Is Republican Populism a Person or a Movement?

Over the Independence Day holiday, a friend asked me if Republican Populism is a person or a movement. I mulled the question, and here is my cursory response to this curious citizen:

Throughout the Trump candidacy, presidency, and to the present, the Left has endeavored to conflate their opponents with a person. True, historically, both American political parties have issued full-throated Philippics against the leaders of the other side. For example, Barry Goldwater was an extremist who would start a nuclear war. Michael Dukakis was a soft on crime egghead who was going to furlough murderers into your neighborhood.

But there was a limit to these political calumnies. While reviling the opposition’s leaders, the opposition’s voters were largely off-limits. Simply, each side wanted to leave open the possibility of capturing swaths of the other side’s voters, who may be disgruntled with the direction of their party’s current crop of leaders. In recent memory, the most obvious example was the GOP’s courting of “Reagan Democrats,” blue-collar, heavily unionized workers in urban and interior suburban areas dismayed by the Democrats’ economic “stagflation” and its leaders’ cultural drift hard left.

Yet, as is its wont, the Left has taken it upon itself to change the political rules and “norms;” thus, not only is Donald Trump a racist, fascist, homophobic, domestic terrorist wannabe, etc., so are his supporters – i.e., the GOP. Sure, Mr. Biden and his handlers have tried to soft-peddle their indictment of GOP populism to only Mr. Trump and his MAGA supporters. This is manifestly disingenuous. Not even the cynical use of “Never Trump” grifters can mask the fact the Democrats’ weaponization of the federal government’s police and surveillance powers and their patently unconstitutional collusion with Big Tech and corporate America to censor free speech is targeted at not only MAGA and the GOP, but at any dissenters to the Left’s radical agenda.

Knowing the Left’s libelous narrative, it is imperative for Republican populists not to take their bait by equally conflating a person for our party. As we head into 2024, Republicans, individually and collectively, must determine who will be the party’s standard bearer for the presidency. The decision will entail gauging who is the best person to articulate our principles and policies, persuade a majority of Americans of their benefits, and, further, have not only the political and administrative capacity to implement these principles through public policies, but also to represent the nation as the head of state.

And while parties are often considered a reflection of their standard bearer, the opposite is also true. There must be a reciprocity between the nominee and the party faithful. Having chosen the nominee, they must stand with the nominee when the going gets ugly and not cut and run. But, on their part, the nominee has a responsibility to refrain from making things uglier and impulsively becoming an impediment to the democratic acceptance by the electorate of their principles and policies.

In the end, then, while nominees and the party faithful are mortal and ephemeral, principles and verities are essential and eternal.  As a past GOP standard bearer once noted: “Important principles may, and must, be inflexible.”

President Lincoln was correct. Thus, as Republican populists contemplate the future of the country and their party, the primary consideration (pun intended) is one of principles and their implementation; the distant secondary consideration is one of personalities. If the GOP populism is a movement, every candidate seeking the nomination must prove their dedication to the populist principles and their ability to champion them during a campaign, and, hopefully, throughout an administration. More importantly, the principles that will guide this administration will be proven throughout it in the minds of the American people and lay the foundation for future policy and political successes of Republican populism.

If the considerations are reversed, however, and the primary consideration becomes one of personalities rather than principles – in sum, being concerned more about a person than the movement – Republican populist principles will last only as long as the nominee’s political viability and ultimately will be tied in the electorate’s mind with a man rather than a movement. Republican populist principles will be tainted by the real or imagined political foibles of the nominee, especially if their political viability ends disastrously and the movement’s bloody carcass will be preyed upon by its enemies on the Left and in the GOP establishment. Should this prove the case in 2024, the Left will win and their regressive march toward autocratic collectivization will proceed unimpeded, as the Republican populist movement will be crushed beneath the weight of a defeated nominee.

Consider the instance of President Lincoln’s first (and surprising) GOP presidential nomination over the presumed front-runner, New York Senator William Seward. Should Lincoln have lost the 1860 election, the cause of abolition would not have ended with this candidacy. The principles that slavery was not a “peculiar institution” but an evil one, and the call for emancipation were part of the relatively new Republican Party’s DNA and they would have continued to be championed by the party until successfully implemented and a race was freed from bondage.

While Republican populism was extant prior to 2016, GOP’s establishment continues to reject many of its core principles and view the movement as an intra-party insurgency to be crushed. Fortunately, in 2024, both who the nominee will be and the fate of the Republican populist movement rests in the hands not of the GOP establishment but in its grassroots’ hands. There is no better place for it. Whoever they choose, one should trust their decision will be made not upon personalities, but upon Republican populist movement’s principles and their perpetuation. Our free republic requires no less from GOP primary voters.

The cynics will chortle at such optimism. But no less than Lincoln believed otherwise: “Why should there not be a patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people? Is there any better, or equal, hope in this world?”

I trust my friend who asked the original question about Republican populism would agree. I also hope my friend would agree to stop asking me questions that require long responses – especially as another beautiful and brief Michigan summer slips by….

An American Greatness contributor, the Hon. Thaddeus G. McCotter (M.C., Ret.) represented Michigan’s 11th Congressional district from 2003-2012, and served as Chair of the Republican House Policy Committee. Not a lobbyist, he is a frequent public speaker and moderator for public policy seminars; and a Monday co-host of the “John Batchelor Radio Show,” among sundry media appearances.

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About Thaddeus G. McCotter

An American Greatness contributor, the Hon. Thaddeus G. McCotter (M.C., Ret.) represented Michigan’s 11th Congressional district from 2003 to 2012 and served as Chair of the Republican House Policy Committee. Not a lobbyist, he is a frequent public speaker and moderator for public policy seminars, and a Monday co-host of the "John Batchelor Show" among sundry media appearances.

Photo: Abstract in camera multiple exposure of American Flag with stars and stripes.