Whither the Conservative Populists?

In places big and small, including Whitewater, there are three main types of conservatives: traditional, transactional, and populist. (Right-wing populist in our time is mostly a euphemism for Trumpist.) Of these types, only the right-wing populists are a dynamic movement. Traditional conservatives each day look more like large reptiles after a cataclysmic meteor strike, and the much smaller population of transactional conservatives, like creatures of the order Blattodeaare suited to move slowly & methodically even after a meteor strike, a nuclear war, whatever.

By its nature, a populist movement requires a meaningful number of people, agitated with specific concerns or grievances.  It’s an impatient, insistent, and histrionic perspective, demanding immediate action on its socio-economic grievances.

So, where’s conservative populism headed?

For Thomas Edsall, Trump’s Cult of Animosity Shows No Sign of Letting Up:

In 2016, Donald Trump recruited voters with the highest levels of animosity toward African Americans, assembling a “schadenfreude” electorate — voters who take pleasure in making the opposition suffer — that continues to dominate the Republican Party, even in the aftermath of the Trump presidency.

With all his histrionics and theatrics, Trump brought the dark side of American politics to the fore: the alienated, the distrustful, voters willing to sacrifice democracy for a return to white hegemony. The segregationist segment of the electorate has been a permanent fixture of American politics, shifting between the two major parties.


Trump has mobilized and consolidated a cohort that now exercises control over the Republican Party, a renegade segment of the electorate, perhaps as large as one-third of all voters, which disdains democratic principles, welcomes authoritarian techniques to crush racial and cultural liberalism, seeks to wrest away the election machinery and suffers from the mass delusion that Trump won last November.

Regardless of whether Trump runs again, he has left an enormous footprint — a black mark — on American politics, which will stain elections for years to come.

By contrast, Yascha Mounk contends that We Might Have Reached Peak Populism:

But we can’t forget how much worse things could be right now—and what a major achievement it was for Joe Biden to have defeated Donald Trump. America booted an authoritarian populist from office in a free and fair election at the conclusion of his first term.

For those who are interested in the fate of liberal democracy around the world, that triumph raises a key question: Was Trump’s loss an aberration owed to specifically American factors? Or did it portend the beginning of a more difficult period for authoritarian populists around the world—one in which they might be held accountable for their many mistakes and misdeeds?

But you could also make the case for optimism. Recent developments in Europe and Latin America suggest that some of the populists and antidemocratic leaders who have dominated the political landscape for the past decade might finally be encountering serious trouble. If the picture looked almost unremittingly bleak a few years ago, now distinct patches of hope are on the horizon.

As for where conservative populists are likely to make themselves felt (in Whitewater or elsewhere), it’s likely to be where

(1) they can find emotional issues to motivate their adherents,

(2) they have the greatest contempt for their opponents,

(3) the best chance of convincing – often deceiving – others into thinking populism is a majority opinion, and

(4) where others are weakest in their responses to rightwing populism’s claims (‘[p]eople aren’t inclined to do for a politician what he won’t do for himself. Advancing and defending are not assurances of re-election, but their absence makes defeat likely. It has been a tumultuous year; passivity is not a winning response to tumult.’)

It’s a reasonable guess that there will be tumultuous days ahead.

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