A significant ideological split within GOP politics is as clear and vitriolic as the one within the Democratic Party. And that growing division means that, along with vehement differences, there is ample agreement on specific, consequential issues between the factions that identify as the “populist left” and “populist right.” Often there is more agreement between them than either group finds with the establishment wing of the political party with which they most identify.
In 2016, Donald Trump campaigned on (though he most certainly did not ultimately govern) in opposition to numerous long-standing Republican orthodoxies: he railed against job-killing free trade agreements, vowed to raise taxes on the rich and eliminate corporate lobbyist control over the legislative process, venerated the need to protect and even increase social programs, and most viciously scorned the Bush family’s imperialism and regime change wars. That he won the GOP nomination against highly funded, establishment-backed candidates such as Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio demonstrates that there is at least now tolerance, if not outright support, for those positions that had been taboo in mainstream Republican politics.
Polling shows that classic left-wing economic positions such as universal health care coverage and raising the minimum wage command majority support, proving those views extend beyond left-wing precincts. One of the political officials most devoted to and passionate about breaking up monopolistic power — long a central left-wing goal — is the right-wing Senator Josh Hawley, who also opposes international free trade organizations such as the WTO (the defining goal of the left-wing 1999 Seattle protests).
When Bernie Sanders wanted to impose limits on Trump’s ability to bomb Yemen, he found key support with the right-wing tea party Sen. Mike Lee; the same was true of Dennis Kucinich’s partnership with Ron Paul to audit the Fed and Cory Booker’s work with Rand Paul to usher in radical criminal justice reform. The host of the most-watched Fox News program, Tucker Carlson, has railed against the evils of predatory capitalism, supported AOC’s efforts to impede tax breaks to Amazon, given a sympathetic hearing to a pro-Maduro journalist opposed to regime change in Venezuela, and played a significant role in stopping air strikes against both Syria and Iran.
The reason these two factions have different names — left-wing populism and right-wing populism — is that, in addition to these convergences, they have serious and meaningful divergences. Trump as president adhered to almost none of his orthodoxy-busting campaign rhetoric. Hawley’s economic populist branding can ring hollow when set next to his support for corporate tax cuts that benefit the rich and his opposition to liveable wage legislation. And Carlson’s repellent-to-liberalism views — led by his support for authoritarian responses to protesters and his racially divisive rhetoric — are legion.
But none of those serious divergences negates the fact that the left — which does not come close to claiming a majority of the population — finds common ground with the populist faction of the right on some of its most important political positions. And there are millions of people across the country who identity as conservative or on the right — due to their views on social issues and immigration — but hold economically left-wing populist views.
The question then becomes: What should the left do in those cases? Should it work in conjunction with those on the right to build a majority and implement those policies, and engage in dialogue with opinion leaders and media figures on the right to reach more people who can be persuaded to think in trans-partisan, working-class terms? Or should it declare anyone associated with the populist right off-limits even for issue-by-issue collaboration on the ground that other views they hold are pernicious? And if holding pernicious views renders those on the populist right radioactive and off-limits, why is the same not true of establishment Democrats who have led the way to construct and champion the racist prison state, the drug war, jobs-destroying free trade agreements, regime change wars from Iraq to Libya, blind support for Israeli aggression, and a whole slew of other crucial policies utterly anathema to the left (all of which applies to Joe Biden, among others)?
This debate has been lurking for years as anti-establishment fervor and political realignment emerge — not just in the U.S. but across the democratic world — in the wake of the destruction wrought by the dominant neoliberal ideology. But in the U.S., it erupted over the last couple of weeks as the result of a vitriolic exchange between two smart, prominent left-wing commentators. In two separate articles, Current Affairs editor Nathan Robinson compared right-wing populist media figures such as Carlson and Rising co-host Saager Enjeti to Bolsonaro, Mussolini and even Hitler to insist that “right-wing ‘populism’ is simply a lie and nobody who is on the Left should have anything to do with it.” That provoked a stinging response from one of the principal targets of Robinson’s critique, Enjeti’s Rising co-host Krystal Ball, who says “the left should take yes for an answer” as she argued that it is morally irresponsible not to find allies where one can and not to communicate with as many people as possible in order to implement a left-wing populist agenda.
Today’s episode of SYSTEM UPDATE on The Intercept’s YouTube channel is devoted to exploring this vital question, and I speak to both Robinson and Ball about their very different views on this question.