Among the nearly 250 years of American politics, 2017 will stand out, along with 1829 (when Andrew Jackson was sworn in), as a moment when populists didn’t merely rattle the political establishment, but actually won a national election and gained real political power.
And 2017 will also stand as a year in which the populists most proximate to political power fell flat on their faces. The problem isn’t populism per se. The problem is that much of the populism accompanying (and also powering) Donald Trump’s rise has been purely negative — vacuous populism whose beginning, middle, and end is inchoate anger at the “establishment.”
Just in the past week, some of the vacuous populists have revealed the emptiness and ultimate impotence of their anger.
In 2016, Paul Nehlen challenged House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin in the Republican congressional primary and gathered outsized attention from the angry populist corners of the Internet. He lost by more than 70 points. In December 2017, Nehlen, planning to challenge Ryan again, outed himself as a blatant anti-semite and racist, reflecting what was obvious to anyone who followed his run against Ryan: There was not an ounce of conservatism in him or his run against Ryan; there was only anger.
Milo Yiannopoulos was a favorite provocateur of the same angry populist wing. A vulgarian and contrarian, Yiannopoulos was little more, as became glaringly obvious to anyone who read the manuscript of his book, which Simon & Schuster had commissioned and then spiked. Staring at his own physique in the mirror is probably the most fitting part of the book. Too often, the populism on today’s Right amounts to little more than admiring one’s own refusal to be cowed by political correctness — or by human decency.
Roy Moore was the favorite anti-establishment populist candidate in 2017. Running against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and “the swamp,” Moore beat appointed incumbent Sen. Luther Strange in Alabama’s Republican primary, but then amazingly lost the Senate seat to a Democrat after revelations of his proclivities for younger women and credible, largely verified reports of sexual assault.
That so many “conservatives” stuck with Moore after he was outed as a pervert by detailed and corroborated reporting revealed either a paranoid hatred and distrust of the media establishment or a moral sense so weak it was bulldozed by tribalism.
The man behind all of these angry populist figures is Steve Bannon. Bannon was something of a muse for Trump during the campaign, translating Trump’s eclectic and non-ideological views into something almost coherent: a nationalist populism. Bannon, of course, was drummed from the White House, lost his effort to elect Moore, and now has been forced to forswear Nehlen.
There’s a lesson in the collapse of these Bannonite populists, and it is a central political moral of 2017.
The lesson isn’t that populism is always bad, or that it can never fit with conservatism. At times, the Tea Party embodied intelligent conservative populism, because it saw populism as a stance and sentiment that could be put to the service of conservative goals, such as smaller government, local control, and defense of family and community.
Populism can provide the energy to battle corporate welfare queens, decadent cultural elites, and power-hungry hubristic centralizers. Populism can put a bit of a democratic scare into an establishment too comfy in the swampy world of the revolving door and self-dealing.
But a populism directed at goals and constrained by principles is not the right-wing populism we got. We got instead a populism that could only destroy. Every target it took down just meant the movement had to find the next enemy. If the Tea Party began by going after Charlie Crist and Arlen Specter, it moved on to Bob Bennett and Trey Grayson, and then Dick Lugar and David Dewhurst.
Then John Boehner — the most conservative House speaker in generations — had to go. Then Paul Ryan instantly became the totem of the establishment. Jeb Bush was a squish and Scott Walker was a sellout. Marco Rubio — a Tea Partier by political pedigree and a conservative by any definition — was basically Specter by 2015. Even Ted Cruz became “too establishment.”
With Trump’s inauguration this year, this destruction-only populism gained real power. And with nothing left to destroy, it took down itself.