Donald Trump’s Populism Decoded: How a Billionaire Became the Voice of the “Little People.” By Leonard Steinhorn. Moyers and Company, July 3, 2017.
Brooks, GPS Transcript:
ZAKARIA: Ronald Reagan: In the minds of many on the right, he will forever be the king of conservatism, his presidency the high point of that movement.
So what does Donald Trump’s presidency represent? Where does conservatism go from here? Where does the Republican Party go from here?
Early in the week, I had the opportunity to talk to a man who thinks a lot about these issues, the New York Times columnist David Brooks.
ZAKARIA: David Brooks, pleasure to have you on.
BROOKS: Good to be with you.
ZAKARIA: When you look at Trump and the way he’s been governing, the things he’s passed, it’s, kind of, a hodgepodge of some things that seem hardcore Republican economic agenda, the repeal of Obamacare. Some of it is the trade protectionism he’s always promised. Is there a new conservatism developing?
BROOKS: No, I don’t think so, not – not in this administration. I think we saw glimmers of it in the campaign. And what Trump understood but a lot of us didn’t understand, what debate we were having. We grew up in the debate of big government versus small government, whether you wanted to use government to enhance equality, as Democrats did, or reduce government to enhance freedom, as Republicans did. But in the campaign, Trump said “That’s not our debate.” As many people, including you, have said, it’s open-closed. It’s between those who feel the headwinds of globalization blasting in their faces and they want closed borders, closed trade, security, and those who feel it’s pushing at their backs, and they want open trade, open opportunity and open social mores.
And he identified that we’re having a new debate now. And what's central to his administration is he hasn't delivered on that.
And that’s because there are not a lot of Trumpians in the world of policy. And so he hasn’t exactly helped the people who got him into office. He’s staffed his administration, to the extent it is staffed, with people who basically believed in the Reagan bargain of 1984, which is, you know, cut tax rates, reduce government regulation. And so I think he opened the door for a new kind of conservatism but has not fulfilled it. That’s for somebody in the future.
ZAKARIA: So where do Republicans go?
When you look at Republican congressmen, politicians, have they looked at that campaign and said, “We need to become more populist conservatives?” Is that where the party is heading?
BROOKS: Yeah, there was a book that was really useful to read, a short book called The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn. And he said what happens in science – but it’s also true in politics – is you get a paradigm; you get a way of looking at the world, Reaganism. That was a paradigm. It works for a little while and then slowly it detaches from reality and it’s hollow, but nobody knows it. Somebody comes along, punctures it and it collapses.
And that’s what Trump did to Reaganism. But then you get this period of chaos, where people really haven’t released the old paradigm but they haven’t – don’t know what the new one is. And then you get a period of competition of paradigms.
And so, in the Republican Party, you’re going to get a libertarian paradigm; you’re going to get a paleo-conservative Pat Buchanan paradigm. You’re going to get a whole bunch of different ones and they will fight it out.
And if I had to bet, I would like an Alexander Hamilton, open trade, a lot of immigration, a lot of economic dynamism. But frankly, when I look at the polls, there are not a lot of people who want what I want. The Steve Bannons of the world – that’s where a lot of the people are. If you – they’re older; they’re economically disadvantaged, and they want a national conservatism that will protect them.
ZAKARIA: And if that is what they want, the party, you think, will – will fold. Because, to me, what’s been really interesting to watch is conservative intellectuals have, by and large, particularly the more prominent ones like you, have stuck true to their ideas and ideals and, you know, been very critical of Trump. I think somebody like George Will essentially got fired from Fox for that reason.
BROOKS: Yeah, right.
ZAKARIA: But the Republican politicians have not. They have all caved and, in some way or the other, have accommodated themselves to Trump?
BROOKS: Yeah. And either those of us in the intellectual class are hidebound and rigid and we’re stuck with our ideas and we’re not reflecting reality, or the politicians are craven and they just don’t want to lose their jobs, so they’ll go wherever the people are. And that’s basically where they are.
I think one of the things we’ve learned and Trump has demonstrated is that parties are not that ideological. Trump ran against a lot of Republican positions and Republicans signed on.
What parties are these days are cultural signifiers, social identity markers and just teams. And people think, “What team has people like me on it? What fits my social identity?”
A lot of people looked around; a lot of suburban women in Missouri looked around and said “Sarah Palin, she’s, kind of, like me.” And whether Sarah Palin believed in high tax rates or low tax rates or health insurance markets or some other health care policy, that’s not what they were thinking about. They were thinking about, “Who’s like me?”
And for a lot of people in the Republican Party, which is older, whiter and less educated at the core, Trump was like that.
ZAKARIA: Does that tell you that they will be loyal to him to the end, if there – if these investigations go – go badly for the president?
BROOKS: Yeah, pretty much. One of the things I think we’ve learned in spades over the last 20 years is that we in the political class get super-excited about scandal, and we think, “Oh, it’s about to tear that person down.” But, time and time again, when you actually go out to districts where people are voting, it’s, sort of, just a noise in the background, and they’re voting the things that they care about, their economics, their health care, their education, or they like the person.
And so, in my conversations with Trump voters, the scandals just don’t come up. They think – always, he’s kind of a buffoon or whatever, but at least he’s still basically trying to say the right things. And so I don’t think it will have any difference.
ZAKARIA: And is part of Trump's support that that – you know, that core 35 percent or so of the country strengthened every time the media criticizes him?
ZAKARIA: Because the last thing they want to do is to give you the satisfaction...
ZAKARIA: ... of having been right about Donald Trump?
BROOKS: Correct. Yeah, one of the things we learned about the class structure in this country is that people in the lower middle class or people in the working class or people who voted for Trump don’t mind billionaires; they do not mind rich people. What they mind are bossy professionals, teachers, lawyers, journalists who seem to want to tell them what to do or seem to want to tell them how to act.
And if you had to pick the classic epitome of that person who most offends them, that would be Hillary Clinton. And so she was exactly the wrong person.
And so I find them remarkably stable in their support. There’s been some seepage around the edge for Donald Trump, but so far it’s just seepage.
ZAKARIA: David Brooks, pleasure to have you on.
BROOKS: Thank you.
But populism has always been about more than a loss of jobs, status and prestige. It’s also about who they blame for that loss. And typically they train their fire on those they view as elites.
Notwithstanding the threads of nativism and xenophobia woven into the early populist rhetoric, their targets were clear: monopolies, banks, industrialists and those who controlled the levers of capital in America. To them, they traced their loss of livelihood and status directly to the economic barons who constituted the elites of their time.
But today’s populists — with the notable exception of the Bernie Sanders wing — don’t rage against the capitalist elites and corporate boards and CEOs and financiers for outsourcing their jobs, closing their plants, squeezing their incomes and soaking up much of the nation’s wealth.
Rather, they aim their anger at those who they believe have deprived them of their cultural capital. To them, it’s the liberal, intellectual and media elites that have redefined who and what America values. On the cultural pedestal is now a rainbow flag, not the American flag. The masculinity of old is now declassé. We elevate diversity and multiculturalism, not the hard hat, cop and white picket fence.
In the white working-class worldview, these elites have hijacked what Sarah Palin once called the “real America” — through globalization that stole their jobs, dispensations and benefits for those that haven’t earned it, and a politically correct hierarchy that privileges gays, minorities, immigrants and now the transgendered, but not the white working class even though, to them, they’re the ones who built the country and deserve respect.
From their perspective, all these elites seem to hand them is disdain and condescension. So they see themselves, in the words of President Trump, as the “forgotten Americans.”
Trump understood all of that from the very beginning of his campaign. Sporting his trademark “Make America Great Again” red baseball cap signaling white working-class solidarity, he vowed to stomp on the elites that his supporters believed were putting them down.