Jun 5, 2020

A conversation with 'national populist' Ryan Girdusky.

A conversation with 'national populist' Ryan Girdusky.

Girdusky reflects on the Trump presidency and what's next.

This read: 9 minutes.

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Last year, as I tried to diversify the kinds of Trump supporters who I was following on Twitter, I came across Ryan Girdusky.

He struck me initially because he would fervently praise Trump in one tweet and then eviscerate his administration in the next. It was an unforgiving relationship of support that I found unique in today’s politics — Girdusky lacked the sycophantic love other prominent Trump supporters like Charlie Kirk or Lou Dobbs seemed to operate under.

I also found him interesting because so much of his political commentary and writing was focused on the “national populist” movement that’s happening in the United States and abroad, as we see in countries like India, France and England. In the U.S., nationalism, populism, white nationalism, white nationalists and economic populism are things that are often conflated and derided. Especially now, during Trump’s tenure, the fundamental concepts of national populism are often framed as racist and xenophobic.

Below, I dive into a conversation with Girdusky about the state of national populism, his new book They’re Not Listening: How The Elites Created The National Populist Revolution, Trump’s COVID-19 response and what Girdusky sees coming in the 2020 presidential race. This interview took place on Friday, May 22nd (before the George Floyd story entered the Zeitgeist). Since then, Girdusky has continued to oscillate between praising Trump’s presidency and criticizing him as a leader, including a rather direct attack on the president for his response during the Floyd protests.

“While America burned, Trump tweeted,” Girdusky said. “That’s how history will remember the moment.”

Though we disagree on plenty, I gave Girdusky as much room to share his worldview without inserting my own political biases or disagreements. I have annotated parts of this interview with additional context where I thought it was appropriate. Those notes are marked with asterisks and you can find my notes at the end of the section in small, bold print. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Tangle: I guess a great place to start would be your forthcoming book, because I think it's sort of the foundation of a lot of what you write about. I have a readership that includes a lot of Democrats and a lot of Republicans, left and right, so if you could just define national populism for me, that’d be great. I think a lot of people are familiar with nationalism and populism but conflate those terms, and I'm curious to hear how you define national populism and what it is.

Ryan: So the book is not specifically America focused, it’s a global look at national populism, because often times people in the media, in general, kind of put this notion out there that national populism is something we're seeing really directly in the midwest or in northern England and that has created this Euro-Anglo fear, backlash against that, and claims that national populism is full of old white reactionaries, and that simply isn’t true. National populism is happening on every single continent. You have people on both the left and the right — I happen to focus on national populism on the right — but the point is that we're seeing it on every continent on the globe. It stretches past religion or culture or race or any specific thing that the media has defined as specifically American.

When I speak about national populism, I’m talking about it on a global level, but I break it down to nine issues being the ones that all national populist movements across the globe have in common. And they’re these:

  1. The nation contains unique and valuable people, culture and history that are worth preservation.
  2. The government exists to protect its citizens. All government policies, including trade, property, immigration, prosperity and war should serve the interest of its people.
  3. Those in government should live by the same laws as the people they govern.
  4. Economic interests should never benefit the few while displacing the many.
  5. Nation-build at home, not abroad.
  6. Law and order are the cornerstones of prosperity.
  7. Media will often distort the truth and divide countrymen.
  8. No industry, including technology, should have more power than the state.
  9. The preservation and prosperity of the family should be the main priority of the government.

That's what I and my co-author Harlan Hill* have defined as the main principles that national populists live by, believe in, govern by. And because it’s a global movement they may not believe in all nine of those principles — but they’ll believe in a majority of them.

*Harlan Hill is a member of the Trump advisory board.

Tangle: Got it. And my understanding is that your belief -- and what I've seen expressed in your writing at least -- is that this rise of national populism, or the growth of it, obviously contributed to Donald Trump's election in 2016 here in the U.S. It's been almost four years since Trump got elected. I saw you wrote recently a little bit critically about how you felt like he missed an opportunity with coronavirus…  I'm wondering, what's the pulse of the national populist movement in America right now looking back at the first few years of the Trump presidency? Are they happy with him? Do they feel like he’s kept or broken his promises?

Ryan Girdusky: You have to sit there and kind of break it down by issue. On an issue like illegal immigration, Trump has been enormously successful as a president. Our numbers are down to the low 10,000 range, as opposed to being upwards of 100,000* at one point. You have the remain in Mexico policy which is incredibly effective. You do have some construction now at the border wall.

It took him a long time to kind of get there and properly manage it. I think when you look at Trump and the Trump presidency this far, the main learning lesson for national populists is our lack of institutional power. So what I mean by that is that right when Trump got elected, a lot of people went, “Here we go. Let's change the fundamental way the American government works.” And the problem was, who did Trump then turn to in order to fill his White House? The RNC, the Heritage Institute, [inaudible], Freedom Works, basically every establishment, libertarian think-tank organization and establishment Republican organization who had a priority to make things run business as usual.

So in some areas, the president has been enormously effective. He’s fundamentally altered the way people think about trade, about China, he’s allowed people to ask serious questions about the orthodoxy of non-stop free-market capitalism. And he’s been very effective on some of those questions.

But we never got an infrastructure bill, we never got a fundamental way to reallocate resources and jobs back to the midwest, practical manufacturing jobs. We never got a substantial reduction on legal immigration**. Those are really, really important things that he never got to do. And in part, it was because of the administration that he had, which spent every waking moment working against him.

Hopefully, if he gets his second term, that will change, some of those hiring practices have gotten better. Some haven’t changed. And I think that to really kind of judge the entire Trump presidency you have to consider that. I think that the one thing to take away from it is that personnel really is policy. I think that if we ought to learn something from this experience and we can create something from this experience, it’s how do we create institutional forces to fill those roles going forward?

*I’m unclear exactly what numbers Girdusky was referring to here, but the U.S. Customs and Border Protection data says there were 34,689 apprehensions in March and 16,789 apprehensions in April on the southwestern border. In April of 2019, there were 109,415.

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Tangle: So, I think the obvious criticism of the perspective that you guys are writing from in the book is the absurdity of the national populist movement gravitating towards Trump. Here's the ultimate New York elite, the wealthiest of the wealthy, playboy, Democratic donor, you know, all these things that seem sort of antithetical to what the national populist movement stands for. I'm curious what you think it is about Trump that makes people gravitate toward him and how you respond to people who say that it's absurd that this movement has picked someone like Trump as their leader? When he in so many ways kind of represents the thing that they seem to be fighting.

Ryan Girdusky: I don’t think it matters that much. Nigel Farage is a trader, he was fairly wealthy. Marine Le Pen is a lawyer, a very successful lawyer, she went to an elite school and is from an elite family and grew up in a very private area in a gated community. Modi is not from the poor side of India and Bolsonaro is a military leader who is not at all what I would classify as being poor. FDR wasn’t a poor man or coming from a perspective that you would sit there and say he was a working-class hero, but he was, he ended up becoming that. So I don't think that the origins of a leader matter.

Matty Yglesias was attacking Josh Hawley the other day for being a Harvard graduate*. He was saying “you’re a Harvard graduate and you claim to be a populist.” Now, I don’t know what’s really in Josh Hawley’s heart, but the only way to build legitimacy in a more establishment media or establishment audience is to really not come from a working-class background. We constantly have a conversation in our media about representation — we talk constantly about how there are not enough black people in politics, there are not enough women in politics, they are not represented in Congress or institutions of power. Which they are not, that’s completely true.

The number one group, though, that’s not represented at all in institutions of power are working-class people, people from blue-collar backgrounds. How many people from the media, from elite-media institutions, have someone that went to city school?** Or a state school? Or didn’t go to college? How many people in Congress didn’t go to college? Or spent the majority of their life working in some type of blue-collar job? It’s enormously skewed, in the single digits of governors, state senators, state legislators, even city council members.

How many members of President Obama or President Trump or President Bush’s cabinet spent the majority of their life in blue-collar work? Some were born like that, but they very quickly rose past it. So I think in order to have your message break through, sometimes it comes in a vessel that is extremely unlikely — whether that be a billionaire from New York or a lawyer who went to school in Paris in the case of Marine Le Pen or a commodities trader in London in the case of Nigel Farage. You don’t always have this vessel of guys taking off their overalls and putting on their suits and running for president. It’s just not the case, and I don’t really judge somebody’s background as the whole of what they are supposed to believe.

*I tried to look into these tweets, but it looks like Yglesias, a Vox reporter, deleted several tweets referencing Hawley.
**This is not a position unique to the right. Many on the left have called for increased working-class representation in media and Congress. It seems worth pointing out, though, that many of the most well-known working-class journalists come from immigrant backgrounds.

Tangle: It's funny, hearing you talk like this, outside of Donald Trump it’s hard not to think about someone like Bernie Sanders, who talks a lot about the working-class representation in the United States and blue-collar workers. And obviously he comes at it from a different angle. I guess there are two things to it: one is immigration and then there’s kind of everything else. But why not back a candidate like Bernie who is calling for minimum wage increases? Who is calling for health care for all? Who is calling for these things that a lot of people on the left feel would benefit working-class and blue-collar America?

Ryan Girdusky: Well there’s a lot in common with Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump as far as where their messages overlap and align. And there is a reason I think that you saw a large percentage, especially of Democrat primary voters, who were Bernie supporters vote for Trump in 2016.* I think that there is room for them to agree on certain issues, but there are two fundamental issues that stop the two kinds of working-class movements from becoming more aligned around a single candidate.

On the right, in this country, you have a problem with health care. And the fact that people on the right just fundamentally disagree on the left’s approach to health care. I don't think there is a fully-formed idea of how you address the health care issue on the right. For too long we sat there and looked at the Libertarian system of just “keep the government out of it and health care will be as cheap as a television set.” That’s not realistic. I don’t think there is a fully-formed idea on the right of how to do the things on health care that people really demand, which is reduce prices, increase affordability, increase access.

On the left, the problem is wokeism. The left has become kind of drunk on becoming woke. And creating a purity test that is an impossible standard to live by and drives voters away. Someone like Bernie Sanders, who for years was a classical socialist who wanted to protect workers in the same way Hugo Chavez did, which meant that came with the reduction of immigration. But because of woke politics, that’s completely lost. You just cannot be that candidate anymore and be viable within the Democratic party, and I break this down in the book.

Around 2012, you saw a dramatic increase in woke language being used by mainstream media outlets on terms like “white privilege” and “intersectionality” and that was constantly being advanced. At this point, it’s mostly a white liberal thing over other Democratic voters. But being for something like national sovereignty, a reduction of illegal immigration, is fundamentally against their beliefs. If the right could move left on health care, which I think honestly it can, I think the left still cannot move right on the issues of identity, wokeism, and the issue of immigration. I just don’t think that they can move there. And that’s an America thing, that’s not a global thing. On the left in places like New Zealand and Denmark, they have moved to the right on immigration.

But those are two giant cement blocks you just can’t pass. I think the right can move left economically and make moves towards voters who care about those issues, but I don’t think the left can move right on issues of wokeism, identity and immigration, because it’s really fundamental to their beliefs at large. That’s why when you see surveys about personal bias, white liberals are the only group in America that have a negative personal bias against other white people. And it’s all based upon this woke philosophy.**

*I think “large percentage” may be a bit misleading here. About 12% of voters who voted for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary ended up voting for Trump, according to data from the Cooperate Congressional Election Study.
**The evolution of white liberalism over the last decade has been described by some political scientists as a seismic shift. There is a ton of reporting worth reading on how the white liberals’ views on race have changed.

Tangle: You know, I think as the next few months play out and this election sort of starts to come into focus, a lot of these issues are going to be debated, I’m hopeful we’re going to see Trump and Biden get on stage, and the story for the last few weeks has been COVID-19 and coronavirus. Part of me thinks that conversation is going to end up touching everything from the identity politics stuff to immigration, to health care, to climate change. It seems like the COVID-19 response is going to be a huge part of the election now. I’m wondering what you think of the Trump administration’s response to COVID-19 and how it might play a role in the election.

Ryan Girdusky: I wrote in an article today he could have taken tremendous political advantage of this situation. Imagine if Trump had used his executive power to sit there and secure ventilators early on. I think the initial panic would have been less and I think that there were so many voices in his ear that were worried about messing with the market, and too many supply-side demanders in his ear, where I think if it were a national populist economic team they would have taken advantage of it.

And also the recovery act, the stimulus bills, a lot of it went to Wall Street. The wealthy have made hundreds of billions of dollars during this time period. Even the Democrat bill, the HEROES Act, has a bailout for corporate lobbyists in D.C. If we had a legislative team that pushed against this, pushed against Pelosi, pushed against Schumer, and said, “no I have to have a $1 trillion infrastructure plan which is going to employ thousands of workers.” Which will create increased demand, and it’s going to be centered around the idea of how do we bring back manufacturing jobs to the Midwest. We have gotten a lot of manufacturing jobs back to the United States* but they haven’t gone to the midwestern states — they’ve gone to California, Texas, Nevada, Arizona. It’s not just because of labor relations or strong unions, it’s because of dilapidated infrastructure.

Everyone could have agreed with this and the main goal could have been “how do we bring in industry from China. How do we do it so that way we empower the communities that were most negatively affected by outsourcing to China in the first place?” What does it matter to a family in Ohio, outside of Cleveland or in Youngstown, that has been decimated by decades of free trade, by decades of outsourcing to China and opioid addiction and stupid wars that their sons have to go fight and die for — what does it matter to them if there is a new factory in Arizona or Nevada?

It would have been a completely different response had he taken advantage of it, and it also would have boosted his re-election campaign if he had said we’re going to pick winners and losers, and we’re going to make the winners the people who have been the most negatively affected by the last 35 years of the bad policies that I ran against. Those are the types of things that should have been in someone in the White House’s mind. Mitch McConnell is worried about his damn majority so he can get a couple judges in -- what about sitting there and doing something for some of those senators? What about northern Maine, which is living with an infrastructure decades behind everyone else? Or Appalachian voters in North Carolina?

He could have sat there and pushed a major fundamental change and it would have helped his re-election, helped those workers who gave him his majority — people who voted for Obama twice then voted for him — and I think it’s a giant, giant, giant loss. He could still do more. We could still get an immigration moratorium out of this, that would be great. There is still more that he can do that would be positive and beneficial to Americans as a whole.

I just think that this was a moment like 9/11, like the economic recession of 2008. Like the Great Depression, where you saw presidents take political capital and use it to fundamentally alter the United States in their own ways, and not in ways that I think benefited the United States. Barack Obama created the oligarchy by how he distributed money from Wall Street. George W. Bush assaulted our civil liberties in post-9/11. Those are terrible things. Trump could have done something extremely positive, and I just think because there is a lack of vision among a lot of senior Republicans and people in the administration, it was a really badly missed opportunity.

*Some have contended that the manufacturing job growth is a mirage — concentrated in a few select industries and covering up the continued destruction of the manufacturing industry as a whole.

Tangle: So given all that — and I appreciate you being generous with your time — let’s take a little look forward; what do you think the state of the race is right now? Where would you put your money between Biden and Trump and what do you expect to play out in the next few months as they sell their ideas for the future to the country?

Well, I mean Biden is going hard with identity politics. He’s promising black voters a black female Supreme Court Justice, a female Vice President, promises purely based on [inaudible], and I don’t think that’s about to end.

As far as what Trump has done so far when you look at polls, Trump’s problem is enthusiasm amongst white working-class voters, which is not as high as it was in 2016. He has a major deficit with white college-educated women. And those are two things that are working against him.

Two things that are working for him are that young people are not enthusiastic at all about Joe Biden, so Biden’s numbers are down even from Hillary Clinton, amongst young people. And Trump has gained substantial ground amongst non-white men.

I think he’s probably going to get somewhere in the 40% range amongst Hispanic men*. He’s doing very well in those polls amongst Hispanic men, and that’s going to keep some states that should be out of play in play, like Nevada. But that’s not enough if you lose your working-class white base.

As far as the race overall, though, I have no idea. What happens if next week one of the Supreme Court justices passes away and we have a vacancy on the court? What happens if the economy roars back? What happens if we slip into a depression? You know, I don’t know. I think the biggest problem with Trump right now is that in 2016 he so drove the media narrative. Whatever he said, the media followed. And right now the media is writing his narrative. And that, he has to change. That’s his most fundamental problem going forward.

I think that he has to really ramp up the attacks on Joe Biden’s truly horrendous record on so many things. Joe Biden is far-left on immigration, where most Americans would not agree on what the policies are he’s promoting. Terrible record on China, terrible record on trade, terrible record on the economic recovery under the Obama administration. Horrible.

Right now the question is “do you like Trump?” And there’s really nobody asking the question “do you like Biden?” Could that change? Absolutely. But I have no idea.

*Some Americans forget Trump received 28% of the total Hispanic vote in 2016. Recent poll numbers suggest his support is around 31% with all Hispanic voters right now.

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