Conservative Populists Should Take the Right Lesson from 2020 | Opinion

Pending a number of court challenges and possible recounts, it appears Joe Biden will win the presidency. But that's not the story of this election. The far bigger takeaway, for both sides, is that President Donald Trump vastly outperformed most predictions—even more so than he did in 2016.

Even if Trump loses in the end, his performance ought to prompt some soul-searching for Democrats who expected Biden to win in a landslide; this election was not a resounding national rejection of whatever it is Trump stood for. But it should raise even more questions for conservatives who supported him in hopes of moving the GOP in a more "Trumpist"—meaning a populist or nationalist—direction.

Numerous right-of-center writers and thinkers spent Trump's term interpreting 2016 as a new model for conservative politics. The old "fusionism" (the combination of free-market economics, traditional social ethics and hawkish foreign policy that defines American conservatism) was supposedly on its way out. Many saw in Trump a "realignment" in which the GOP would move leftward on economic issues, with a new focus on supporting families and providing industrial jobs rather than assuming—on the basis of gross domestic product and stock market growth—rising tides would lift all boats. Religious conservatives in particular saw Trump as an improvement over the usual deal they got from the GOP (nominating originalist judges, who may or may not ever rule on the issues that matter to religious conservatives, in exchange for votes).

But while these writers and thinkers were trying to push conservatism in a better direction, Trump himself governed like a conventional Republican, if an unpolished and haphazard one. Rather than attend to the economic prospects of working families, the administration pursued corporate tax cuts and deregulation. Rather than turn away from free-market fundamentalism, the president obsessed over stock market performance. And just this past summer, Sen. Josh Hawley (a post-fusionist favorite) delivered a fiery speech about how religious conservatives were getting the same raw deal as usual—indeed, if not for the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and subsequent nomination of Amy Coney Barrett (whom Trump had earlier passed over in favor of Brett Kavanaugh), pro-life and religious conservatives may have gone into the election feeling as ignored as before.

And then there was the 2020 campaign itself. The Donald Trump who ran this year was not the Donald Trump who ran in 2016. Gone were the criticisms of globalism and free trade. Gone were the promises about immigration and infrastructure. Gone was any talk of opioids or the forgotten America. This cycle, Trump relied on a handful of shockingly conventional GOP tropes: law and order, job creation, socialism and 1776.

Trump didn't even display his characteristic bombast in the final weeks. He didn't pepper Biden with nicknames on the campaign trail and didn't drop "you'd be in jail"-style one-liners in debate. In interviews, he was defensive. In key moments, he seemed dull and tired. He droned through his speech at Barrett's swearing-in and his post-election day address, with what his past self could only have termed "low energy."

Trump supporters
Trump supporters hold signs and chant as they gather in front of the Maricopa County Election Department where ballots are counted after the US presidential election in Phoenix, Arizona, on November 5, 2020. Olivier Touron/AFP/Getty

The 2020 campaign was, in short, Trump without Trumpism.

Yet he nearly won anyway. The nationalist policy message and populist iconoclasm were gone, but he attained almost exactly the same electoral results as in 2016.

This should bother conservative populists. Trump's relative success in the 2020 election was not a victory for the much (and rightly) hoped-for multi-ethnic working-class coalition, but for the more establishment-friendly Trump who actually ran this time around. And the fact that he came so close to replicating his 2016 victory raises the question of whether that previous election was really about populism to begin with.

Yes, Trump gained 3 to 4 percentage points among nonwhite men and women, but he lost among voters who have a household income under $100,000 by a greater margin than he lost the overall popular vote, and split voters without a college degree down the middle with Biden. Whatever those Black and Latino Trump voters signed on to, it was not a working-class coalition. Their support for Trump more likely came because Democrats' 2016 warnings of mass deportation never came to pass, and because the Biden-Harris ticket had so much baggage when it came to issues of policing and criminal justice.

If the GOP is to move in a new direction, Trump wasn't going to be the person to get it there. And conservatives who want to usher in that change should be wary about celebrating a strong showing for Trump. He may have been necessary to shake up a complacent conservatism, but the post-fusionist agenda likely would have gone nowhere in a second Trump term.

After four years and two elections, the meaning of "Trumpism" is more up in the air now than it has ever been before. Four years from now, a crop of younger Republicans will try to recapture whatever they consider Trumpism to be. Their platforms will be radically different. Conservatives who want a more populist, family-focused GOP that includes working-class and nonwhite people need to stake their claims now, irrespective of and unattached to Trump's fate.

Philip Jeffery is the deputy opinion editor at Newsweek.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.