Trump’s shutdown forfeit exposes weakness of populism

Populists declare themselves game for the fight, but their tolerance for suffering is unclear

In a parallel Washington, Donald Trump signed December's bipartisan compromise to keep the government running. Federal wages were paid. Services were uninterrupted. The president made a martyr of his wall – "The swamp ate it" – and stiffened the Mexican border through other means. With chaos averted, he bounded into the new year in fair enough fettle for a man under potentially career-ending investigation.

How Trump came to volunteer instead for an unwinnable game of chicken should disturb his sleep for months. He capitulated last Friday with a pledge to reopen the government for at least a while. The announcement cost him that which he prizes over all else, even his wall: face.

Although this story is American in its particulars, right down to the very notion of government closure, enemies of populism all over the West should study it just the same. It exposed the central weakness of an ostensibly invincible movement.

Core to populism is a high-minded disdain for material comfort. To prise one’s country from transnational overlords might entail some cost, says the candid demagogue, but it is bearable and perhaps even team-building. Nothing thickens the national stew like shared adversity. This spartan ethos is at work when people claim to prefer a more homogenous but slower-growing society to a diverse and dynamic one.


It is rampant in Britain, where many voters desire the hardest of Brexits, however many cabbages they have to grow themselves. And it lulled the White House in December, which trusted Americans to put up with open-ended inconvenience for the sake of tighter borders and, in time, a more familiar nation.

To forgo earthly things for an ideal is respectable and coherent behaviour. It recognises a trade-off and makes a choice. There is even some nobility to the choice, if also some self-annihilating fanaticism.


I just wonder whether voters mean a word of it. We can all declare ourselves game for hardship in service of a larger cause. Events rarely oblige us to act on it. When they do, and the costs register, it is not clear that people are any less sensitive to material harm than they were before 2016, or any less ravenous for politicians to blame. Populists are right that lots of voters thirst for an unspecified yesteryear. The question is how much economic and practical disruption they will endure to achieve it. To the extent that populists overrate this tolerance for pain, they are politically vulnerable.

It has been crucial to the recent success of populism that not much has been asked of people

Those who steered Trump away from a compromise in December believed Americans would watch their fellow workers go without pay, infrastructure falter, their chances of a public-safety disaster rise, and brave it all out of some frontier spirit. When commerce secretary Wilbur Ross advised unpaid workers to take out bank loans, it was more than House of Bourbon hauteur. It was an almost touching vote of trust in his compatriots. And not a groundless one: in electing Trump, half the country seemed willing to pay for a more traditional US. It is just that a president must know when to take voters seriously, not literally.

No doubt there are some who meant it. Trump's poll rating fell but did not collapse in recent weeks. Of those voters who stood by him through the shutdown, some are partisans. Others wonder if they can be much worse off than they are already. But both groups together do not amount to a governing coalition. In 2016, Trump needed the wavering middle-classes of Pinellas County, Florida, and other places that had twice voted for Barack Obama. People who are pragmatic enough to shop around for their president were never going to wear a sustained government shutdown. Politics has not entered a post-economic phase in which values transcend all material considerations.

It has been crucial to the recent success of populism that not much has been asked of people. If their livelihoods are compromised, expect a decisive number of voters to look for an escape, and to scan the terrain for politicians to punish. They might settle on the wrong ones. Liberals are always susceptible, and Trump might have been able to blame them had he not taken such early possession of the shutdown. But whoever they thump, the public’s reaction to a month’s worth of hassle was not to grin, bear it and dig for victory.

The idea that life is more than convenience and gross domestic product is still populism’s emotional edge over arid technocracy. But the point is to keep it as an idea. Test the reality, and populists might find their cherished masses are a terrible disappointment to them. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019