Don’t Under-Estimate The Power Of Right-Wing Populism

Leading Conservatives Gather For Republican Leadership Conference In New Orleans

That’s my underlying take on what just happened in American politics. We live in a potentially powerfully populist moment. The economy is failing to help middle- and working-class people make headway, while the wealthiest are living higher on the hog than since the days of robber barons. Wall Street’s masters of the universe nearly wiped out the US and global economy – and there has been scarcely any accountability for their recklessness and greed and hubris. Big business favors mass, cheap immigration – which adds marginally to the woes of the working poor. All of this is grist to someone like Elizabeth Warren, but also to someone like Dave Brat or Ted Cruz.

But the main difference between a Warren and a Brat is that Warren is never going to be able to rally the Southern or Midwestern white working poor to her professorial, Massachusetts profile. A dorky populist like Brat? Much more imaginable. A gifted demagogue like Ted Cruz? I think many liberals would be surprised. And the ace card for the populist right, rather than the populist left, is immigration. If you can weld together a loathing and resentment of elites with a loathing and resentment of foreigners “invading” the country and “taking our jobs,” then you have a potent combination.

Brat also targeted K Street as well as Wall Street. So you have this dynamic, noted by John Judis:

Speaking last month before the Mechanicsville Tea Party, Brat tied Cantor to Wall Street and big business, whom he blamed partly for the financial crisis. “All the investment banks in the New York and D.C.those guys should have gone to jail. Instead of going to jail, they went on Eric’s Rolodex, and they are sending him big checks,” he said. Brat echoed these charges in a radio interview. “The crooks up on Wall Street and some of the big banksI’m pro business, I’m just talking about the crooksthey didn’t go to jail they are on Eric’s Rolodex,” he said.

Brat and local Tea Party leaders also criticized Cantor for attempting to water down the Stock Act, which banned members of Congress from profiting from insider trading. “One congressman changed the act so spouses could benefit from insider trading,” Brat charged, referring to Cantor. (Cantor drew equal fire from Democrats for attempting to undermine the bill.)

This theme also taps into a deep dissatisfaction with a gridlocked government.

The gridlock is, of course, caused by the absolutism of the opposition to anything Obama might want to do – but the GOP radicals can rely on their base and many more to forget that. Besides, it’s a political win-win. You create the gridlock, then present yourselves as the only people able to break it. And that’s the other feature of this potential movement: it’s about upsetting Washington; it’s about change in an economically depressed time. The change may be incoherent; it may be economically disastrous (brutal fiscal austerity would not exactly sustain short-term growth or employment, for example); but it’s politically powerful. If the Democrats put up Hillary Clinton – a symbol of the past, of the DC establishment, of big money and big corporations and big lobbyists – then the opening for a root-and-branch right-wing revolt is absolutely in sight.

Would it stand a chance? I wish I could say it didn’t. Is this a mere protest vote to be buried in a multiracial landslide for Clinton in 2016? Maybe. But maybe not.

(Photo: U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) speaks during the final day of the 2014 Republican Leadership Conference on May 31, 2014 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Leaders of the Republican Party spoke at the 2014 Republican Leadership Conference which hosted 1,500 delegates from across the country. By Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.)