What Do Right-Leaning Populists Actually Want?

Republican voters elected legislators on the basis of their refusal to compromise and a president who promised to cut deals. It’s no wonder they’re having trouble governing.

Carlos Barria / Reuters

Do populist Republicans want a federal government where politicians stand on principle and refuse to compromise? Or do they want a pragmatist to make fabulous deals?

The intra-Republican conflict highlighted by last week’s failure to repeal or replace Obamacare is usefully understood as a consequence of confusion on those questions. Elected officials associated with the Tea Party, or the House Freedom Caucus, believe that they were sent to Washington, D.C., to replace sell-outs who compromised themselves by seeking earmarks for their constituents, buckling to establishment whips, or horse-trading with the Democrats.

Yet many populist entertainers, like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, who fancied themselves champions of the Tea Party’s no-compromise ethos, morphed, during Election 2016, into cheerleaders for a different kind of populist—Donald Trump—who pointedly declared that he was seeking the nomination of the Republican Party, not the conservative party, and regularly boasted during the campaign that he should be elected in large part because of his prowess as a dealmaker. Forget principle—the art of the deal was the way to make America great again.

The contradiction was lost on many populist Republicans, who’ve been trained for years to use antagonism to President Obama and the media as a heuristic for judging loyalty––having “the right enemies” became a substitute for a positive agenda. Now that Obama is gone, and Republicans are totally in charge of governing, the party is discovering the inevitable tension that ensues when the populist wing of a political coalition elevates legislators chosen for their aversion to compromise, and then a president who intends to succeed via successful negotiating.

Rich Lowry of National Review put it well: “Just because Trump and the conservative caucus are both ‘anti-establishment’ doesn’t mean they have anything else in common.” (Trump’s exaggerated prowess as a dealmaker doesn’t help either.)

Representative Thomas Massie, a Kentucky Republican, described his own realization that the GOP wasn’t what it seemed during the Tea Party’s rise in an interview with Reason.

Massie won his 2010 congressional bid by running on libertarian ideas. He watched Rand Paul win his Senate race with a similar platform, and saw Ron Paul do well in Iowa during the 2012 cycle. “So I thought the libertarian ideology within the Republican party was really catching on, that it was popular,” he said this week.

But then, when he went to Iowa to campaign for Rand Paul in the 2016 GOP primary, “I saw that the same people that had voted for Ron Paul weren't voting for Rand Paul, they were voting for Donald Trump … in Kentucky, the people who were my voters ended up voting for Donald Trump in the primary. And so I was in a funk because how could these people let us down? How could they go from being libertarian ideologues to voting for Donald Trump? And then I realized what it was: They weren't voting for the libertarian in the race, they were voting for the craziest son of a bitch in the race when they voted for me and Rand and Ron. So Trump just won, you know, that category, but dumped the ideological baggage.”

What he means by “crazy,” I think, is most stridently against the Washington establishment. That’s the similarity between Rand Paul in 2010 and Donald Trump in 2016.

And it puts Donald Trump and Speaker Paul Ryan in a strange position so long as their legislative agendas fail to attract the support of the House Freedom Caucus.

“The betting money is that both the Trump administration and the GOP establishment it now sits atop will seek actively to marginalize the rebels and instead find common governing cause with centrist Democrats,” Matt Welch explains. “If true, this scenario would produce one of the greatest cognitive dissonances in modern political history, while setting the administration up for even more humiliation during its honeymoon phase. Trump the above-the-fray outsider is collaborating with dealmaking career insiders to sideline one of the only principled Beltway blocs, even before showing any ability to woo Democrats over to Trump's anti-conservative agenda. It's all shaping up to be a godawful mess.”

How these conflicts will shake out is difficult to determine in part because bygone contradictions in the behavior of the Republican electorate makes it hard to know how it will behave in 2018. Is a GOP House member more likely to be punished in a primary for thwarting a Donald Trump deal… or compromising to make a deal happen? Were I the political consultant for an ambitious primary candidate in a safe Republican district, I can imagine a successful challenge regardless of what course the incumbent chose, voters having been primed to respond to either critique.

“Two prominent Republicans have told me in recent weeks that they sincerely don’t know how to describe where they fall on the ideological spectrum,” my colleague McKay Coppins related Wednesday. I suspect their confusion is the product of political instincts telling them that neither making deals nor refusing to make deals is guaranteed to keep them on the right side of the Republican electorate.