Does Conservative Populism Exist?

Having just read Matt Purple’s comments on The American Conservative as to why “Bannonism will live on,” I thought I’d weigh in as a critical observer of what now passes for the “conservative movement.”

Like Bannon, I have generally chastised that movement from the right.  But like Mr. Purple, I find President Trump’s erstwhile adviser downright inept in selling his conservative populist message.  Bannon has behaved like an egomaniac, who viciously turned on the president he was supposed to be assisting.  He couldn’t even serve the populist cause he purports to believe in without making it entirely about himself.  Some of Bannon’s more widely publicized political choices, such as favoring Judge Roy Moore for the vacant senatorial seat in Alabama, are a case in point.  His involvement in that race gave him ample opportunity to exhibit himself on camera, in his bag man attire and four-o’clock shadow.  But we know how disastrous that race turned out.  Despite his supposedly persuasive rhetoric, moreover, I don’t think I’ve ever heard Bannon say anything memorable or notably coherent.

My criticism goes beyond Bannon’s demeanor and extends to the populist brand that he’s selling.  Although I’m not categorically against the right embracing populist tactics, I just don’t think these tools can work well in the U.S.

Populism assumes a high degree of homogeneity, cultural, historic, and ethnic, among the “majority” to whom a populist leader appeals.  The white working-class base that Bannon and Trump have targeted includes no more than about 35% of the voting population, and at least that number of voters and probably more are allied to the cultural and social left.

Bannon, Stephen Miller, and the American Greatness crowd are always claiming they’ll bring American blacks into their populist alliance.  But in Alabama and Virginia, black turnout for Democratic statewide candidates, in what was at least partly an expression of anti-Trump sentiment, was over 95%.  It doesn’t matter that Trump’s policies have helped blacks and hispanics economically.  There’s no indication that help is even minimally appreciated, and even less that racial minorities are running to join an expanding populist alliance.  Ditto for college-educated, upwardly mobile women, who are running toward the social-cultural left in droves.  Despite the continuing protests of pro-Trump populist websites against the legalization of DACA DREAMers, 69% of American adults polled in favor this measure.  Although there may be good reasons to oppose the legalization, “the people” and the democratic will are not among them.

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