Voters turned out in record numbers in 2020 to deliver an ambiguous verdict on the Trump era. That mixed bag has allowed both political parties to choose their own adventures. For the American right, the most exciting and self-fulfilling narrative to emerge from this year’s election is the notion that, even if Donald Trump lost, Trumpism—or, at least, nationalist populism—has won.
There are a lot of assumptions baked into this assessment, few of which have been thoroughly tested. But the argument’s basic parameters are this: Despite a convincing loss, Donald Trump improved on his margins among some crucial demographics (most notably, urban and minority voters), even though he ceded enough of the white working-class vote to Biden to lose the White House. How this represents a victory for Trumpism is anyone’s guess. But even if it isn’t Donald Trump’s party anymore, the GOP’s evolutionary trajectory is set in stone. Per Marco Rubio, “the future of the party is based on a multiethnic, multiracial working-class coalition.”
That sounds great. It is, in fact, what advocates of a conventional conservatism have long sought and occasionally achieved. Contrary to populist self-affirmations, what Rubio describes is precisely the coalition that Republicans cobble together in the years that yield convincing GOP victories, all while somehow still adhering to deeply held principles. But what would Rubio’s prescription mean practically? In general terms—because advocates of national populism tend to speak in general terms—it involves the rejection of austere fiscal politics and a full-bore commitment to prosecuting the culture wars on every front.
When pressed, those who are attracted to the promise of a populist GOP acknowledge on some level the fundamental conditions that will make this a difficult project. As Rubio himself contends, the new Republican coalition is “suspicious, quite frankly, dismissive of elites at every level.” The merits of that disposition aside, it contrasts mightily with the current iteration of the Democratic Party, and that contrast is exploitable. Indeed, contrast itself is the essential feature of America’s two-party dynamic: If they’re for it, we’re against it. Standing athwart the increasingly revolutionary aims of progressivism’s social politics is both noble and relatively easy. When it comes to policy, though, keeping the GOP Trumpy is going to be harder than Trump made it look.
For example, advocates of a populist Republican Party that abandons austere conservatism in the effort to shave down life’s sharper edges are engaged in a noble effort. Their critique of a Republican Party that neither acknowledged nor addressed the concerns of the American precariat remains valuable. But the United States does not need and will not abide two parties that are of the same mind on matters as weighty as the financial health of the country. And like it or not, a confrontation over the nation’s mounting debt is coming.
In April, the Medicare trustees’ report determined that the program’s hospital insurance fund will be depleted by 2026. In the intervening months, the crisis brought about by the global COVID-19 pandemic forced the United States to spend $2.2 trillion on relief efforts—money the country did not have. That spending likely accelerated the timeline of the crisis posed by unfunded liabilities. In September, the Congressional Budget Office found that Social Security’s Old-Age and Survivors Insurance trust fund would be depleted in 2031—one year sooner than their 2019 projection and three years earlier than Social Security’s trustees anticipated.
The CBO revealed in September that America’s federal public debt will exceed 100 percent of gross domestic product in the current fiscal year. Although the cost of American borrowing has not increased, and interest rates remain low, there is no guarantee that will continue as the federal government spends ever more on interest payments. And when investor confidence declines, it does so abruptly.
It is reasonable to assume that Democrats will not become the party of austerity, entitlement reform, and targeted tax relief anytime soon. It is, therefore, equally unreasonable to assume both parties will essentially offer the same resolution to what may become the all-consuming domestic political issue of this decade. If there is a centrifugal force to American politics that thrusts the parties into their respective corners, America will have one party dedicated to averting a crisis through higher taxes and more public spending and another that will be against all that.
Donald Trump ran a campaign for the White House that was contemptuous of conservative fiscal policy prescriptions. He dismissed the notion that targeted tax cuts helped grow the economy, benefiting all income brackets, and he attacked Republicans who endorsed conventional reforms to America’s overburdened entitlements. But he didn’t govern that way entirely. Donald Trump presented himself as a populist while signing into law conventional conservative tax reforms and drafting budgets that trimmed non-discretionary spending. It is a testament to the 45th president’s unique pugilism that he was able to retain his populist mantle even while presiding over these policies.
The gravitational forces of American politics are unlikely to leave us with two parties that share the same political vision—particularly when it comes to fiscal indiscipline. But the simplest way to replicate Trumpism without Trump is to engage the left with vigor. Coupling individual freedom with economic liberty was that fight once, and it could be again.
Today, the populist right would acquiesce to the tired Keynesian dogmas of the 20th century. They do so with an implacable churlishness, but their posture is a defensive crouch, nonetheless. If the legacy of Trumpism is the fight, the GOP’s fighters of the next decade will be those challenging progressive orthodoxy on policy, too.