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Two Sides of the Populist Coin
David Masci speaks with Martin Gurri about Trump, DeSantis and GOP populism
Anyone who even occasionally reads Discourse will know that Martin Gurri is one of our most prolific and popular writers. He first came to prominence in 2014 with his best-selling book, “The Revolt of the Public,” which described the rise and causes of anti-elite sentiment and predicted, among other things, the populist triumphs of Trump and Brexit. Prior to writing the book, Martin spent decades working as a media analyst for the CIA.
Last month, Martin wrote an essay for Discourse in which he argued that the two leading Republican candidates for president, former President Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, represent opposing sides of conservative populism. Trump, Gurri says, is an insider standing outside the system and “shouting,” while DeSantis is an outsider who is now inside the system and using it to fight what he sees as its excesses. Recently, I sat down with Martin to discuss this phenomenon, as well as differences between populism within the Republican and Democratic parties.
The following transcript is an edited version of a conversation Martin and I had on June 22 on Twitter Spaces. Please go here to listen to the conversation in its entirety.
DAVID MASCI: Martin, welcome. It’s really great to have you.
MARTIN GURRI: Happy to be here.
MASCI: Before we get to the two candidates, let me start by asking you a question or two about populism itself. We talk about populism a lot. It’s generally cast as a dangerous threat to both democratic government and a free society. At the same time, there are those who say that populism is really just a word that elites use when ordinary people don’t agree with them or ordinary people do things that elites don’t like. Are both of these assessments correct?
GURRI: Well, I think populism is not a word that any person that’s has ever been called a populist has used. So I don’t think Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, Giorgia Meloni in Italy, Viktor Orbán in Hungary wake up in the morning and say, “What populist thing can I do today?” That just doesn’t happen. I think it’s very simply a word that the elites use to designate somebody who seems to be popular and shouldn’t be. Whether it’s good or bad, I would just call it a symptom. It’s a symptom that the elites are failing at their most basic duty, which is to represent the wishes and needs of the public, and someone has filled that space. The elites turn and find that person.
It’s kind of like something goes wrong with your body. You have a pinched nerve and your leg suddenly starts hobbling. You don’t get angry at the leg. You go to the doctor and figure out what’s going on and fix it. With populism, it’s much more like there is something that the elites are missing or some behavior that they’re incurring and that the public absolutely dislikes. This populist, this person like Trump, like Meloni, fills that political space. Instead of seeing it as a symptom, the elites just call it a name because that’s pretty much how they deal with everything, and they call it populist. It is a symptom that something is wrong with the system. Whether the populists themselves are bad or good, that very much depends on the person.
MASCI: In your recent piece for Discourse, you talk about populism in the context of the Republican Party and Trump and DeSantis. We’ll get to that in a minute, but before we do, you also call the Democratic Party the party of the establishment and reaction. You specifically say that the GOP is the party of populism, but isn’t there a populist strain in the Democratic Party as well that reaches beyond, let’s say, Robert F. Kennedy Jr.? I know that Kennedy has been making headlines lately and he’s obviously, with his conspiracy theories and his being on the record against vaccination and things like that, he’s certainly a populist figure. But aren’t there more mainstream Democrats that would also be considered populist? You mentioned Bernie Sanders. Isn’t there kind of an “Occupy,” if I can call it that, wing of the party that’s very large and also very populist?
GURRI: The Democratic Party is a weird, weird institution. But in essence, there are populists in the Democratic Party and there are establishmentarians in the Republican Party, but that’s not who is in control. If you’re Bernie Sanders, you probably feel, rightly, that you should have been nominated twice over. Something happened, and what happened was the establishment decided, no, you’re not going to get that. If you are Liz Cheney or Mitt Romney, basically the establishmentarians in the Republican Party whose daddies were in government a generation ago . . . they feel like the world has gone very wrong. I think the populism is, like I said before, is a response to a failure of the elites. That is as true with the Democrats as it is with the Republicans.
It’s just, how does the institution deal with it? The Republicans don’t really have a party anymore. They have a fractional populist bunch of groups, the Tea Party, the Trumpists and so forth, but the Democrats have managed what is a pretty neat trick in this age. That establishment is strong, and if you want to sound like a populist, that’s okay as long as you’re one of us. I think there’s a lot of people who sound like populists in the Democratic Party because that’s the cool thing to be and that’s what the public wants. But the secret handshakes are known and the secret words are known, and you’re an insider and so you’re safe.
MASCI: So a good example of that would be Sanders in 2020, right? He looked like he was surging. He looked like he might be within reach of the nomination, and then the establishment circled the wagons around Biden and Sanders ultimately accepted it, just like he ultimately accepted Clinton’s nomination and in fact even gave her a gift when he very publicly stated during one of their debates that he’d heard enough about her emails and all of her email trouble. It’s almost like he was ceding the field to her at that point. So is it that Democratic populism at this point is still just more embedded in the party and, as you said, that the Republican Party isn’t really a party anymore?
GURRI: I think Bernie Sanders is a real populist. I think he terrified the establishment. He terrified them for many reasons, one of them being they thought he could win, which was probably true. But you can’t rewrite history and I’m not a conspiracy theorist, so I don’t spend a whole lot of time researching this kind of thing, but I think you can make a very good case that he should have been nominated twice over and was not. Whether he accepted it or not afterward, the fact was that he was considered dangerous enough to be tripped up twice. On the other side, there’s just chaos. Trump basically just walked into a party that had already pretty much battered itself to bits, and so now he’s the big influence there.
Ins and Outs
MASCI: Let me turn to Trump and DeSantis and the piece you wrote. You say—and I’m paraphrasing here—that while Trump and DeSantis both want to lead the Republican Party, they really do embody irreconcilable political approaches, specifically coming at populism, as it were, from opposite directions. I think that the term you use at one point—you say Trump is the “insider outside,” while DeSantis is the “outsider inside.” Can you just take a minute and explain to everyone what you mean by those two characterizations?
GURRI: Sure. Trump was born to money, built these gigantic towers all over the place with his name flaunted on them, was a star on reality TV. He is the ultimate elite. He is the ultimate insider. He, very sincerely I think, is very aggrieved against his fellow high-flyers, his fellow elites, because he feels like he never gets enough credit. Of course, if you’re Trump, you can never get enough credit. So his grievance against the elites that he connects with the public on is sincere in that sense.
But he is an insider who, as Matt Continetti points out in an article that I cite in my article, is a typical populist. He stands outside of the system yelling at it, but if given the system to run, which he was for four years, has no clue what to do with it, doesn’t know how to run institutions, had no idea that the federal government, the bureaucracy, was outsmarting him in many different ways.
So he is somebody who is born on the inside, but he stands outside the system screaming at it. That’s what he does, and he does it very well. He has a genius for attracting attention, not just from conservative sources or Republican sources, which are a little ghetto in our cultural landscape, but from everybody. So he gets to be heard by everybody, which, if you are a conservative or a Republican, is a hard thing to break through.
On the other side, DeSantis—look up his net worth. As of 2022 anyway, he was still paying off his student loans, for God’s sake. This is a guy who could be in your family. He could be in my family. He’s just not an insider, all right? But let’s face it, he’s been a congressman for six years. He’s been a governor for four years, and as a governor in particular, he has shown a tremendous talent for using government to beat back that culture, that anti-conservative culture, through government means. Basically, it’s the exercise of power.
It makes me kind of smile as an old person who remembers Ronald Reagan talking about small government, and most of our problems come from government. DeSantis is kind of like a big-government conservative. He wants to use the power of government to beat back all those woke . . . He’s basically the ultimate anti-woke politician, but he is an outsider who has, just through I guess his personal skills, made himself an insider of the system and is trying to cleanse the system from the inside.
MASCI: When you were talking about Trump as an insider screaming from the outside, a lot of people that I know who don’t even like Donald Trump but who are Republican or conservative say, “Well, I’ve got to give him this. He got some big things done.” They always cite the judges. They cite the tax cuts. They cite deregulation. Did Trump have a real role to play in any of this? Was there some sort of method to his madness, some kind of three-dimensional chess strategy that he was playing? Or is he largely just taking credit for then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s successes?
GURRI: Well, look, he was president, so he had a role to play. Far be it from me to say that he was completely just being coddled in the White House while everybody else was running the show. But he came to Washington to drain the swamp, and the swamp drained him. All those other things you mentioned, essentially any Republican administration would’ve done better. They would’ve been against business regulation. They would’ve been for conservative judges and so forth. The tax cuts, with Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, this has happened before. Nothing that was done during his administration could be said to be a populist program. It was just a Republican program. The populist program of taming the bureaucracy, taming the elites, he failed completely. He was completely beaten by them.
MASCI: You mentioned that DeSantis is a big-government conservative who pulls the levers of state to fight these anti-woke battles. It’s kind of interesting because when you look at his record prior to about a year ago, it’s mostly about meat-and-potatoes governing. He got some kudos for his handling of various natural disasters in Florida. He made all these incremental policy changes that seem to be popular because he was obviously resoundingly reelected. So he’s popular in his state largely because he seems to project competence and is competent. But obviously he’s making his name now doing something else. Is that a mistake? Are Republican voters going to be sophisticated enough to delineate between his form of populism and Trump’s? Should he consider maybe running on his record and on his time in Florida as the governor?
GURRI: I think he halfway does. But the problem with anybody—not just populists, who have this problem in the extreme—but anybody running today, is they have to almost run away from the fact that they want to be a powerful elected official. They have to prove their alienation from the government system that they are aspiring to run. That’s just the way our crazy moment of time seems to work.
I honestly think he’s making a mistake in being completely pegged as the anti-woke candidate because that is basing your candidacy entirely on negation, and there is no way on God’s green earth you can out-negate Trump. He will always say something that is more bizarre and more negative and more horrific. So DeSantis needs, I think, a positive campaign. If he wants to win or even have a chance, I think he needs to articulate a positive vision, what American politicians used to regularly do. The problem is he can’t say, “I’m a good government person,” because nobody cares about that these days. Everybody distrusts the government. And when you say, “I’m a competent manager of the government machinery,” they hear, “Oh, I’m corrupt and I’m stealing a lot of money.”
MASCI: I’ve noticed that even though DeSantis polls behind Trump, quite far behind in some of the national match-ups, when we look at some of the state polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, he’s doing quite a bit better against Trump. He’s still behind, but more like by 15 points rather than 25 or 30. These are the early Republican states in the nominating contest. Is that because voters there may be paying closer attention to the race already, and that maybe DeSantis has a message that will resonate better once Republicans around the country focus more on the race?
GURRI: I think there’s no question that Donald Trump is the 800-pound gorilla on the Republican side. Joe Biden, feeble as he is, is the 800-pound gorilla on the Democratic side. I think they are in the lead because they are the 800-pound gorillas, but both of them are absolutely covered with weaknesses and potential problems. I think in the case of Trump, his weakness is that much of what irks the Republican primary voters happened during his watch: the censorship of the media, the COVID mandates on masks and vaccines. All that sort of stuff all happened while Trump was president. So he is seen either as the victim or as the cause of some of these issues, and neither is a good look.
Then the other side, I actually think many, many Democrats are desperate, desperate to vote for somebody other than Biden. I don’t think, because it’s an establishmentarian party, that Robert Kennedy Jr. has a chance, but voters may just want to “send a message to Washington,” to tell Washington you don’t want those people who are there now. That may be what happens. Both of these 800-pound gorillas are very old and doddery, so they may tip over faster than one thinks.
MASCI: Martin, thanks for joining us today.