But that severing became less and less likely the more Trump made himself the focus of all of right-wing populism’s cultural impulses, which he did with great success. If you felt disdained by the meritocracy or the media, if you felt ignored or sidelined by the power centers on the coasts, or if you feared the revolutionary mood apparent on the left in 2020, then siding with him against his enemies became not just one means to express those sentiments, but the first and only way.
Now this kind of populist loyalty to Trump requires embracing the belief that he just had a landslide election stolen. And as long as that idea defines the right, the space to be a populist who isn’t just working to restore him or his family in 2024 (with all the prospects for Hawley-like debacles such work entails) seems somewhere between cramped and nonexistent.
Over the next few years, this will have two likely implications for the right’s sincere economic populists. First, they will watch the Biden administration poach issues that they once hoped to own, from big tax breaks for families to big spending on domestic infrastructure. Second, they will watch their party nominate self-proclaimed populists, in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Arkansas that should be the base for a working-class conservatism, who are just acolytes for the cult of Trump — figures like Jim Jordan and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, let’s say, with a policy agenda condensed to owning the libs and dog whistling to the QAnoners.
Such a future might seem to vindicate the left-wing view, expressed eloquently by Daniel Luban in a recent Dissent essay, that the general possibility of right-wing economic populism never materializes as specific political reality: “Protracted experience suggests that we should only believe the American right can move left on economics once we’ve witnessed it happen.”
Except this isn’t quite what experience suggests. In fact, the American right usually moves somewhat left on economics when it takes the presidency: George W. Bush’s spending habits were to the left of the Newt Gingrich-era Congress’s, just as Trump’s loose-money policies and abandonment of entitlement reform were to the left of the Obama-era G.O.P.’s. (Even Ronald Reagan wasn’t really a limited-government Reaganite of the sort his own cult recalls.)
It’s more accurate to amend Luban’s point and say that the American right doesn’t usually move leftward on economics in a thoughtful, coherent and sustainable way — that the move is usually ad hoc, undercooked and cheerfully unprincipled, which makes it more likely to be abandoned once the party is out of power, treated as rubble instead of a foundation.
This is the problem that conservative policy thinkers and the occasional farsighted politician have sought to solve: If the party’s move to the center is inevitable, why not make it sustainable and serious and effective at achieving conservative goals?