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America’s conservatism goes European populist

  • Published at 05:57 pm December 23rd, 2016
  • Last updated at 05:59 pm December 23rd, 2016
America’s conservatism  goes European populist

One of the most frequent and insistent criticisms thrown at President Obama’s way by his Republican detractors has been that he desired to bring “European style socialism” into the pristine precincts of the American body politic.

Like a throwback to an earlier era when the self-appointed arbiters of American exceptionalism perceived a Soviet Communist conspiracy under every bed, the Obama era featured a similar refrain of fear and loathing about “socialism” being imported surreptitiously in nice looking packages from Europe.

With the results of the 2016 presidential elections finalised, the irony couldn’t be more stunning: Indeed, a very European style political coalition has arrived on American shores, but it has come bearing the mantle of the Donald Trump-led Republican Party.

That this new party, or at least its putative leaders, has shown not only a willingness but a preference for tremendous levels of government involvement in the domestic economy and foreign trade could very well gladden the hearts of many an ENA-trained French central planning bureaucrat.

The populism espoused by the Trumpian Republican Party is not socialism per se, but it does have some overlapping with economic approaches often favoured by European socialists.

While populism generally died out as a cogent political ideology in the United States after its heyday in the 1890-1920 era, it has had a luckier run on the eastern side of the Atlantic.

The fusion of ethno-nationalist rhetoric, paternalistic economic prescriptions, and paeans (rather than fealty) to social traditionalism undergird the populism that swept Europe in the 1930s, spiked in certain parts of Germany, Ireland, and Greece in the 1960s, and has come back with a vengeance across the continent in the aftermath of 2008 global financial crisis.

Conversely, in the United States, the distaste of the two major parties for certain cardinal elements of European style populism had kept the latter firmly at bay, despite occasional insurgencies by fringe players like Henry Wallace in the 1940s on the left, and Pat Buchanan in the 1990s on the right.

The populism espoused by the Trumpian Republican Party is not socialism per se, but it does have some overlapping with economic approaches often favoured by European socialists

The elections of 2016 changed all that, even if temporarily. The party considered the guardian of the exceptional style of American political conservatism -- at least since the end of the Second World War -- is now led by an individual who seemingly stands at odds with most of the foundational principles of that creed.

In opposing free trade, social entitlement reform, strong posture vis-à-vis Russia, while encouraging nostalgia for the imagined halcyon days of the 1950s, the new national leadership of the new Republican Party has signaled a sharp departure from the erstwhile “three legged stool” concept of American political conservatism which, until now, has been represented by the Republicans.

Fiscal conservatism, national security based on robust international leadership across multiple dimensions, and individual moral rectitude have often been held up as the three legs of the modern American conservative “stool.”

In the election of Mr Trump, it appears that each of those three legs has been shaken with a vigour not seen with such simultaneous outburst before.

If the Trumpian vision of conservatism has its way, its vehicle, the Republican Party, may very well resemble a very different four-legged table with increased public spending, wariness of global leadership in favour of a partnership with Russia, ethno-nationalist nostalgia, and heavy-handed government intervention in the economy representing each leg respectively.

In other words, the marriage of populism and socialism to launch a very different version of political conservatism than has been known for three generations in America?

It is hard to tell. On one hand, most of the Republican political class, its donor base, and its scholarly caste has lined up behind Mr Trump as a matter of simple party loyalty rather than a sudden change of long held principles.

At the same time, however, it defies evidence to assume that Donald Trump became the Republican President in 2016 by some fluke: Au contraire, his rhetoric of populism and increased government involvement in economic course-setting had tremendous resonance. Mr Trump’s own streak of pragmatism could very well tell a story of a presidency that none of us have imagined yet.

What we do know for sure is this: Populism -- what a former US presidential candidate once called “the socialism of the right wing” has arrived in America with a pomp and splendour that was unimaginable a mere few months ago.

And in doing so, it has transformed the conservative political movement in the United States almost overnight. The only question that remains is this: Will this transformation be permanent, or will the movement go back to its philosophical roots once the era of Donald Trump has passed?

Esam Sohail is an educational research analyst and college lecturer of social sciences. He writes from Kansas, USA.

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