Donald Trump’s public feuding with his own senior appointees is a signature aspect of his tumultuous presidency. The Fed chairman, Jerome Powell, and his colleagues are “boneheads”; a former national security adviser (John Bolton) is a “wacko”; and his former secretary of state (Rex Tillerson) is “dumb as a rock.”
Beyond the idiosyncratic personal dramas of the Trump administration, these public insults point to an important issue surrounding the ideological battles over populism. Although populism casts itself in opposition to technocratic expertise, like any modern political movement it ultimately relies upon it. This is especially true in the present political environment.
In theory, populists should favor democratic processes that allow for wide-ranging citizen input in policy formation; technocrats, by contrast, rely on a narrow group of “experts” to shape policy. But events of recent years have challenged these assumptions: The executive bureaucracy has proved a more reliable instrument for translating populist causes into policy than nominally democratic institutions like Congress.
For populist policy reforms to succeed, populists — especially those on the right — need to drop their naïve and self-defeating pretensions of “dismantling the administrative state.” Populism should not be conceived as a rejection of all technocratic expertise but rather as a competing vision of how to use it, a concept that some scholars have termed “technopopulism.”
In this regard, populists have a lot to learn from the failures of the Trump administration. Despite his extremely aggressive use of the presidency’s bully pulpit, Mr. Trump had little success in marshaling popular or legislative majorities to drive major changes in policy. Whatever incremental progress the administration made on the distinctive, populist elements of Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign — like revising trade policies with China, promoting advanced manufacturing or beginning to rein in reining in tech monopolies — was almost entirely achieved through executive orders or technocratic agencies like the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.
By contrast, Mr. Trump’s biggest legislative achievement was the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, largely an “establishment Republican” creation that primarily benefited the ultrawealthy. Notably, the more populist aspects of the tax law — like limitations on state and local tax deductions, limitations on corporate debt interest deductibility and new taxes on enormous university endowments — owe more to Treasury bureaucrats and “D.C. insiders” than to grass-roots organizing or mass media appeals.
Indeed, with the exception of the First Step Act (criminal-justice reform), Congress proved remarkably unresponsive to popular opinion during the last four years. The tax law was the second-least popular piece of legislation of the last quarter century. The least popular also came in Mr. Trump’s term, in 2017: the attempted repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
But Mr. Trump’s Department of Health and Human Services and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services — one of the more opaque parts of the executive bureaucracy — recently finalized a rule-making process to control the costs of some prescription drugs based on the prices negotiated by foreign governments, an initiative that has polled well for years.
Today, it seems that the more attention a populist (or any other) policy proposal receives, the less likely it is to be implemented. Fewer than 20 miles of new, primary construction were completed on Mr. Trump’s notorious border wall, while immigration legislation like the Raise Act went nowhere. High-profile left-populist proposals like “Medicare for all” also seem to have stalled out.
The popularity of such proposals waxes and wanes. Very often, they are subject to the logic of polarization — embrace by one side means the other side will do everything to thwart it. But whatever the reasons, this trend contradicts conventional understandings of American democracy. Mass campaigns and institutions increasingly function as arenas where popular enthusiasms burn themselves out, not as avenues for ordinary people to influence policy.
This mismatch between popular institutions and populist policy achievements is not accidental but reflects an underlying reality of America’s increasingly oligarchic politics. Influencing public opinion and organizing mass campaigns are now very expensive propositions; they largely rely on billionaire donors and large corporations or foundations that typically have little interest in structural changes to the status quo.
At the same time, social media and other popular media are largely controlled by, or at least consumed through, a handful of Big Tech platforms. For these and other reasons, technocratic bureaucracies — although they can certainly be captured — actually retain greater capacity for autonomous policymaking in the public interest than theoretically democratic institutions like legislatures.
In this environment, the prospects for populist policy reforms will depend less on legislation or so-called grass-roots organizing than on the personnel and actions of technocratic executive agencies. Rather than pursue the hopeless and counterproductive task of eliminating these agencies, populists should focus on trying to positively influence them. Elections are one way to do that, of course, but hardly the only one. And in the case of the Trump administration, at least, staffing decisions only occasionally matched campaign messaging.
The weakness and unresponsiveness of nominally democratic institutions is likely to be a source of political instability for the foreseeable future. Given the low confidence in these institutions, however, the competent use of the state apparatus to address real problems —what is sometimes called “performance legitimacy” — will be more important to the success of any political movement than merely winning elections.
Mr. Trump’s surprise 2016 election victory did reorient popular and even elite discourse in ways that should not be minimized. An emphasis on revitalizing American manufacturing and industrial policy — as in President-elect Joe Biden’s “Made in America” plan — is now a hallmark of ambitious proposals on the right and left. But victorious election campaigns do not automatically translate into fundamental changes in policy.
For this very reason, supporters as well as critics of populism must recognize that its fate will not be determined simply by whether purportedly populist candidates win or lose elections. Ultimately, populism’s success rests not on the stridency of its opposition to the technocratic elite but on the degree of its incorporation into it.
Julius Krein is the editor of American Affairs.
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