The GOP’s Pitchfork Populism Is Older Than Trump

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As Donald Trump walked into the Mar-a-Lago ballroom where he was about to announce his 2024 run for president, the words “Do you hear the people sing, singing a song of angry men?” boomed over the loudspeakers. Whether or not their politics match those of the protagonists of Les Misérables, the musical from which that song originates, angry men and women have indeed formed the backbone of the Trump political phenomenon over the last seven years.

Today, the question on many minds is whether those still loyal to the former president will be enough to return him to the White House for a second nonconsecutive term—or whether Republican primary voters may finally be ready to try their luck with someone else.

As onlookers try to deduce where the GOP and the country are heading, they may find value in reviewing the journey that led to this point. How did the Republican Party get from Ronald Reagan—a man who read F.A. Hayek and Frédéric Bastiat and who spoke of America as a welcoming “city on a hill”—to the nativism, protectionism, and populism of Trump?

From the moment he launched his first campaign in 2015, pundits and politicos were staggered both by Trump’s behavior and by voters’ enthusiastic response to it. “Conservatives believed in the magic of a free market unconstrained by government interference, while Trump openly tried to pressure and coerce private companies to act as he thought they should,” writes Wall Street Journal editor Gerald F. Seib in a recent book. “Conservatives believe in limited executive power; Trump envisioned himself as a president with wide latitude to use executive orders to do as he pleased. Conservatives seek to reduce government spending; Trump proudly proclaimed he had no desire to cut the fastest-growing government programs.”

It wasn’t just his rejection of economic liberalism and embrace of big government that shocked people. It was his crude insults, his attacks on fellow Republicans, his willingness to transgress norms and to encourage an ugly us-vs.-them mentality among his supporters.

But in 2020’s We Should Have Seen It Coming: From Reagan to Trump—A Front-Row Seat to a Political Revolution (Random House), Seib suggests onlookers shouldn’t have been shocked. Anger had long been a recurring theme in right-wing politics.

“The signs were there for years,” he explains. “The populist presidential campaigns of Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot; the anti-establishment, anti-intellectual vice presidential campaign of Sarah Palin; the Tea Party revolt; and above all, the rancorous debates over immigration reform were just the most obvious of indicators. Most of us either didn’t take them seriously enough or had other explanations.”

In 2022’s Partisans: The Conservative Revolutionaries Who Remade American Politics in the 1990s (Basic Books), the Vanderbilt historian Nicole Hemmer advances a similar hypothesis: that the real rupture on the right happened almost three decades before Trump burst onto the political scene. “Nearly as soon as Reagan left office,” she writes, “the conservative movement he represented began to rapidly evolve, skittering away from the policies, rhetoric, and even ideology” associated with the Gipper. During the ’90s, she says, “the sunny optimism of the Reagan era fell away, and grievance politics took over.”

Close the Borders and Own the Libs

Seib and Hemmer agree: Before there was Donald Trump, there was Pat Buchanan.

A political commentator and Reagan administration alum, Buchanan eventually adopted a “paleoconservative” worldview: economically protectionist, militarily noninterventionist, socially traditionalist, and rabidly anti-immigrant. In 1992, he announced his decision to challenge incumbent President George H.W. Bush for the Republican nomination with these words: “He is a globalist, and we are nationalists….He would put America’s wealth and power at the service of some vague new world order. We will put America first.”

Buchanan, Hemmer writes, “develop[ed] a politics that was not just conservative but antiliberal, that leaned into the coarseness of American culture and brought it into politics, that valued scoring political points above hewing to ideological principles.” Think of it as a pilot program for the flavor of conservatism today that’s obsessed with “owning the libs.”

Along the way, the peculiarly angry Buchanan picked up the moniker “Pitchfork Pat”—an implicit callback, Hemmer notes, to “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, who had “led the Red Shirts, a white-supremacist paramilitary group, in their efforts to seize power in South Carolina in the 1870s” and later “worked to disenfranchise all Black voters, called for lynchings, and encouraged a violent coup.”

Though Buchanan’s candidacy eventually fizzled, Seib notes that the excitement it generated early on “helped persuade billionaire Texas businessman Ross Perot to run as an independent candidate, pushing a similar anti-establishment message” that rejected both trade and military adventurism. Astonishingly, despite an erratic campaign in which he dropped out in the summer and then reentered the race that fall, Perot claimed nearly a fifth of the 1992 popular vote.

Other Republican pugilists also made waves during this period. Newt Gingrich became House minority whip in 1989 and speaker in 1995. He brought a “scorched earth approach” to both roles, Hemmer writes, weaponizing ethics investigations against his Democratic colleagues and enlisting pollster Frank Luntz “to train Republicans to speak a new language, one that would demonize their opponents and shroud even their most unpopular ideas in a gauze of punchy, positive words.” (Ironically, Gingrich was forced to resign from Congress following a corruption scandal of his own, while the American Association for Public Opinion Research formally censured Luntz for unethical polling practices.)

Less remembered today are figures such as Rep. Helen Chenoweth-Hage, an Idaho Republican who made good on a promise to serve just three terms in the House of Representatives and then faded from the scene. But during her stint as a congressman—and she insisted on referring to herself as a congressman—Chenoweth-Hage delighted in pushing the buttons of what certain right-wingers today might refer to as “normies” and “libs.” Like the time she showed up at a campaign event in a T-shirt emblazoned with the environmentalist message “Earth First!” on the front; the back read, “We’ll log the other planets later.”

Then there were the conservative media stars: talk radio hosts such as Rush Limbaugh, who trained a maniacal fanbase to shout “feminazi!” whenever Hillary Clinton’s name came up; cable news personalities such as Ann Coulter, who responded to 9/11 by declaring that the U.S. should “invade their countries, kill their leaders, and convert them to Christianity”; and public “intellectuals” like Dinesh D’Souza, who wrote a book so flagrantly racist that black conservatives Glenn Loury and Robert Woodson severed ties with the American Enterprise Institute rather than share an affiliation with its author.

All of these figures appealed to a group sometimes referred to as the “middle American radicals,” or MARs. This is the same constituency of left-behind blue-collar workers and social conservatives, supposedly long ignored by Republican elites, who fueled the Trump wave in 2016.

At the 1999 Iowa Straw Poll, Buchanan gave a speech that was hostile to trade and immigration, as his speeches always were. “His biggest applause line, though, came near the end,” Hemmer writes, “when he said that if he were elected, his first act would be to place Bill Clinton under arrest.” More than any particular policy commitment, the MARs seemed motivated by feelings of resentment and a desire to see their enemies humiliated. Trump, of course, would return to that well, leading crowds in exuberant chants of “Lock her up!” a few years later.

Reward Friends and Punish Enemies

If Hemmer’s history of conservatism describes the U-turn from Reaganite liberalism to MAGA illiberalism happening earlier than many people realize, another recent entrant in the genre further complicates the story. In 2022’s The Right: The Hundred Year War for American Conservatism (Basic Books), journalist Matthew Continetti turns the clock back another seven decades and finds no dearth of economic nationalism or outrage peddling in the interim.

Under Presidents Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge, Continetti notes, the Republican Party of the 1920s was skeptical of internationalism, presaging Buchanan and Perot’s opposition to the first Iraq War in the ’90s and Trump’s repudiation of the second Iraq War during his 2016 run. While Harding and Coolidge tended to support free markets at home, they also favored high tariffs to protect American producers from competition abroad. And like both Buchanan and Trump, they were hostile to immigration.

Proponents a century ago bundled those rough policy positions together under the “America First” banner. Buchanan, as we’ve already seen, called back to that term in his 1992 announcement speech. Trump, too, invoked it repeatedly on the campaign trail and during his presidency. “A new vision will govern our land,” he declared during his inaugural address in January 2017. “From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first. America first.”

Hemmer says of Buchanan that “he did not run from his more extreme views on race, feminism, and sexuality. Instead, he made them cornerstones of his presidential campaigns…evidence that he would always say what he believed, no matter how outrageous.” It was a surprisingly effective tactic: “People liked him because he said outrageous things, because he flouted political norms,” she writes.

“Vince Thompson, part of the Buchanan brigade, explained his support to the Los Angeles Times this way: ‘We’re scared to say what we think some of the real problems are in this country for fear of being called a racist or extremist. Pat says it for us.'”

That should sound familiar, in part because it’s the same thing many Trump fans have long asserted about him. “Even when he’s not on message or when he’s not on issues, he comes across as somebody that says things they would like to say,” Limbaugh once explained, channeling his listeners’ feelings toward Trump.

But it probably sounds familiar because it’s a much older trope as well.

A recurring character in Continetti’s book is Gov. George Wallace, an infamous Alabama Democrat who championed racial segregation in the 1960s. Explaining his appeal, the right-wing Dartmouth professor Jeffrey Hart wrote that “Wallace suggests freedom from the conventional taboos. The man says what he thinks. Wouldn’t it be fun to do that?”

Finding that outright racism puts a ceiling on one’s support, however, Wallace eventually lit on a subtler strategy, one that many a future conservative would also adopt. “As the [1968] presidential election approached,” Continetti writes, “he began to downplay his segregationism and stepped up his anti-elitism.” His support grew across the board as he fed audiences “a diet of grievances.”

Speaking of grievance politics, one group who felt especially aggrieved during this period was the religious conservatives. As time went on, they coalesced into what became known in the ’70s as the New Right: those who opposed lax divorce and abortion laws, gay rights, feminism, busing, media bias, and the like. They were intensely socially conservative, and they were livid that their priorities did not seem to be the Republican Party’s. Some of them would turn up within the paleoconservative faction a couple of decades later.

The New Right “was different from both National Review and the neoconservatism of…the Wall Street Journal editorial pages,” Continetti explains, citing an essay by Kevin Phillips, the architect of the Nixon campaign’s so-called Southern strategy. “Their New York–based writers were too removed from Middle America. They were too academic, too upper-middle-class, too closely associated with the Republican Party to be trusted. The conservative intellectuals, Phillips believed, were too interested in maintaining respectability among liberals. The New Right did not care about elite validation.” What it did believe in was “aggressive political combat.”

Today there’s a new New Right, a messy amalgamation of “postliberal conservatives” and “national conservatives,” “neoreactionaries” and Trump fans, all united by their own politics of resentment—and their desire to jettison free markets and free trade in favor of a “muscular” government that “rewards friends and punishes enemies,” to quote an oft-repeated phrase.

Like the New Right of the 1970s turned up to a higher pitch, the current iteration believes its interests have been overlooked by the institutional Republican Party and the constellation of think tanks and advocacy organizations it mockingly calls Conservatism Inc. Its leaders are uninterested in Reaganesque celebrations of individual liberty and American exceptionalism. It’s once again time, they say, for aggressive political combat. And today’s New Right is out for blood.

Trust People and Shrink the State

None of the forerunners of today’s New Right is a perfect analog. For one thing, many of the groups described in these books were laissez faire when it came to economics—at least for Americans.

Consider that Buchanan’s primary challenge to George H.W. Bush was motivated in large part by fury at the latter’s decision to renege on his “read my lips: no new taxes” campaign pledge, which confirmed many conservatives’ suspicion that he was actually a centrist squish. Buchanan was also doggedly committed to reducing federal spending, while a balanced-budget amendment was at the heart of the Perot campaign.

The Tea Party movement, which Seib sees as a precursor to Trump, was largely driven by limited-government principles. Reducing taxes, regulations, and spending were the centerpieces of the movement’s agenda. The spark that lit the initial conflagration was a rant where CNBC’s Rick Santelli went nuclear over the idea that Washington should bail out Americans with mortgages on houses they couldn’t afford. “We just saw the government was getting too big and doing things that were outside the scope of the government,” Seib quotes one Tea Party supporter explaining.

Even the New Right of the 1970s, for all its blustering pitchfork populism, had a libertarian side. “Its aim was a dramatic reduction in the reach of the state,” Continetti writes, quoting a New Right activist demanding “99 percent for Defense—keep America strong—and 1 percent on delivering the mail. That’s it. Leave us alone.”

Today’s New Right is, if anything, leftist on economics: enamored of industrial policy, supportive of family subsidies, friendly to labor unions, etc., all with an aim of reaching the working man. But one lesson of 20th century conservative history is that populism need not be linked to calls for an activist central government. Often, anti-elite sentiments emerge as a backlash to feelings of encroachment by the state.

While the New Right today has positioned itself as a rejection of “warmed-over Reaganism”—by which it means reflexive support for free markets and individual liberty—Reagan himself emerged out of the New Right of the 1970s. He offered an alternative to establishment figures such as National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr., whom he debated on Buckley’s TV show, Firing Line, in 1978. Like Wallace without the horrifying racial baggage, Reagan stood for a conservatism of “bold, unmistakable colors, with no pastel shades.” But nothing about bold, principled politics required the kind of ugly, angry rhetoric associated with Buchanan and Trump.

“Reagan now spoke for the voters who felt ignored or disrespected by bureaucrats, judges, professors, and journalists,” Continetti writes. “He did so in uplifting, soothing tones. And he did not dwell on race.”

It worked. He defeated incumbent President Jimmy Carter in a 44-state landslide in 1980, then improved on that performance in 1984.

“For decades, movement conservatism had been intractably linked with Arizona senator Barry Goldwater, far-right groups like the conspiratorial John Birch Society, and frothing segregationists unable to come to terms with the success of the civil rights movement,” Hemmer writes. Reagan “persuaded a hefty majority of Americans that he was something different.”

He did it by embracing optimism and inclusivity, not resentment and distrust—articulating a positive, future-oriented vision in which government is limited and people can be trusted to make decisions for themselves. In the 1980s, Reagan told voters it could be morning in America, and they believed him. As we head into the election of 2024, might Americans be ready to greet the morning again?

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