As the government shutdown over a border wall lingers and Donald Trump confronts a “nonstop political war” over the Mueller investigation, the president’s political future appears tenuous. But amid the immediate obstacles and challenges, there are signs that a Trumpian infrastructure is belatedly emerging.
Take, for example, Tucker Carlson’s much-discussed populist monologue on Fox News. In case you missed it, he attacked elites, saying: “We are ruled by mercenaries who feel no long-term obligation to the people they rule. They’re day traders. Substitute teachers. They’re just passing through. They have no skin in this game, and it shows.
“The overriding goal for America is more prosperity, meaning cheaper consumer goods,” Carlson lamented. “But is that still true? Does anyone still believe that cheaper iPhones or more Amazon deliveries of plastic garbage from China are going to make us happy? They haven’t so far. A lot of Americans are drowning in stuff. And yet drug addiction and suicide are depopulating large parts of the country. Anyone who thinks the health of a nation can be summed up in GDP is an idiot.”
It did more than launch a thousand thinkpieces; it also raised sober questions about the cultural contradictions of capitalism and conservative free market dogma.
Or consider Henry Olsen, who has begun writing opinion pieces regularly at The Washington Post, including one that criticized Mitt Romney for being “wildly out of touch” with Republican voters. As I wrote in July, “Olsen is, by far, the most persuasive conservative salesman for ‘Trumpism.’ If the NYT or WaPost wants someone worthy to represent that viewpoint, they should hire him.” It seems they were listening.
Like Carlson and historian Victor Davis Hanson (and unlike the grifters who originally filled the market niche), Olsen’s working-class conservatism predates Trump’s rise. So why are their voices finally garnering buzz? “It just so happens that Donald Trump is championing them now,” says Julie Ponzi, senior editor of American Greatness, one of the more Trumpian outlets Olsen contributes to.
American Greatness emerged to offer a gloss of highbrow intellectualism but in fact has more often mixed sophistry and lowbrow trolling. And it seems to be on the cusp of breaking through as, perhaps, the hot new outlet for Trump fans. As Emerald Robinson, chief White House correspondent for One America News Network (OANN), said recently, “It's clear that [American Greatness] is taking the place of legacy conservative mags.” Trump may have finally found his Human Events.
It has been a long time coming. Steve Bannon was presumably charged with creating a Trumpian infrastructure, but Trump fired him in August of 2017. That same year, a young writer named Julius Krein launched a quarterly called American Affairs to “give the Trump movement some intellectual heft.” At the time, Jonah Goldberg predicted that "It will take a good deal of time for even Trump's most gifted apologists to craft an intellectually or ideologically coherent theme or narrative to his program.”
Goldberg theorized that because Trump is so mercurial, it is impossible for an intellectually honest conservative—even one who shares Trump’s populist worldview—to defend him consistently. Proving Goldberg prescient, in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, Krein ended up recanting his support. Nevertheless, American Affairs is still churning out content, as are other Trumpy outlets like The American Mind, an online publication published by the Claremont Institute.
Still, just as Trump faces the strongest headwinds of his presidency, individuals and institutions to sustain a Trumpian worldview finally seem to be emerging. In some cases, this infrastructure is overtaking and/or replacing conservative intellectuals who were critical of Trumpism. For example, Sebastian Gorka, the former deputy assistant to the president, just launched a nationally syndicated Salem Radio Network talk show, replacing the venerable Michael Medved, who was no fan of the president.
This trend also includes some old names, including Ann Coulter (who almost single-handedly convinced Trump to shut down the government over his border wall) and Pat Buchanan (who is urging Trump to declare an emergency to build it).
Not content to worry whether Trumpism can endure after Trump is gone, Coulter and Buchanan are busy hoping Trump will actually stand up for Trumpism now.
Others argue that Trumpism can’t exist outside of Trump, because his is a cult of personality—and because there is no heir apparent. As Jim Antle writes, “Trump’s likeliest Republican successors at the moment are Mike Pence, who is not fully on board with his populist-nationalist revision of movement conservatism, and Nikki Haley, who largely opposes it.”
Maybe the truth is that Trumpism could actually fare better in his absence.
Tucker Carlson for President, anyone?
It could be argued that “America First” right-wing populism, though espoused rather inarticulately by its current figurehead, is anchored in tradition. These ideas, long dormant after World War II, have reemerged for a reason: Americans have a newfound yearning for them. Carlson and Olsen (among others) are tapping into this yearning. The problem is that Trump never articulated a coherent philosophy, and, as Antle tells me, “There's nobody translating his impulses into actionable policy.”
“At some point, Donald Trump will be gone… The country will remain. What kind of country will it be then? How do we want our grandchildren to live?” Carlson asked during his monologue.
Two years into his administration, Trump’s infrastructure is finally being retroactively constructed beneath him. But will this foundation be sturdy? And is it even possible to lay a foundation after you build a skyscraper?
I don’t know whether it will be branded with the “Trump” name. But I wouldn’t bet against populism any time soon.