American politics resembles a three-way scrum. An institutional center, dominated by a guardian class of elites, who manage pretty much everything in modern society, faces persistent assaults from the populist Left and Right.
On close inspection, the three contending parties can be reduced to two ideological streams: the politics of control and the politics of incoherence. Terrified by the rise of populism, the elites have hardened into what the French would call an “extreme center,” claiming a right to rule in perpetuity by reason of its superior virtue and moderation. Democracy has been redefined as the electoral triumph of the center. Candidates from outside the fold are deemed “semi-fascist” and thus illegitimate.
A vast apparatus of control—an octopus-like conglomerate of institutions that includes the federal bureaucracy, the news media, and the digital platforms—has been deployed to stop the populist wolf from crashing through the door. The panic evoked by Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter betrays an unhappy suspicion that the beast will break in anyway. The system is as nakedly rank-based as Marie Antoinette’s France. Having assumed guardianship over the complexities of twenty-first-century life, the elites must govern because they are who they are.
Ostensibly, the center seeks power to preserve the establishment. Left populists seek power to destroy it. The Left views current social structures as the end product of a history of subjugation and annihilation. Except for a small band of heroic rebels, only two classes remain: oppressors and victims. Oppressors must be hounded without mercy. Most belong in prison. To ensure perfect equity, the state must intervene in every outcome. To protect victims from harm, hatred must be interpreted as broadly as possible and criminalized. To save the earth, capitalism and industry must be suffocated.
But victims need to be managed as well—otherwise, they might be manipulated into acting against their own interest. Thus, speech must be regulated, to defeat disinformation. Education must be controlled, to teach at the earliest age the categories of victimhood and oppression. History must be obliterated, to drain the poison that is the past. The ignorant and indigent, the addicted and homeless—all must be led, lest they bargain away their authenticity for bourgeois consumerism.
In The Network State, tech entrepreneur Balaji Srinivasan refers to this sect as “the authoritarian left.” The system that it seeks to impose is oriented toward absolute moral purity, encouraged by the occasional figurative human sacrifice. Its chosen method of rule terrifies even the institutional elites: the Internet mob.
The politics of control unite the extreme center and left populism: at present, the two factions share an uneasy alliance. This is only partly a contradiction. The center is ideologically exhausted and requires justification for control. In identity and environmentalism, the Left supplies that justification. The center is also aware that institutional power has decayed and verges on collapse. By its ability to summon the digital mob, the Left can offer social control over a restless public. At any rate, left populism today is not revolutionary but performative: it needs the media to build a proper stage on which to strut. The young rebels are often the children of the elites, getting credentialed in moral drama before they ascend to leadership.
Because of this odd marriage of convenience, we find ourselves governed by an establishment that preaches antiestablishment doctrines, authorities who repudiate authority, and keepers of a constitutional order who reject the historical legitimacy of that order. The impulse is to strip society down to wise guardians, shepherding masses of protected victims. “Deplorables” who dissent will be taxed, regulated, prosecuted, and shamed into embracing victimhood. The abiding nightmare is of a peasant revolt from the right. Above all considerations, the aim, therefore, is to retain control. Yet the burden of paradox is too great. In the hands of the bipolar, reactionary-progressive Biden administration, the arrangement appears to be breaking apart.
Right populism is wholly fixated on dismantling the invasive projects of the establishment Left: its instincts are anti-control. That is not inconsequential. Those wishing for a healthy democracy—and I include myself in that number—should feel relieved that a balancing force exists to the will to power.
Beyond the stance of repudiation, however, it is hard to discern a set of overarching principles behind the various positions staked out by right populist politicians. Support for personal freedom, for example, is often countered by a devotion to the strictures of traditional morality. Illegal immigration is universally condemned, but possible reasons range from respect for the law to racism. To complicate matters, there’s a strong performative element here, too, particularly when it comes to cultural issues. That very model of a modern right populist, Donald Trump, was easily the biggest star on the digital stage.
It’s a politics of incoherence, and maybe that’s part of the appeal. Voters discontented with the status quo can select their favorite bits out of the ideological heap. By the same token, this Rorschach effect allows leftists to project their darkest fears onto right populism. Fevered accusations of authoritarianism, and even fascism, along with sloppy labels like “national populism,” abounded during the Trump years. As recently as September, President Biden declared that “MAGA Republicans” represented “a clear and present danger” and “an assault on American democracy.”
A movement that derives its energy from anti-control anger is unlikely to develop the military-style obedience demanded by authoritarianism, let alone fascism. The “democracy dies in darkness” mantra was a transparent (and successful) attempt to deny the legitimacy of right populism, chanted endlessly by thinkers and journalists on the left, who seemed blind to their own authoritarian tendencies. Evidence of a coming right-wing dictatorship always involved some performative outrage by Trump—against immigrants, say, or the news media. Trump’s behavior, as president, remained offensive to the bitter end—but the “insurgents” who tramped into the Capitol on January 6, 2021, looked nothing like brownshirts and totally like the ultimate nonconformists they were.
The connection to nationalism is murkier, not least because the word admits to any number of definitions. For Europe’s right populists—Marine Le Pen in France, Viktor Orbán in Hungary—the past is conceived as a perpetual struggle for national identity against the onslaught of the ancestral enemy. In this context, Muslim immigration gets conflated with the battles of Tours and Vienna: the Saracen is always on the march, and the nation is always on the brink of extinction. “It is not written in the great book of humanity that there must be Hungarians in the world,” Orbán has warned. “It is only written in our hearts—but the world cares nothing for that.” Here we can safely speak of a “national populism,” rooted, according to Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin, in fears of “national decline and destruction.”
But for Americans, history is where old memories go to die. Few of us worry about ancestral enemies, and only our intellectuals expect a national apocalypse. Trump famously promised to make America great again, but like his compatriots, he lacked a sense of the past: an actual vision of the greatness to which we were supposed to return. The slogan merely gestured to the “carnage” brought about by the establishment’s relentless hunger for victims. Typically, despite the drama over our monuments, neither the populist Left nor the populist Right has much taste for history. For the Left, the past pinpoints the location of our original sin. For the Right, it’s the home of “normal”—and the war against “normies” goes beyond immigration to sexual fluidity, crime, homelessness, abortion, inflation, and every disaster for which the Left is blamed. This follows naturally from the oppositional reflex; as a nationalistic narrative, it’s pretty tame stuff.
After Trump’s defeat in 2020, a new generation of right populists emerged to carry the attack on the establishment to new fronts. Two Republican governors, Ron DeSantis of Florida and Glenn Youngkin of Virginia, conspicuously sided with a parents’ revolt against the impositions of identity activists in education: public schools, long an issue of the Left, have now become a strength for the populist Right.
DeSantis has gone out of his way to pick fights with powerful corporations. He has punished Disney, a major employer in Florida, and harshly criticized investment firms for promoting a “woke ideology”—meaning the racial and sexual obsessions of the Left. DeSantis offers a standard populist argument against the rule of billionaires: “Do we govern ourselves through our constitution and through our elections, or do we have these masters of the universe occupying these commanding heights of society?” In the culture wars, it seems, Americans are once again being crucified on a cross of gold—but the harshest condemnations of big business and big money, remarkably, have flipped from the Left to the Right.
Yet while younger proponents of right populism have expanded the field of play, they have shown little interest in tightening the consistency of their message. Like Trump, they remain focused on repudiation and contradiction. Both DeSantis and Youngkin have used the power of the state to mandate anti-woke policies on public schools. What principle would prevent such a move from being borrowed, and abused, by the zealots of the populist Left? No doubt both governors would argue that they were simply enforcing the parents’ wishes. But, in another anti-woke exercise, DeSantis hasn’t hesitated to intervene between parents and underage children who wish to be medically mutilated because they identify as transgender. It’s still a series of tactical repulses of the establishment Left: still a politics of incoherence. A fair question is whether this matters much in the grand scheme of things.
Let me suggest that principles do matter, for very practical reasons. The Republicans are almost certain to pick a populist as candidate for the presidency in 2024. In a healthy democracy, the great debate that year would be about how to reconfigure our institutions to regain the public’s trust and how far the authority of these institutions should stretch—that is, where to place the boundary between personal freedom and state power. As matters now stand, the best we can hope for is a contest of grievances. That’s the optimistic scenario. Far more probable is an orgy of mutual demonization like we experienced in 2016 and 2020, and will continue to endure, so long as negation dominates our politics, until the wheels come off the system.
Ideology, like a compass, orients a political movement to ensure forward progress. It’s the antidote to negation. It wouldn’t magically transform the 2024 campaign into a Socratic dialogue, but it would make substantive debate possible.
A second question is whether a right populist ideology can be articulated at all. The answer: Why not? The trick is to make every buried assumption explicit. Such an ideology need not be a ponderous, Marxist-style theory of history—though it would identify the American past with the progress of freedom within the bounds of the law. It’s the derailing of this trajectory by the Left that has triggered the outrage behind right populism.
Because we don’t like to overthink our politics, any American ideology must be fairly minimalistic. Three basic principles and their consequences should suffice.
The first is sovereignty. The individual citizen bestows legitimacy on the state, not the other way around. Government exists for the governed and solely based on their consent, never as an exercise in sheer power, no matter how noble the objective. For years, unaccountable “masters of the universe” have occupied government. They have “reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost,” as Trump put it in his inaugural speech. The institutions of power have cut the anchor cable to the public and are drifting into the maelstrom. The political mission of right populism is to restore the rule of consent.
This is the fundamental creed of an ideology of personal freedom. Implied is the need for government to be flatter, faster, more responsive, and more transparent. That will require the reconfiguration of current structures, which are hierarchical and bureaucratic. That, in turn, will almost certainly mean digitization, with interesting consequences: with networked government, anyone can be anywhere, so entire federal agencies can be transferred to the interior from Washington, D.C. Domestic policies will be tailored to the state level rather than being one-size-fits-all. In a digital environment, referenda will be frequent—and frequently disruptive.
“With networked government, anyone can be anywhere, so entire federal agencies can be transferred to the interior.”
The second principle is equality. In a free society, there are no guardians. There are no deplorables. There are no privileged groups, not even when composed of victims demanding special treatment by way of reparation. Elected officials are no more exalted than your next-door neighbor: they should never be allowed to profit from their service. Billionaires should never get to purchase ideological obedience. Unelected regulators should never make law. Before the institutions of power and law, money and learning, each citizen, as citizen, is indistinguishable from every other. The social mission of right populism is to restore equality.
Since poverty and crime are the most destructive breeders of inequality, increased choices must be provided in public schooling, the employment market, and health care—and citizens must be equally protected from the “carnage” caused by violence in the streets. Rather than a feast for lawyers and special pleaders, laws must be short, simple, and easily understood. Term limits should apply to all elected offices.
The final principle is obligation. In any anti-control movement, there must be a binding force of self-control: otherwise, things fly apart. If right populism wants the citizen to be equal and sovereign over the state, it must embody for all citizens our obligations to one another, to our shared morality, to personal integrity, decency, generosity, and mutual respect. Duty and loyalty toward family, friends, and country are part of the equation. The moral mission of right populism is to restore this sense of obligation.
Implied is the obligation to obey the law—an obligation that falls on everyone, on all occasions. To change immigration practices, for example, there must first be a change in immigration legislation. The same holds true for racial favoritism, street encampments, shoplifting, and the use or sale of hard drugs. There can be no selective enforcement, no “sanctuary” from the rule of law.
An ideology isn’t an instruction manual. Contradictions will endure. To give just one example: sovereignty implies keeping taxation at the lowest possible levels, while equality could mean that the rich will be heavily taxed. At this point, doctrine must yield to politics. The two principles of taxation will be rank-ordered differently by specific politicians and validated or rejected by the voters.
While there isn’t a fully articulated right populist foreign policy, the elements of one can be teased out if we translate the anti-control impulse into a strong antipathy to dependence on foreign powers. Following this precept, the U.S. would develop all its energy resources to the maximum, for example. The American military would remain the most lethal force in the world, but the crusading spirit—the need to make the world safe for democracy or engage in nation-building—would disappear. Instead of playing cop to the world, we would be a sovereign nation pursuing our economic and geopolitical interests. We would fully meet our treaty obligations and insist that our allies do the same.
The supply chains that feed the American economy must be unplugged from China. The illusion that China’s economic development would necessarily lead to democracy, or even normalization, must be abandoned. The Beijing regime will never be bound to any set of external rules: only pressure will contain its behavior. We have no interest in dictating to China, but at every point of contact, from trade to military posture, a policy of intelligent engagement and tit for tat should impose on the regime a keen awareness of our priorities and capabilities.
Middle East policy would build on Trump administration initiatives, aligning Israel with the Arab oil nations to prevent the spread of Iranian influence. Negotiations with Tehran will end unless the total elimination of Iran’s military nuclear potential is on the table. Iran with the bomb is unacceptable: otherwise, the Middle East, not to say the entire world, will depend on the kindness of a gangster state.
The Russia–Ukraine war divides right populists. Trump evidently believes that Putin can be dealt with. Others condemn U.S. support for Ukraine as a futile exercise in interventionism and nation-building. A third position is that Ukraine must be defended and Putin stopped, but adds that U.S. weakness under Biden invited Russian aggression; DeSantis appears to fall into this last camp. As with the question of taxes, this dispute can be resolved only in the political arena.
If I were to guess at the New Jerusalem looming in the mind of the right populist, it might look something like this. The government’s hand weighs lightly on the citizen, but the law is strictly enforced. The circle of personal freedom is as wide as can be consistent with social order. In a nation of equals, all fulfill their duty to family, community, and country. Social relations have returned to “normal,” with two sexes instead of 72 genders, and enterprise and innovation favored over eco-doom and pro-identity theater. The past is once again populated with heroes and sages our children should aspire to emulate. The future is an open frontier.
And further: the United States is strong enough to deter aggression but loath to plunge into debilitating military adventures. Alliances and transnational forums like the United Nations aren’t a stage on the way to a “rules-based” world order but frameworks to advance our national interest. Born of a revolt against the domestic politics of control, right populism is not about to ask permission from the global iteration of the extreme center.
Like all ideals, these sentiments represent an alternate vision to what actually exists, something presumably finer or more just. To the extent that right populism gains power in the immediate future, the collision between ideals and reality will intensify. That’s in the nature of things: stimulated by events, a doctrine will either expand and evolve, or, if the fit with a political majority fails, disintegrate into sectarian noise. As we look to the 2024 presidential season, those of us who hope for the advance of freedom will watch with keen interest which way the right populists turn.
Top Photo: Ron DeSantis of Florida and other Republican governors have sided with parents in their battles against ideological educational curricula—and public schools, long an issue of the Left, have become a strength for the populist Right. (JOE RAEDLE/GETTY IMAGES)