In a revealing moment at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida — a Republican who is a leading inheritor of the mantle of Trumpism — unintentionally displayed one of that inchoate ideology’s most serious weaknesses.
“We can sit around and have academic debates about conservative policy,” DeSantis said. “But the question is, when the klieg lights get hot, when the left comes after you: Will you stay strong, or will you fold?”
This suggestion — that feverish anti-leftist delirium is becoming the central organizing principle for much of the GOP as it remains captive to former president Donald Trump — provides Democrats with a big opening.
The coming debate over a major infrastructure package will show how. If President Biden and the Democratic Congress can pass such a package, it could deal a big blow to Trumpism, aided by the faction’s own continuing descent into hallucinatory anti-leftism.
The New York Times reports that some Democrats are already thinking about how to move a far-reaching infrastructure repair agenda, if they can get the economic relief bill through the Senate and into law.
This coming debate may be uniquely positioned to expose Trumpism’s bankruptcy as it sinks into QAnon-ification, cultishness and mythologizing about the Lost Cause of the stolen election.
The failures of Trumpism
First, such rebuilding is exactly what Trumpism was supposed to do. Just after Trump’s 2016 victory, his adviser Stephen K. Bannon famously vowed a “trillion-dollar infrastructure plan” that would realign the working class behind populist nationalism, launching an “entirely new political movement.”
That never happened, largely because Trump mostly adopted conventional GOP plutocratic economics. Yet as the Times piece reports, proponents of a new infrastructure effort are now envisioning large government investments as a way to “help the economy run more efficiently, leading to stronger growth and faster wage gains for workers.”
Delivering successfully here would establish that it is progressive economics — not Trumpist nationalism — that offers the truly concrete approach to rebuilding the country in a way that lifts the fortunes of workers and promotes the common good.
Meanwhile, the new conservative populism — an intellectualized version of Trumpism — is also supposed to be delivering in this way. It’s meant to break with GOP limited-government orthodoxies to create a pro-worker populist conservatism secured with active government. So you’d think a big infrastructure push would provide a nexus for cooperation among Biden, Democrats and populist conservatism.
Yet chief standard-bearers like Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) are off wandering the right-wing media desert, spewing silliness about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to thwart accountability for the violent insurrection Trump fomented. In today’s GOP, the incentives for trafficking in Trump-friendly phantasms are overwhelming.
Meanwhile, the Times piece also reports that Biden and Democrats may have to pass a major package alone — again with a simple majority via reconciliation — because conservatives and Republicans may oppose anything that spends too much or raises taxes on the wealthy.
Thus, the infrastructure debate may demonstrate just how little headway constructive conservative populism is making in today’s GOP, even as it remains in thrall to Trumpism’s worst impulses.
Trumpism’s leftist enemies
Here’s the larger context. We’re witnessing endless obsessing over the constellation of enemies that increasingly define the Trumpified GOP — rioters burning down cities, woke mobs conspiring with Big Tech to effect mass repression of conservatives, Pelosi and “the Squad,» etc.
But that’s also uncontrollably bleeding into an effort to tar Biden and most mainstream Democrats as radical socialists who are similarly destroying the country.
If Biden and Democrats can pass economic relief, followed by a big infrastructure package — both offering ambitious, broadly popular solutions to major national problems — it could further marginalize the hysterical anti-leftism that increasingly defines Trumpism.
All this could undermine Trumpism in still another way. As the Times notes, a big infrastructure package might include “spending on highways, bridges, rural broadband networks, water and sewer lines and even some cornerstones of fighting climate change, like electric-car charging stations.”
If Biden and Democrats can recast public expenditures on climate as a form of job-creating infrastructure repair — a broadly popular concept — it could give working people a stake in battling the climate threat.
That could undermine another cornerstone of Trumpism — the idea that combating climate change is just an obsession of supercilious elites who are happy to destroy the livelihoods of Real Americans in the Appalachian and industrial Midwestern heartlands.
A new Biden synthesis?
Along these lines, Biden’s quasi-endorsement of Amazon unionizing in Alabama is also suggestive. As Jamelle Bouie notes, the workforce at the Amazon facility in question is majority-Black, which means Biden is helping highlight the Democratic Party’s own diverse working-class base, undermining the Trumpist GOP pretension to being the sole representative of a valorized (White) working class.
All this may sound absurdly optimistic. Democrats might succumb to infighting, should the left push for more ambition than Biden wants. Alternatively, Biden may compromise his infrastructure agenda to win Republicans, perhaps allowing them some credit if it does pass.
But we have to hope we’re seeing the emergence of a new Biden policy synthesis. Hopefully, it will combine an ambitious progressive economic agenda (born of the major crises we face and the societal shift in favor of deficit spending) with a willingness to act more boldly on issues Democrats traditionally fear due to right-wing populist demagoguery, such as climate and even immigration and civil rights.
If things go well, success on the economic front could clear political space to act on all those other ones. And infrastructure repair could play a major role in that. Where would that leave Trumpism?