Here are some of the things that have been said by the guy who has galvanized the GOP’s Tea Party base and taken the lead in the Republican presidential race:
“Every Republican wants to do a big number on Social Security, they want to do it on Medicare, they want to do it on Medicaid. And we can’t do that.”
“As far as single payer [health care], it works in Canada, it works incredibly well in Scotland. … You can’t let the people in this country, the people without the money and resources, to go without healthcare.”
“People as they make more and more money can pay a higher percentage” of taxes.
Only one of two conclusions can be drawn here. Either the Tea Party base—which the media would have us think mainly consists of angry libertarians inveighing against taxes and runaway big government—hasn’t really been listening to Donald Trump, who made all the above statements, or, alternatively, most of the media have read the Tea Party and its true aims and ambitions entirely wrong.
I suggest the latter is the correct answer. The success of Trump’s campaign has, if nothing else, exposed the Tea Party for what it really is; Trump’s popularity is, in effect, final proof of what some of us have been arguing for years:
That the Tea Party is less a libertarian movement than a right-wing version of populism. Think William Jennings Bryan or Huey Long, not Ayn Rand. Tea Partiers are less upset about the size of government overall than they are that so much of it is going to other people, especially immigrants and nonwhites. They are for government for them and against government for Not-Them.
This is what explains a lot of what’s going on now. After all, according to the commentariat, the Summer of Trump was supposed to have been the Summer of Rand Paul. It seems like only yesterday that the media were interpreting the rise of the Tea Party as a triumph of anti-statism and predicting that Paul, with his libertarian views on national security and data privacy, represented the future of the American right.
But Paul has all but disappeared from view, polling in the low single digits, while Trump has soared into the lead, and nothing he says, no matter how outrageous, seems to sour the right-wing base on him. Trump is no libertarian; quite the opposite. He is a classic populist of the right who peddles suspicion of foreigners—it’s no accident that he was the country’s leading “birther” raising questions about Barack Obama’s citizenship—combined with a kind of “producerism.” In populist ideology, society is divided not among rich and poor but among producers and parasites.
Populists are suspicious of unearned wealth, including the interest charged by bankers who manipulate “other people’s money” (to use the phrase of Louis Brandeis). And populists the world over are hostile to the idle or undeserving poor who allegedly live on welfare at the expense of productive workers and capitalists. Populists tend to attribute the existence of large numbers of the idle rich and the idle poor to government corruption. In the words of the 1892 People’s Party platform: “From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes—tramps and millionaires.”
To anyone paying attention, it should have been clear from the 2010 elections onward that Tea Party voters were at odds with the libertarians in the Republican donor class and Beltway think tanks. Further confirmation came when David Brat, an obscure college professor, defeated Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a 2014 Republican primary in a shocking upset. Cantor was punished for supporting more legal immigration and amnesty for illegal immigrants, something favored by Republican elites but opposed by conservative voters. Of immigration, Brat told Fox News: “It’s the most symbolic issue that captures the differences between me and Eric Cantor.”