The Nihilism at the Heart of Trumpian Populism
The National Conservatism Conference wants to impose ideological coherence on Trumpism. That may be impossible.
The second ever National Conservatism Conference took place a few weeks ago. David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, attended the event. And what he saw terrified him.
This reaction is understandable: Brooks’s conservatism is a very different model than the one presented at the conference. His detractors on the right would contend that the single biggest weakness of Brooks’s brand of conservatism is its near total lack of any discernibly conservative positions. But those of us who find in Brooks’s version a far saner alternative to the ascendant conservatism of the past half-decade would likely come away from the event just as rattled.
In his write-up for The Atlantic, Brooks begins with a mini-profile of Rachel Bovard, a conservative activist.
One of the ideas [Bovard has] absorbed is that the conservatives who came before her were insufferably naive. They thought liberals and conservatives both want what’s best for America, disagreeing only on how to get there. But that’s not true, she believes. “Woke elites—increasingly the mainstream left of this country—do not want what we want,” she told the National Conservatism Conference. … “What they want is to destroy us,” she said. “Not only will they use every power at their disposal to achieve their goal,” but they’ve already been doing it for years “by dominating every cultural, intellectual, and political institution.” …
Bovard has the place rocking, training her sights on the true enemies, the left-wing elite: a “totalitarian cult of billionaires and bureaucrats, of privilege perpetuated by bullying, empowered by the most sophisticated surveillance and communications technologies in history, and limited only by the scruples of people who arrest rape victims’ fathers, declare math to be white supremacist, finance ethnic cleansing in western China, and who partied, a mile high, on Jeffrey Epstein’s Lolita Express.” …
Progressives pretend to be the oppressed ones, she tells the crowd, “but in reality, it’s just an old boys’ club, another frat house for entitled rich kids contrived to perpetuate their unearned privilege. It’s Skull and Bones for gender-studies majors!” She finishes to a rousing ovation. People leap to their feet.
I have the sinking sensation that the thunderous sound I’m hearing is the future of the Republican Party.
Brooks calls Bovard’s speech “the best synopsis of national conservatism I’ve heard at the conference.”
The only problem with Brooks’s evaluation is there isn’t anything particularly nationalist in Bovard’s distillation. What Bovard describes is just the latest iteration of the infinitely malleable political sensibility known as Trumpian populism. That, not nationalism, is the movement’s animating ethos.
When the first National Conservatism conference took place in 2019, I gave it some stick for being a post hoc attempt at backfilling ideological coherence into a movement that was always destined to be philosophically inchoate. (I also criticized it for giving a platform to Amy Wax’s astonishingly racist presentation in which she argued that, moving forward, America will be “better off with more whites and fewer non-whites.”)
That’s one of the problems with having Trumpian populism as your starting point: its animating impulse is a feeling rather than a principle, a profound sense of cultural displacement, a rapacious fury against liberal elites. Because of this, because it lacks an underlying substrate and is merely the overspill of an intense collective furor against “establishment forces,” Trumpian populism can neither permanently rule out nor rule in any particular policy. That’s because, again, every policy in existence is potentially capable of either owning the libs (in which case it’s worth provisionally embracing) or helping the libs (in which case it’s studiously forbidden).
This is why the Republican Party didn’t even bother providing an official platform in 2020. They just pointed to their 2016 party platform and said, whatever, just go with that one. It’s no surprise, then, that the second National Conservatism Conference was unable to furnish us with a definitive conceptualization of post-2016 conservatism.
National Review’s Nate Hochman pleads for patience:
It is understandable that such details have not yet come into focus, given the relative newness of the political movement. But these things must be ironed out if the national conservatives are to be an ideologically coherent, politically effective force going into 2022, 2024, and beyond.
They may well go on to be politically effective, but I suspect they’ll never be ideologically coherent.
If I’m right that the core of the conservative movement is populism rather than nationalism, a reactive own-the-libs aesthetic rather than a substantive vision of national greatness, then it’s possible the movement never becomes capable of anything even approximating “ideological coherence.”
Hochman acknowledges that this tracks the shape of Trump’s presidency:
Despite Donald Trump’s role in initiating the GOP’s move towards a more aesthetically nationalist politics, the former president’s legislative record does not offer an entirely coherent policy platform. While in office, Trump routinely focused on ever-changing personal squabbles; meanwhile, his policy agenda at times seemed to reflect the priorities of Jared Kushner and Mitch McConnell over those of his national-conservative backers. Depending on whom you ask, the America First agenda is everything from immigration restriction to criminal-justice reform; from tariffs to tax cuts; from socially libertine “Barstool conservatism” to Catholic integralism; from culture-war hawkishness on critical race theory and identity politics to the Platinum Plan and urban-opportunity zones. …
The challenge for the young national-conservative project is to formulate an actionable policy agenda without betraying important first principles or straying toward the more radically anti-American statism of certain fellow travelers. …
The answer to these questions requires substantive, detailed policy thinking.
But “substantive, detailed policy thinking” is downstream from a substantive theory of the state, from a substantive vision for society. Sure, there are ways to construe “national conservatism” or an “America First” platform in an ideologically coherent way—but the people these labels represent only account for a portion of the Trump coalition. If there is a genuine core to post-2016 conservatives, a vision that unites all Trump voters, it’s that of a country completely rid of liberal influence, of Democrats fully disempowered, of uninterrupted Republican dominance.
That’s not a substantive vision so much as a reactionary posture, a “we’re against whatever they’re for” culture war stance.
This is what most animates the MAGA electorate: their hatred of Democrats. Sure, they were for a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border and they wanted a less interventionist foreign policy, to give just two examples. But what’s interesting is you could easily imagine their opinions completely shifting if, say, Democrats started to vigorously back these initiatives. That’s what I mean when I say they have no positive political vision. What most activates their political energies is being able to counter a Democratic initiative or value.
This policy nihilism is perfectly encapsulated by Trump’s attacks on Biden’s newly-passed infrastructure package.
While in office, Trump repeatedly tried to strike an infrastructure deal, an agenda item that was less liked by many of his senior aides and conservative Republicans. He imagined going across the country and attending events for infrastructure projects, talking about his work as a builder, said former aides who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the private conversations. While “infrastructure week” was a joke to many, it was a topic Trump brought up somewhat regularly, these former aides said.
But for Trump and many Republicans, their love of infrastructure has turned to loathing now that it bears Biden’s imprimatur.
Trump understandably wishes he had been the one to pass an infrastructure bill. But in the end it was the party that had been playing up the importance of a national infrastructure boost for a long time that got it done. This is the problem with trying to turn what political scientists call negative partisanship into a governing strategy: sure, an “own the libs” anti-platform can get you into office, but then you need governing acumen to translate that into policy wins.
Populism is the perfect engine for harnessing the power of negative partisanship all the way to electoral glory. But once it’s time to govern, the populist regime is clueless about how to proceed within a state apparatus requiring a bewildering measure of administrative and policy competence.
Populism by design channels the grievances of “the folk” against the predations of the establishment, of the elites. But denigrating political experience and technocratic skill ends up torpedoing its own ruling effectiveness. As Tom Nichols recently put it: “Populism is an excellent vehicle for motivating an angry population, but it’s a lousy path to better government.”
Trumpian populism in particular has no ideological fixity. There is no comprehensive vision; there is only the conversion of various social ills into elite resentment. After that, there is nothing. It’s just lib-owning—forever.
Madison Cawthorn, the first term congressman from North Carolina who just offered a freshly-acquitted Kyle Rittenhouse an internship, made lib-owning the centerpiece of his strategy as an elected official. That’s not my critical gloss on Cawthorn as a politician—it’s what he really did. Rather than hire policy analysts, Cawthorn filled his office with comms people.
And why not, right? Despite being a central function of legislative politics, an “own the libs” platform has little need for policy expertise. Politicians of this stripe offer culture war belligerence in lieu of a policy program. It’s “He fights!” all the way down.
Or “She fights!”—when Laura Loomer ran for congressional office, there’s not a person alive who could’ve told you a single policy initiative she favored. But that’s just it: policy is often the wrong evaluative category by which to analyze populist provocateurs.
So long as the movement remains engrossed by puerile lib owning, it will find itself unable to move past TPUSA-level stunt design. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (whom I’ve described as “far better than Trump”) recently held a press conference at Brandon Honda in Brandon, Florida—an allusion to the coded anti-Biden message “Let’s Go Brandon.” I mean, fine, whatever, go wild. You may even win this way. But there’s a massive difference, a difference that shows up when it’s time to legislate and govern and do all the things that elected officials do, between activating voters primarily by promising to destroy libs than activating them by promising to build things.
The organizing principle of the MAGA right is not this idea or that, it’s not a set of policies or a substantive vision of social flourishing, it’s not a positive conception of the good. It’s a political movement whisked into material reality out of the boundless conservative energy that exists to own the libs. That’s all it’s ever been, and so long as Trump remains its leader, it’s all it’ll ever be.