Why the Right’s Principled Populists Will Lose

Dec 09, 2020

Four years ago, Donald Trump gave hope to all apostates from the Church of Reagan and Latter-Day Fusionists.

The modern conservative movement is the child of a marriage between military hawks, business libertarians, and (white) social traditionalists. This union the fusion of political elements that is known as fusionism was a bit tense from its inception. Not only was there little inherent relationship between the concerns of the movement’s disparate factions but, in some cases, those concerns even appeared contradictory: Some libertarians retained an attachment to the right’s pre–World War II isolationism, while many cultural conservatives bristled at the corporate right’s cosmopolitan attitude towards immigration.

American Compass represents the most intellectually honest tendency within the anti-Establishment right. Founded by Oren Cass, the onetime policy director of Mitt Romney’s decidedly anti-populist 2012 campaign, the think tank takes the GOP Establishment to task for its actual, material betrayals of the party faithful. It packages this dissent in policy papers not Twitter tantrums. Where the right’s other dissidents routinely exaggerate the Republican leadership’s treachery, Cass invariably downplays it. In his narrative, the elites did not sell out the people, they merely failed to update their well-intentioned ideas for new circumstances. This framing is self-serving — Cass is himself an erstwhile Establishmentarian — but it also reflects the seriousness of his substantive challenge to GOP orthodoxy. American Compass isn’t using histrionic rhetoric to disguise the thinness of its policy disagreements with Mitch McConnell. It’s arguing with exquisite politeness that upholding conservative values requires giving labor more power over capital.

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