The cruellest thing a government can do to an opposition is agree with it. The other party is left to choose between obsolescence or ever more extreme stances in a quest for distinctiveness. The vehement Republicanism that Newt Gingrich led in the 1990s was not an answer to Marxism, remember, but to Bill Clinton, with his hardline crime bills and welfare reform, his balanced budgets and Cruise missile strikes.
A generation on, Joe Biden is working a version of the same spell. No doubt, it is mostly of their own volition that Republicans are moving to the feral edges of politics. Their online monoculture is to blame, as is their unofficial leader, Donald Trump. But this White House is also populist enough, often enough, to gore the party on the horns of a dilemma.
Count the ways in which Biden is a truer populist than Trump ever was. As a candidate, Trump sided with the working American against the self-enamoured rich. As a president, he chose the tax cuts, the deregulation and the losing fight against Obamacare of a textbook Republican. Had he governed as a class traitor to the 1 per cent, I suspect the world would now be parsing a second Trump term. As it is, Biden has the chance to keep Trump’s promises for him and outdo them. His infrastructure plan should pass Congress this week. At 2,700-odd pages, he has a Russian novel of a spending bill in the works. He plans to raise taxes on high earners and profitable companies. Even his rhetorical framing — taxes as social justice, not fiscal necessity — is populist.
On protectionism, Trump did better (or, as I and other free-traders would have it, worse). But he never went beyond the tariffs against China and Europe to craft a wider programme. Biden, through the Buy American procurement plan, has. It is sad that David Ricardo and other dead economists must be exhumed to itemise the self-defeating folly here. The politics is much harder hard to fault.
The same is true of Biden’s most contentious act so far. Last month, the US was said to have left all its credibility on the asphalt of Kabul International Airport. The main development since has been Australia’s historic vote of confidence in, well, the US. The surprise is not just what Biden has managed to salvage from a supposedly grievous loss of national prestige. It is that, against almost all of institutional Washington, he completed the exit at all. Having campaigned against the interventionist consensus, his three predecessors succumbed to it in various ways. Even Trump slowed down his proposed withdrawal from Syria in 2018.
After only nine months in office, the pattern here is hard to mistake. What Biden offers voters is much of the substance of populism without the attendant noise and danger. And that very restraint might be the result of never having to prove his Everyman bona fides.
Trump is a property developer’s son whose hardship was growing up in Queens. Boris Johnson went to a school too grand to need naming. In France, Marine Le Pen is both daughter and mother in what could one day become a three-generation chain of far-right leadership. Populism’s reliance on pretenders and grandees for leadership was going to leave it exposed to the real thing at some point.
Biden, a Washington creature for half a century, is not quite that. By background, though, he is closer to the “people”, whoever they are, than Trump or the next most prominent US populist, the broadcaster Tucker Carlson. You wouldn’t know from the offhand way in which even Democrats discuss him that he has been on three winning presidential tickets.
For a sense of how tricky Biden’s opponents find his controlled populism, consider the ever sadder case of JD Vance. In 2016, the author of Hillbilly Elegy was both a prophet of Trumpism and its insider-critic. Five years on, with a US Senate seat to win, there is something of the rent-a-quote controversialist about his jabs at childless people and the “goons” of the liberal C-suite. It may just be the rashness of a political novice. Or it might be the destiny of a party that has to strive harder and harder to distinguish itself.
In 2016, protectionism was still subversive. It is now a banality. Defiers of the foreign policy blob were exotic. One now works in the Oval Office. These are, in a sense, profound victories for Republican populism. But they are also political torments. What clothes do you wear when your wardrobe has been raided? Only, it has to be feared, the very ugliest.