During the Paleolithic pre-Internet age when I was a young operative on Capitol Hill, a favorite putdown of Democrats was to call them limousine liberals. The incongruity of rich people professing concern for the poor seemed like axiomatic hypocrisy, and the term came to evoke scenes like Leonard Bernstein throwing a party for the Black Panthers, chronicled in Tom Wolfe’s famous essay “Radical Chic.”
That hurdle of class-based incredulity must now be surmounted by Laura Ingraham, a prominent fixture in the Conservative Media-Entertainment Complex, who’s just released a new book, Billionaire at the Barricades: The Populist Revolution from Reagan to Trump. The title hints at the paradox facing Ingraham, a veteran right-wing radio host and recently assigned anchor of Fox News’s 10 p.m. hour.
Ingraham must first establish the book’s thesis: that billionaire Donald J. Trump, in tune with the best aspects of the GOP since Reagan’s election, is a populist with a workable agenda, and that by remaining a populist he will succeed. On this, she’s an authoritative figure: while the media, along with most of the establishment, dismissed Trump as a joke candidate with no chance of going the distance, she took him seriously and divined that he could win.
Does she prove her contentions? Ingraham is right that the last several decades of U.S. trade policies and the deindustrialization of large tracts of the country gave a candidate claiming to be an America First populist a strong edge. But there is something important she misses: the widespread populist hope that Trump would enact a more circumspect foreign policy, keeping America out of pointless wars abroad, has thus far proven deluded.
Another truth that Ingraham doesn’t get is that Trump is a complete and painstaking construct of the Manhattan news media, the very elites that populism claims to disdain. Thanks to their hype, throughout his career Trump was able to inflate the market value of his name, which he licensed to be sold as an appellation for a host of tacky products. Just as Lehman Brothers’ securities were backed by the grossly exaggerated value of subprime mortgages, the prop to Trump’s empire has been the media-inflated collateral of the Trump moniker.
And during the campaign the media gave him $2 billion worth of free publicity. Les Moonves, chairman of CBS, once the network of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, boasted that Trump’s campaign was “damn good for CBS.”
So Ingraham was correct in seeing Trump’s potential to win, but she flounders in conservative talk show cant attempting to explain his ideological lineage: who the elites are (could they possibly be the same people and institutions that enabled him?), who the populists who oppose those elites are, and how Trump, by any reasonable criteria, can be considered a standard-bearer for populism. What is populism, anyway?
Any ideology that embraces Joe Hill, Huey Long, Tom Joad, Joe the Plumber, and (if we believe the author) Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, Goldman Sachs alumnus Steve Bannon, and Donald Trump, is bound to have a contradictory definition. At bottom it has something to do with being (rhetorically) for the people, against elites, mobilizing the masses to pass an agenda regardless of rule-bound institutions like legislatures and courts, demagogic appeals, and a tendency to evolve into charismatic, one-man rule.
This elastic definition invites endless questions. Is a member of the elite some elderly professor of Elizabethan poetry lecturing to sleepy freshmen at Slippery Rock? Or is it super-predator Carl Icahn, now Trump’s advisor on dismantling restrictions on banks? Does populism mean bringing home the troops and minding our own business? Or does it mean bombing ISIS, threatening North Korea with nuclear war, and confronting Iran? Does populism imply a tendency towards xenophobia? It seems to, but how does that square with doing sword dances with and sucking up to the Saudi royals, for decades the premiere example of the foreign bogeyman in the American heartland?
It is hard to define populism, and it becomes harder to square it with any appraisal of Trump’s record in office. Ingraham’s hope that he will succeed as long as he sticks to his campaign platform, and her warning that he will be repudiated otherwise, becomes a no-fail tautology if she also gets to decide what constitutes a populist agenda.
A cynic would conclude that the term populism, when applied to Republican politics in 2017, means this: keep the rich up, the poor down, foreigners out, and everybody else distracted by scapegoats. Meanwhile, line your pockets at the public trough, as Trump has done with massive Secret Service payments to rent space (even golf carts) at his properties, and fill your top posts with enough billionaires to make George W. Bush’s cabinet look like a Soviet Workers’ Council.
By many estimations, Bernie Sanders was a populist. Would Ingraham have supported Sanders had he become the Democratic nominee and the alternative was some establishment prop like Jeb Bush? No, she is a conservative, an identity that would have overridden her populist pretensions and impelled her to vote, however unwillingly, for Bush. This loyalty becomes clear when she says that Trump should cease his criticism of members of the House Freedom Caucus, the most conservative of the GOP factions.
How do classical Burkean principles of conservatism square with populism? It is hard to reconcile Burke’s speech to the electors of Bristol with any plausible populist beliefs. And hard-shell conservatives insist on their dogged fealty to the U.S. Constitution, whose co-equal legislature and independent judiciary were designed to rein in an over-mighty tribune claiming to speak for the people. It would be equally difficult to see how this conservative constitutional literalism could indulge a leader who threatens a free press exercising its First Amendment rights.
This paradox also applies to the religious right, who make up a large proportion of Republican voters. How do they tolerate a goatish libertine divorcee and philanderer as the incumbent to an office that they claim should serve as a role model and moral lodestar? What compulsion moves them to fawn over the man who delivers a speech to the Boy Scouts—the Boy Scouts!—laden with crudeness and profanity?
The circle is squared by this conclusion: conservatism and populism in America have no fixed meaning at all. At the heart is the Republican Party and its ambitions to gain office and exploit the fruits of power. Conservatism and populism (whatever they may be) are mere advertising slogans to achieve that aim. Populism is the flavor of the day, and those who brand themselves conservatives within the GOP use it as a vehicle to achieve office or, in the case of the party’s Media-Entertainment Complex, as a route to higher ratings and more lucrative book deals.
Orderly governance withers before the need to hang onto power by a party whose skill set is defined by branding rather than ideas. Given the imperative to always feed its propaganda wing to keep the base in a lather, the party eschews boring Civics 101 stuff like legislation, oversight, or sound budgeting. Instead, we see an endless series of stunts: from inviting Ted Nugent, Kid Rock, and Sarah Palin to the White House, to spending a week feuding with the widow of a soldier killed in action, to sending the vice president to a football stadium (at vast taxpayer expense) so he can walk out before the game starts and “prove” something to the Trump base.
At some point, power for its own sake, unmoored to principle, congeals into a cult of personality. Within the Trump base, the leader worship is like nothing else this side of Pyongyang. There was a time when, if a president failed to return a salute by his Marine guard with the proper brio, he was deemed in conservative circles to be dishonoring the military, which they considered a sin against the Holy Ghost. But when Trump publicly mocks an ex-POW over his imprisonment and torture, or is negligent about making calls to bereaved families of those killed in action, it’s somehow completely different.
Nevertheless, books like this play a role in the conservative movement. Aside from their lucrative potential given all the echo-chamber puffery, bulk orders by right-wing foundations, and so forth, they also serve the cause of camouflaging the nature of the operation. They are replete with admonitions on what Politician X must do with “issues” and “policies,” when these are mere branding devices. What matters most is clinging to power and dividing up the spoils.
Mike Lofgren is a former career congressional staff member who served on the House and Senate budget committees. His latest book is The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government.