat of the New York Times. In a new column, he argues that Trump is now doing great damage to its future possibilities.

Though Trump lost the election, Douthat argues, his enduring coalition shows that a conservative populism shorn of his catastrophic failures and plutocratic sellouts could command a majority, and with it a “pan-ethnic, working-class future for the GOP.”

But, Douthat argues, Trump’s post-presidency is redefining Trumpist populism as nothing more than loyalty to his cult of victimization and to the myth of the election’s illegitimacy.

The result, Douthat predicts, is that “sincere economic populists” will watch helplessly as Biden steals their issues with his own populist moves, even as the GOP increasingly bets on Trumpist candidates whose only agenda is “owning the libs and dog whistling to the QAnoners.”

Similarly, Aaron Sibarium posits that the continued Trump effect threatens to lock Republicans in a posture of performative “anti-leftism,” or opposition to the constellation of enemies (the media, woke academics, Big Tech, the Squad) that define Trumpism.

All this is fair enough. But it may understate the true nature of this moment’s threat to conservative populism.

Underlying conservative populism is the idea that a latent majority favors a combination of populist economics and hostility to immigration and internationalism. But there isn’t much evidence for this. Trump lost the popular vote twice and never reached 50 percent approval. Majorities back comprehensive immigration reform and favor robust governmental and international action on climate.

And during the protests over the summer, Biden found an approach that disagreed with his own party’s radical policing proposals but also fully embraced the protests more frontally than any Democratic nominee in recent decades. It worked.

And so, a truly powerful antidote to conservative populism may come if Biden can successfully synthesize left populist economics with a refusal to retreat on issues once seen as dangerously alienating to White voters. As Samuel Moyn suggests, the real route to rehabilitating mainstream liberalism may be in finding new fusions with leftist politics. This is one form that could take.

None of this means Biden will succeed. Biden might trade away ambitious stimulus to get bipartisan cooperation or otherwise fall short of a truly progressive economic agenda. His immigration agenda might stall. The embrace of civil rights could cause an anti-woke backlash.

But if Biden’s emerging synthesis can get results, that might constitute a far more dire threat to the future of a respectable Trumpism than Trump himself ever does.

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