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.
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.
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.”
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 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.