Empire populism

The Republican party of Kentucky has approved a rule change that will allow Rand Paul to run for president while seeking reelection to the Senate. That’s the good news for Sen. Paul. The bad news is that, according to the RCP poll average, Paul’s share of the GOP vote stands at 4.3 percent. This puts him a three-way tie for 8th place with Mike Huckabee and John Kasich.

That’s quite a comedown for the one-time darling of the Tea Party movement.

Paul’s plight is only the most dramatic case of a struggling Tea Party favorite. Marco Rubio, swept into the Senate against the odds as a Tea Party hero in 2010, is in 5th place at 7.3 percent. He’s tied with another Tea Party hero, Ted Cruz.

What happened? Donald Trump happened. His share of GOP support currently exceeds that of Paul, Rubio, and Cruz combined. He is now the “populist choice” as far as Republicans are concerned.

As Rand Paul has complained, Trump’s views deviate vastly from the Tea Party’s limited government agenda that defined GOP populism in 2010. Trump once favored Canadian-style socialized medicine, and still does not object to it in principle.

Moreover, George Will points out that Trump’s mass deportation plan and his proposal to seize money that illegal immigrants try to send home entail a major increase in the size and the role of the federal government. Trump also favors vast eminent domain powers

Clearly, Trump’s populist appeal doesn’t stem from the desire to get the government “off our backs.” But what is its source?

It stems, I think, from this sentiment expressed by an Alabama voter quoted by Dave Weigel of the Washington Post: “Trump runs an empire; that’s what the country needs, someone who runs an empire.”

This, to be sure, is just one voter talking. But listen to Trump’s message. It’s not about limited government. It’s about his ability to get big things done — to make “unbelievable deals” that will make America great again — demonstrated by his personal fortune. As Trump put it at his Alabama rally:

Whatever it is, I know how to do things. I just want to make this country so great, and that’s what’s going to happen.

Huey Long liked to say, “I used to get things done by saying please; now I dynamite them out of my path.” Donald Trump is Huey Long minus the past practice of saying please.

As my Huey Long reference suggests, we shouldn’t be surprised to see a populism that eschews Tea Party values, including government restraint. Nor should we be surprised by a populism that focuses on national greatness and empire. Such a populism may be unprecedented in this country (I’ll leave this question to Steve and other historians), but it is not uncommon in others.

Populism isn’t a substantive movement. It is, rather, a spirit. And like the “spirit of history,” which was said to move from nation to nation, the spirit of populism can jump from ideology to ideology.

But neither spirit flits randomly. So how do we explain the quick transition from the limited government Republican populism of 2010 to the empire populism of 2015?

We explain it, I believe, through President Obama. In 2010, Obama hadn’t yet openly embarked on his program of reducing America’s footprint in the world — of making America small. His signature program was Obamacare, an affront to those who favor limited government. Hence, limited government populism.

Five years later, with Obama relatively constrained on the domestic front, his most important current affront is to those who favor an America that “wins” (to use Trump’s favorite term), or at least isn’t trounced and humiliated, in the world. Hence, empire populism.

The GOP presidential field is not oblivious to the rank-and-file’s concern over America’s diminished power and standing. Even Rand Paul has adjusted his foreign policy stance in response to the rise of ISIS, for example.

But Trump wins the hearts of populists because he frames the problem in basic, elemental terms of winning and losing, connects it to illegal immigration (Mexico is winning), and casts himself (plausibly to many, given his personal success) as the ultimate winner.

It’s a powerful message and one that, at least so far, has made him nearly immune to attack on other grounds, including important ideological ones like Tea Party values.