American Populism: A User's Guide

Column: Donald Trump, Jeffrey Bell, and the future of Reaganism

Bell Reagan Trump Kemp
Images via Wikimedia Commons, Getty
February 23, 2018

I've been thinking of my friend Jeffrey Bell. Jeff, who died suddenly two weeks ago at age 74, was a Vietnam veteran who shocked the political class when he won the Republican Senate nomination in New Jersey in 1978 and again in 2014. He lost both races, but those setbacks freed him for other pursuits. He was a longtime conservative who worked on the campaigns of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Jack Kemp, and who co-founded successful economic and political consulting firms as well as the nonprofit American Principles Project.

Jeff was a serious and unconventional thinker. His writing is one of the best guides to the jagged, surprising, and befuddling American scene. For decades, in conversations with peers, journalists, and young people, Jeff offered his analysis and insight free of charge. Now that he's gone, I've been wondering how he might interpret the present moment, from President Trump to immigration to the Parkland shooting. It's a lot to wrap your head around.

The key to Jeff's thought was his understanding of populism. His two books, Populism and Elitism (1992) and The Case for Polarized Politics (2012), are dense treatises. They examine what makes America so different from the rest of the world. They illuminate aspects of American history and politics that most opinion-makers overlook. "Plenty of books offer proposals and policies," David Brooks wrote in his Wall Street Journal review of Populism and Elitism. "Mr. Bell has given us a way of seeing."

Jeff followed the roots of American exceptionalism back to the language of the Declaration of Independence. The Founders separated the United States from Great Britain by asserting the equal dignity of human beings. Their claim was not based on the movement of History or on the barrel of a gun. It was supported by the laws of nature and, most important, of "Nature's God."

For most of human history, elites competed among themselves for power. With the coming of American democracy, the struggle occurred not only between elites but also between elites and the populace. Jeff identified a tradition of public resistance to the encroaching control of elites that runs from Thomas Jefferson through Andrew Jackson and Ronald Reagan and beyond. (We'll get to you-know-who in a second.) "Populism," Jeff wrote, "is optimism about people's ability to make decisions about their lives. Elitism is optimism about the decision-making ability of one or more elites, acting on behalf of other people."

Jeff argued that populism has been misunderstood. Historians write as if populism began with the Agrarians and with William Jennings Bryan. That is a mistake because, even as he self-consciously adopted the populist label, Bryan modified and repudiated elements of what had been the populist program. In Jeff's telling, Jefferson, Jackson, Samuel Tilden, Grover Cleveland, and even Woodrow Wilson stood for

popular property rights (including bargain-basement land sales) and the unlimited right of anyone to incorporate; a strict separation of government from business interests; strong opposition to manipulative central banking and support for the international gold standard and free trade. These parties championed the interest of the consumer, the small farmer, and the small businessman, and in cultural terms they represented the 'out groups' of the three societies, such as the French in Canada, the Irish in America, and the Dissenters in Britain.

Bryan's inflationary economics and overwhelmingly rural following gave the Republican party of William McKinley the opportunity to back hard money and open its membership to social groups it had previously excluded. The strain of populism Bell championed, which believed in the capacity of individuals to manage their own affairs, split into different strands. Franklin Roosevelt combined elite confidence in technocratic management with parts of Bryan's economic program and with Wilson's free trade and global democracy. It was such a powerful synthesis that, when Richard Nixon won in 1968, he was the first non-general to be elected president on a Republican ticket in 40 years.

Bell's populism returned when the cultural consensus that had backed up the New Deal fell apart. Previously, elites and the public more or less agreed on which public evils should be combated. That changed in the 1960s when elite and popular opinion diverged. Elites and the public not only disagreed over how to fight crime, rioting, dependency, illegitimacy, drug abuse, pornography, and campus unrest. They disagreed over whether any of these things were issues at all. Social populism, then, was optimism about the ability of ordinary people to establish and enforce communal norms. After all, Jeff wrote, "The setting of community standards is at the root of all significant issues, since a public evil cannot even be defined, much less combated, unless the community has a previously established standard in the area of the life in question."

What drove Ronald Reagan's two successful presidential campaigns was his belief not only in the capacity of everyday men and women to make their way in the world, but also in the collective ability of democratic peoples, rather than unelected judges and bureaucrats, to set and maintain community standards. As Reagan wrote in The Creative Society (1968), "Government must help, surely, government often must show the way, and government may coordinate. But government must not supersede the will of the people or the responsibilities of the people. The function of government is not to confer happiness but to give men the opportunity to work out happiness for themselves."

The political authorities Reagan cited most often were not "modern Republicans" like Eisenhower or Nixon, but the Founders and their early populist successors. Reagan, who did not become a Republican until his mid-40s, modeled himself after FDR. From Sacramento to Washington, his success was based on his appeal to Democrats alienated by their party's elitism. "Today," he wrote in The Creative Society, "the leadership of the honorable party of Jefferson and Jackson has abandoned the dream of individual freedom, has lost its faith in the people's ability to determine their own destiny, believes only in centralized government and an all-powerful state."

Jeff Bell was a theorist of Reaganism. I know it is common to deny that such a political philosophy ever existed or, if one concedes that there was such a thing, to say that it is outmoded or petrified. But the conventional wisdom is wrong. Reaganism is embattled, yet survives. How could it not? The principles Ronald Reagan stood for as early as 1947, when he told Hedda Hopper that "Our highest aim should be the cultivation of freedom of the individual, for therein lies the highest dignity of man," are as immutable as the principles of 1776.

Reaganism begins in the sanctity, equality, and dignity of every life and flows outward to encompass religious values, popular government over bureaucratic managerialism, and the defense of human freedom. "To me," Jeff wrote in a 2008 essay for The Weekly Standard, "Reaganism means traditionalism on social issues, supply-side tax cuts in economics, and an assertive foreign policy featuring American moral leadership on behalf of a more democratic world." To understand the Reaganite worldview, look at the "Morality in Foreign Policy" plank of the 1976 Republican platform, which Reagan supporters added over the protests of Henry Kissinger. "Honestly, openly, and with firm conviction," it reads, "we shall go forward as a united people to forge a lasting peace in the world based upon our deep belief in the rights of man, the rule of law, and guidance by the hand of God."

Jeff reluctantly concluded that, while the first term of George W. Bush pressed the Reaganite social, economic, and foreign policy agenda, his second term was a failure. Despite campaigning for reelection as an opponent of same-sex marriage, Bush dropped the issue and seriously jeopardized his ties to religious conservatives with his initial pick of Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court in 2005. He failed to make his 2001 and 2003 tax cuts permanent. His push for democratic reform in places like Egypt and Lebanon was curtailed. The global war on terror narrowed to a one-front, all-or-nothing effort to save Iraq from al Qaeda and civil war. Bush's weak dollar and low-interest-rate policies contributed to the recession and financial crisis that brought Barack Obama to power.

The electric rise and fall of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party revivified the populist persuasion. Palin is one of the most important political figures of the early twenty-first century because she revealed the character not only of the right but also of the left. Her following among socially conservative whites without college degrees was a harbinger of the 2016 election. So too was the virulent reaction to her on the part of elites in both parties. "The most important thing to know about the left today," Jeff wrote shortly after Palin appeared on the scene, "is that it is centered on social issues."

And social liberalism, he added in a subsequent essay, is driven by elites.

American voters, and not just white voters in red states, still believe they have not just the right but the democratic obligation to set standards for their communities. They remain far from ready to take at face value the assurances of judicial, media, and academic elites on how things must be, however unanimous these elites appear to be. Socially conservative Americans, black and white, regret and (my sense is) are deeply self-critical of their own frequent failure to overcome the surrounding culture and live up to the standards they believe in. But to them it does not follow that the standards should no longer exist, or (in the openly stated, nearly unanimous view of elite opinion) should no longer even be debated in politics.

Palin and the Tea Party exposed the gap on social questions between elite and popular opinion as revealed in election results. That first politician to notice and exploit that gap could have a significant national future. "Swing voters in the pivotal heartland states are more conservative socially than they are economically—a mirror image of swing voters in the Northeast and Pacific Coast," Jeff wrote.

The reluctance of Republican leaders to take up social conservatism, formulate an economic policy that addressed the monetary roots of stagnation, and forthrightly advocate the doctrine of morality in foreign policy bothered Jeff, even if it did not surprise him. The 2012 election, in which Mitt Romney avoided social questions in favor of a Bain consulting approach to economic management, left him pessimistic about the GOP's ability to seize a political opportunity.

The presidency of Barack Obama supercharged the left by concentrating on issues of sexual autonomy and benefiting from the growing number of American voters who do not affiliate with a religion. How, Jeff asked, could the right compete? "What they should ask themselves is, can there be a conservative Barack Obama? That is, can a conservative presidential candidate be a dynamic speaker, draw huge crowds, go viral on the Internet, and launch a populist money machine capable of playing in the same league with Obama himself?"

Well, yes. He showed up in 2015.

"Could a genuine outsider win?" Bill Kristol asked Jeff during a conversation after the 2014 election.

"Yes, yes," Bell said. "Because the political class is very unpopular. Republicans in Congress are rated even lower than Democrats in Congress. There's a lack of faith, a lack of trust, in the conventional elected politicians. That sets up a situation where you could get somebody from outside politics."

And yet Donald Trump represents a challenge to Jeff's theory of populism. He confirms it in some ways and repudiates it in others. Certainly, President Trump is a populist. But of what sort? He is, to use a recent book title, the billionaire at the barricades. Yet Trump's riches do not necessarily make his populism inauthentic. "Background doesn't matter," Jeff told the Wall Street Journal when Steve Forbes ran for president in 1996. "If you are articulating views that are populist, which I define as optimism about people and their ability to make their own decisions, as opposed to letting elites do it for them." William Gladstone, one of Jeff's heroes, was the son of a wealthy manufacturer.

Nor is it a contradiction for populists to back a strong executive. "Virtually every period in which populist reform was on the agenda in the United States featured a populist-inclined executive fighting a more elitist-minded legislature," Jeff wrote in Populism and Elitism. "This is true of the presidency from Andrew Jackson to Ronald Reagan and tends to be equally true of populism at the state level, such as Governor Hiram Johnson's battle for direct democracy against the corporate-controlled California legislature."

One of Jeff's favorite phrases was the "policy mix." The mix was composed of economic, social, cultural, and foreign policy. Successful candidates had something to say about the entire mix, not only one part of it. And it is incredible, in retrospect, just how integrated Trump's campaign was. He slammed Clinton personally, as a representative of the swamp, among other things. But he also took up social issues such as abortion and gun rights and judges; economic issues such as supply-side tax cuts and a regulatory pause; and national security issues such as terrorism, the decline of American military power, and "weakness."

Trump is a populist, but he is no Reaganite. Yes, Trump persists in his social conservatism on the life issue and on judges, celebrates the tax cut he signed into law last year, and advocates more military spending. On money, however, he is all William Jennings Bryan, favoring a weak dollar and low interest rates. He departs from Reagan on immigration, on trade (though Reagan's rhetorical free trade stance was often counterbalanced by quotas and tariffs), and on support for human rights and democracy worldwide. His rhetoric, with its reminders that our rights come from God and not from government, is Reaganite. But the scope of that rhetoric is limited. He is pessimistic about elites, for sure. But one sometimes wonders just how optimistic about ordinary people he really is.

Trump supplemented—some would say occluded—the Reaganite love of freedom with a hunger for sovereignty. He catalyzed a desire for popular control over borders, production lines, and supply chains. Today, populism has not only an individual and social dimension but also a national one. This nation-state populism has more confidence in a nation's representative institutions than in international organizations and corporations to set and enforce standards of trade and migration.

I'm not sure conservatives have assimilated the fact that Trump's alterations to Reaganism may have given him the edge over a crowded Republican field. Trump grasped and acted on the difference in elite and popular opinion toward our country's future more acutely and more quickly than an entire industry of political participants and observers. One reason he was able to do this, in my opinion, is elite over-reliance on polls. It's true that, on a superficial level, polls show support for immigration reform and for gun control. But polls tell you more about how people respond to a particular question than how people or legislators will reveal their preferences in the real world of space and time. Immigration and guns have joined the ranks of issues, such as climate change, where elite opinion is as unanimous as it is unavailing. Yet a quick glance at social media, and in the actual votes of actual elected officials, both Republican and Democrat, confirms that debate is ongoing and hotly contested. And social media is where Trump lives.

The greatest danger to Trump's presidency, then, is not Robert Mueller or Kim Jong Un or even an economic crash. It is a sudden reversal of the approach and positions that have carried him thus far. On issue after issue, Trump has situated himself against the regnant opinion of elites in both parties. Social conservatives overlook Stormy Daniels because Trump is delivering for them on judges, life, and religious freedom; supply-siders are politely ignoring his trade position because of tax policy; working-class and rural whites back his cultural politics and opposition to Social Security and Medicare reform; nation-state populists applaud his immigration policies, withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Paris Accord, renegotiation of NAFTA, and tariffs on washers and solar panels. A turn against any member of this fragile coalition would jeopardize Trump's novel form of populism, depress enthusiasm among his base, and create openings for inter- and intra-party challenges.

He hasn't done it yet. But, as my friend taught, politics is a dynamic process that veers in unpredictable directions. President Trump's future is in his hands. The fate of Reaganism is in ours. I can't tell you what will happen. All I know is that I will miss having Jeff Bell here to explain it.

Published under: Ronald Reagan