Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s Wednesday night praise of Elizabeth Warren’s brand of economics has sparked a debate about what the Republican Party would look like, and more importantly how well it would do in elections, if it actually embraced “economic populism.”
Carlson, a media-savvy, reactionary white nationalist in the mold of Father Charles Coughlin, has been at this for quite a while. In a review of his newest book released last year, Current Affairs editor Nathan Robinson wrote about the juxtaposition between Carlson’s virulent racism and his accurate assessment that corporate America and the super-rich wield power over American politics. “If you don’t offer a compelling critique of free market capitalism, white nationalists will step in,” Robinson wrote, making the case for a turn toward socialism on the left. “Carlson-ism is so dangerous because parts of it are right.”
Carlson’s embrace of Warren (or this aspect of her campaign, anyway) in particular—one of the most prominent progressives in the race—gave new life to this debate. Writing for New York, Eric Levitz argues that as powerful and as dangerous as the GOP is now, it stands to be so much more so if it championed popular economic proposals. Levitz writes:
Trump’s first two years in office made this look like a moot point. The GOP donor class may have been unable to execute its will in the 2016 primary. But by all appearances, it still had a hammerlock on their party’s governing agenda. Once in office, the “populist” president danced to Paul Ryan’s tune. Plans for an infrastructure stimulus crumbled. Trump spent his honeymoon trying to euthanize Obamacare and increase post-tax inequality. All was right in the party of Koch.
But in recent months, a growing number of Republican officeholders and intellectuals have begun preaching Tucker’s gospel. Democrats should pray that they remain a minority sect, because if the GOP becomes more economically liberal before it grows less socially revanchist and contemptuous of democracy, the next populist Republican president could prove far more dangerous than our current one.
Levitz is exactly right in his assessment here. A Republican Party that actually embraced ideas like higher taxes on the wealthy, a higher minimum wage for workers, and some sort of universal healthcare system that actually covered everyone—combined with its strong commitment to white supremacy—would be a uniquely dangerous prospect for the left.
(To be clear, this is a fear with the Democrats as well, albeit a lesser one. While the Democratic Party’s coalition today is a multiracial one based in the working class, there’s still a prominent strain that thinks it can rebuild the New Deal coalition. In addition, center-left parties in Europe are making a hard-right turn against immigration, and prominent commentators in the U.S. are imploring Democrats to do just that in order to win. While the party won in 2018 with a more progressive and diverse coalition than it ever has before, the Democratic center does not have a good history here, even within the last two decades, and could capitalize on any future electoral losses by blaming the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortezes of the party.)
Because of the way that the Republican Party is organized and funded, however, the party itself would be forced to transform into something completely unrecognizable from what it looks like today in order to get to that point.
Trump is the perfect case of this. During the primary campaign in 2015 and 2016, Trump repeatedly tackled longstanding Republican dogma on a number of issues, including extensive government intervention in order to bring down the costs of prescription drugs, an isolationist trade policy, and even student loans.
He notably did this, however, while also slamming the Republican Party itself, as well as its backers. Because he was independently wealthy, Trump argued, he wasn’t beholden to donors. Fast-forward to the third year of his presidency, and practically all of Trump’s economic team is full of traditional Wall Street and Chamber of Commerce neoliberals. As such, Trump has completely ceded the student loan issue to Democrats, and his drug policy has all but dropped the promise of government intervention to negotiate lower prices. And the one “populist” stance he has maintained, on trade? That’s just about the only thing Republicans in Congress can muster up the courage to fight him about.
Levitz raises the possibility, rightly, that Trump and Carlson could open the door for far-right figures in the Republican Party who aren’t so enamored with traditional fiscal conservatism. He points to Sens. Josh Hawley and Marco Rubio as examples of establishment Republicans already trying to co-opt populist language. Levitz also suggests Republicans might actually be reckoning with their losses last year and questioning if it’s actually good for their electoral prospects to try to rip away health insurance from millions of people. (A counter to this: McConnell’s stacking of the federal bench with Federalist Society judges, combined with the party’s opposition to expanding voting rights and commitment to disenfranchising voters, indicates that they’re more focused on ingraining their power in the system right now than winning over voters.)
The problem lies in the fact that unlike Trump, most Republicans in Congress are not self-funders, and thus have to rely on outside money in order to get a chance at getting elected. The business set, on the other hand, does not want trade wars. It doesn’t want lower drug prices, or universal healthcare at low or no cost. It doesn’t want student loan debt eradicated, or to pay workers higher wages, or higher taxes for itself. It wants to make money, plain and simple. It’ll be interesting to see, then, if Rubio and Hawley keep this rhetoric going past 2020 and into their re-election campaigns in 2022 and 2024, especially considering the deep bench of traditional right-wingers in both Missouri and Florida.
The donor-centric Republican infrastructure is decaying, as Levitz points out; David Koch retired from politics last year, reportedly pushed out by his brother Charles. Because unlimited amounts of money are a feature of the American political process, however, it’s almost a given that a new generation of big donors will replace it. It’s very easy to imagine this next generation of funders getting more racist and xenophobic; it’s much tougher to imagine them retreating from crony capitalism.
That’s not to say that any of these fears are hysterical. It’s clear that the left should be worried about even the prospect of the far-right co-opting leftism, particularly as the Democratic Party leadership continues to fight its modest center-left tooth and nail over basically every big economic issue of the day. And it’s clear that the establishments of both parties dismissing the economic left for decades has left an opening for insurgents to critique the system from both ends. At the moment, however, Carlson and his ilk are an anomaly. Let’s hope it stays that way.