The cruelest thing a government can do to an opposition is to agree with it. The other party must choose between aging or more extreme views in a quest for discernment. The fierce republicanism that led Newt Gingrich in the 1990s was not an answer to Marxism, but to Bill Clinton, with his harsh criminal bills and welfare reform, its balanced budgets and cruise missile attacks.
A generation later, Joe Biden is working on a version of the same game. Undoubtedly, it is mostly out of self-will that Republicans move to the extreme sides of politics. Their online monoculture is to blame, just like them unofficial leader, Donald Trump. But this White House is also populist enough, often enough, to drop the party on the horns of a dilemma.
Count the ways Biden is a true populist than Trump ever was. As a candidate, Trump sided with the working Americans against the self-loving rich. As president, he chose the tax cuts, deregulation, and losing battle against Obamacare from a Republican handbook. If he had ruled as a class traitor of the 1 percent, I suspect the world would now be analyzing a second term of Trump. As it is, Biden has the chance to keep Trump’s promises to him and surpass them. Its infrastructure plan should comply with Congress this week. At 2700 pages he has a Russian novel with an edition drawing. He plans to raise taxes on high earners and for-profit companies. Even its rhetorical framework – taxation as social justice, not fiscal necessity – is populist.
In terms of protectionism, Trump fared better (or, as I and other free traders would have it, worse). But he never exceeded the tariffs against China and Europe to draw up a larger program. Biden, by the Buy American acquisition plan, has. It is sad that David Ricardo and other dead economists have to be dug up to describe the self-destructive folly here. Politics is much harder to blame.
The same goes for Biden’s most controversial act so far. Last month, it was said that the US had left all its credibility on the asphalt of Kabul International Airport. The most important development since then was the history of Australia trust vote in, well, the US. The surprise is not just what Biden has managed to save from a so-called serious loss of national prestige. Against virtually the entire institutional Washington, he completed the exit smoothly. After campaigning against the interventionist consensus, she conceded three predecessors to it. Even Trump delayed his proposed withdrawal from Syria in 2018.
After only nine months in office, the pattern here is hard to confuse. What Biden offers to voters is much of the content of populism without the accompanying noise and danger. And the self-control is possibly the result of him never having to prove his Everyman bona fides.
Trump is a real estate developer’s son whose hardships grew up in Queens. Boris Johnson went to a school that was too big to need a name. In France, Marine Le Pen is both daughter and mother in what could one day become a three-generation chain of far-right leadership. Populism’s reliance on pretenders and grandees for leadership would at some point leave it to real exposure.
Biden, half a century a creature in Washington, is not like that. In his background, however, he is closer to the ‘people’, whoever they are, than Trump or the next most prominent American populist, broadcaster Tucker Carlson. You would not know in advance how even the Democrats discussed him that he was busy three to win presidential tickets.
Consider the increasingly sad case of JD Vance for an idea of how difficult Biden’s opponents find his controlled populism. In 2016, the author of Hillbilly Elegy were both a Prophet of Trumpism and his insider critic. Five years later, with a U.S. Senate to win, there is something of the rent-a-quote controversial about his jabs with childless people and the ‘goons’ of the liberal C-suite. It may just be the rudeness of a political beginner. Or maybe it’s the fate of a party that has to try harder and harder to differentiate itself.
In 2016, protectionism was still subversive. This is now a banality. Defiers of the foreign policy blob was exotic. One now works in the Oval Office. These are, in a sense, profound victories for Republican populism. But it is also political torment. What clothes do you wear when your wardrobe is smashed? Only, it must be feared, the most ugly.