Among the conservative intelligentsia, “populism” has become a dirty word: something to be scorned, rejected, jettisoned from “true conservatism.” A common criticism of Donald Trump is his “populist appeal,” but evidence to substantiate this claim often remains conspicuously absent.
To consider populism’s reprehensibility or validity, one must first define the term. A quick Google search of “populism definition” yields immediate results: “a member or adherent of a political party seeking to represent the interests of ordinary people.” Certainly, there can be nothing objectionable about this; yet “elite” conservatives still seem to confuse true populism with an untempered mob-rule, governed only by blind whims and irrational dictates of the people, the sort of perversion of democracy that Tocqueville feared.
Now it is certain that populism can be problematic when divorced from the natural law theory of the American Founding; consider the arguments of Stephen Douglas and the secessionist South. Douglas keyed on the principle of self-government, and distorted it into a rationalization for gross injustice. Yet, the Framers realized they were walking a delicate line in reconciling the rule of the wise with the consent of the governed. They understood that for a self-governing people to remain sovereign, that for government to fulfill its good (justice), the people’s role in self-government cannot be divorced from those “self-evident truths” enunciated in the Declaration of Independence: that all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.
Thus, without considering the end to which it is ordered, populism cannot be considered a good or an ill on its own. If the people will the good of the nation in conformity with the natural order, then populism is an unmitigated good. And if this is the case, the future of the nation is bright: populism is the smoke drifting through the sky as proof of the fire: the people are alive with the enthusiastic spark of unity for a common purpose, burning with passion about common goals, longing for their own common good. This is evidence of a united people, a strong people, a people fiercely loyal to each other and their nation. But, if the populist message disregards man’s natural rights, then it is certain to be a danger to civil society.
Thus, “conservative” criticisms of Trump’s populism are largely baseless. Trump’s campaign is about putting American interests as the foremost consideration of every prospective policy. It is about rejecting what Trump himself has aptly defined as “the false song of globalism,” and hence a renewed understanding of, and emphasis on, our social contract. It is about simplifying politics to reengage the many, and therefore stripping power from the DC machine. It is about enforcing our nation’s laws and preserving liberty and justice for all Americans, it is about “being proud of our country again.” To be sure, Trump is not perfect. His past is certainly suspect, and he breaks from true conservatism on a number of more minor issues. Yet the core tenets of Trump’s campaign are both appealing to the people our government should represent, and in harmony with the natural law. Therefore Trump’s appeal to the masses should be celebrated by conservatives—not condemned.
Populism can be dangerous, no doubt. But at this point in American dialogue, it simply isn’t. Too long has the voice of the people been neglected, Washington elites substituting their own agendas for those of their constituents. Conservative critics of populism must understand that self-government is not an art exclusive to some far-removed esoteric elite, but a shared project among the American people. The Constitution lays the most sublime of foundations for self-government, beginning with that providential phrase “We the People.” There’s a reason for that.