The most cruel thing a government can do to an opposition is to agree with it. The other must choose between obsolescence or ever more extreme positions in a quest for distinction. The vehement republicanism led by Newt Gingrich in the 1990s was not a response to Marxism, remember, but to Bill Clinton, with his crime bills and welfare reform, balanced budgets and his Cruise missile strikes.
A generation later, Joe Biden is working on a version of the same fate. Without a doubt, it is mainly of their own accord that Republicans move to the wild edges of politics. Their online monoculture is to blame, as is their unofficial leader Donald Trump. But this White House is also populist enough, often enough, to undermine the party on the horns of a dilemma.
Count the ways in which Biden is a truer populist than Trump ever was. As a candidate, Trump sided with working Americans against the self-centered wealthy. As president, he chose tax cuts, deregulation and the lost fight against Obamacare from a Republican textbook. If he had ruled as a 1% class traitor, I suspect the world would now be analyzing a second Trump term. As it stands, Biden is fortunate enough to keep Trump’s promises for himself and surpass them. Its infrastructure plan is expected to pass Congress this week. At 2,700 odd-numbered pages, he has a Russian novel of a spending bill in the works. He plans to raise taxes on high incomes and profitable businesses. Even its rhetorical framing – taxes as social justice, not fiscal necessity – is populist.
On protectionism, Trump did better (or, like me and other free traders would have done, worse). But he never went beyond tariffs against China and Europe to craft a broader agenda. Biden, through the Buy American procurement plan, did. It is sad that David Ricardo and other deceased economists have to be exhumed to detail the self-defeating madness here. Politics are much harder to blame.
The same goes for Biden’s most controversial act to date. Last month, the United States reportedly left all its credibility on the asphalt at Kabul International Airport. The main development since has been Australia’s historic vote of confidence in the United States. Surprise isn’t just what Biden managed to save from an alleged loss of national prestige. This is because, against almost all of the institutionalists in Washington, he completed the exit at all. After campaigning against the interventionist consensus, his three predecessors succumbed to it in various ways. Even Trump slowed down his plan to withdraw from Syria in 2018.
After only nine months in office, it’s hard to go wrong here. What Biden offers voters is much of the substance of populism without the noise and danger that comes with it. And that very restraint could be the result of never having to prove Everyman’s good faith.
Trump is the son of a growing struggling real estate developer in Queens. Boris Johnson went to a school too big to need a name. In France, Marine Le Pen is both the daughter and the mother of what could one day become a three-generation far-right management chain. Populism’s dependence on contenders and greats for leadership was going to leave it exposed to reality at some point.
Biden, a creature of Washington for half a century, is not quite that. By origin, however, he is closer to “the people,” whoever they are, than Trump or the next most prominent American populist, broadcaster Tucker Carlson. You wouldn’t know from the flippant way even Democrats discuss him that he’s been on three winning presidential tickets.
To get a sense of how difficult it is for Biden’s opponents to find his populism controlled, consider the ever sadder case of JD Vance. In 2016, the author of Hillbilly elegy was both a prophet of Trumpism and its insider critic. Five years later, with a seat in the US Senate up for grabs, there is something controversial about praising a quote about his punches against childless people and the “henchmen” of the Liberal C-suite. It may just be the temerity of a political novice. Or it could be the fate of a party that must strive more and more to distinguish itself.
In 2016, protectionism was still subversive. It is now a banality. The defenders of the foreign policy blob were alien. One of them now works at the Oval Office. These are, in a sense, profound victories for Republican populism. But they are also political turmoil. What clothes do you wear when your wardrobe has been looted? Only, we must fear him, the ugliest.