Meet the leaders of the Trump era’s new conservative economic populism

This reported column is Part Two of Eamon Javers’ two-part series on the new, conservative economic populism gaining ground among Republicans close to former President Donald Trump.

In Part One, Javers introduced readers to the new, conservative economic populism gaining ground among Republicans close to former President Donald Trump. Click here to read Part One. 

WASHINGTON — The effort underway to define a new, conservative economic policy for the age of Trump is driven in part by a changing understanding of who conservatives are – and what kind of policy they actually care about. 

Leading this change is a cadre of economic populists who reject the political bargain that created the modern Republican party in America: The marriage of conservative social policy that appeals to rural and evangelical voters with low tax, laissez-faire economic policy beloved by corporate boardrooms. 

As it gains steam, this effort has the potential to reshape both the GOP and U.S. electoral politics for a generation – but only if it is successful. 

A new Republican coalition

For Sohrab Ahmari, a former Wall Street Journal writer, the goal of neopopulist economics is to reverse the hollowing out of the American middle class that, he believes, has led to many of the pressures on American families that are driving the anger of today’s culture wars. 

And in a Republican party that he says increasingly represents “downscale America” Ahmari argues that there is a political imperative to harness a vast swath of voters he describes as culturally conservative, but eager for more social stability in their lives. 

These voters, he argues, believe in traditional male and female gender labels but also embrace the economic gains of the New Deal. They love Social Security, and they support unions – particularly the ones they themselves belong to. They want a stable financial foundation for their lives, one that is not available in a service sector based economy. 

It is precisely former President Donald Trump’s appeal to downscale America, Ahmari argues, that accounts for his polling gains among Hispanic and African American voters – a trend that has befuddled pundits inside the Beltway for months.

This also suggests that the Trump coalition in 2024 could be broader than many in Washington or on Wall Street anticipate.  

To cement this new coalition together, Ahmari says conservatives first need to embrace unions, if not the political leadership of the current union movement. He envisions a re-set of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 to create a broad, sector wide labor bargaining system, more like a European model. 

He would also like to see a higher minimum wage in non union sectors – which he would achieve by empowering regional “wage boards,” a resurrection of a New Deal framework that was used to negotiate pay between workers and companies. 

He would push for more restrictions on immigration, including shutting down the H-1B visas that he argues are used by corporations to bring in “indentured servants” in the form of workers whose immigration status is tied to their employer, which dramatically reduces their ability to push for higher wages. 

Below is a list of conservative populist economic proposals, several of which would likely get serious consideration in a second Trump administration.

  • Impose a 10% global tariff on all imports.
  • Block American firms from investing in China.
  • Block Chinese firms from access to U.S. capital markets.
  • Impose harsh penalties for employers who fail to comply with immigration laws.
  • Eliminate H-2A and H-2B programs for seasonal and agricultural workers.
  • Award H-1B visas to the highest-paying employers.
  • Create a $100 billion National Development Bank for critical infrastructure.
  • Repeal the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970.
  • Reform corporate bankruptcy to mandate six months severance for all employees and one year’s tax liability for local communities.
  • Require private firms hired by public pension funds to publish annual performance data.
  • Impose a financial transaction tax of 10 basis points on secondary market sales of stocks, bonds and derivatives.
  • Ban stock buybacks and eliminate tax deductibility of interest.

Source: AmericanCompass.org

Ahmari argues that tariffs and immigration restrictions are actually the flip side of the same coin, and necessary to push back on corporate power that has been used for decades to control the flows of goods and of labor. 

Under this view, tariffs could help conservatives to wrestle back control over the flow of goods, while immigration restrictions could help them win back control of the flow of labor – to the ultimate benefit of American workers. 

Ahmari would like to see the economy regulated under a national industrial policy – a government effort to steer the direction of the economy that has long been anathema to free market conservatives. 

“Building stuff matters,” Ahmari says. “We’ve learned since the Ukraine war and the pandemic that you can’t just have a services economy. If we can’t manufacture artillery shells and masks and ventilators, we’re vulnerable.”

A shifting tide 

Oren Cass, founder of the populist economic think tank American Compass, says this new agenda is much more than just a policy framework — it’s part of a seismic demographic shift underway in the GOP.

He argues that a generational changing of the guards is occurring inside the Republican party — led by a small set of young, ambitious Republican senators: J.D. Vance (Ohio), Marco Rubio (Fla.), Josh Hawley (Mo.) and Tom Cotton (Ark.). 

The generational shift underway among elected officials, he tells me, is also reflected in the congressional staffers, policy wonks, and media people who form the base of the conservative movement in Washington. 

U.S. Senator Republican Marco Rubio gives a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando, Florida, February 25, 2022.

Octavio Jones | Reuters

“When you look at people 25 to 40 years old, all of the most motivated, competent, promising people across the right of center are going in this direction,” Cass said. 

“As invisible as this may be to the CNBC audience, if you are at a happy hour in DC, this has already happened.” 

Cass counts among his allies several well respected conservative economic thinkers. 

In former President Donald Trump’s orbit, this includes former United States Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer, who joined the board of American Compass in 2021. 

Lighthizer would be widely expected to take a leading role in crafting a Trump second term economic policy if the presumptive Republican nominee is elected in November. 

The critics

James Pethokoukis is a senior fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, and a proponent of the old school Reaganite  consensus economic policies. 

But, like Cass, he too sees a Republican party that is undergoing rapid change.

“I am deeply skeptical of that entire movement, because it’s fundamentally based on being reactive to your voters rather than trying to come up with good policy,” Pethokoukis told me in a recent interview. 

“It’s economic policy that emerges not from good economics, but from politics and the culture war and what your base wants,” he said.

One of the sharpest critiques directed at this Truumpian neopopulism by traditional conservatives is that its policies are often inflationary. 

Coming at a time when high inflation has taken a high political toll on Democratic President Joe Biden — making voters essentially blind to what is an otherwise strong economy —  any effort that could increase costs for consumers is likely to be viewed as politically dangerous. 

Unlikely allies 

And what else has happened is a weird bending of the political spectrum such that the new Trump-fueled populists on the right are finding common cause with the economic populists on the left. 

The new conservative economists find common ground with the Biden administration on a range of issues, from industrial policy efforts like his infrastructure bill (which they see as too green, but directionally healthy), the CHIPS act spending on the semiconductor industry and others. 

“We need to recognize that our (2017) corporate tax cut seems to have generated no meaningful increase in investment. But if you do a CHIPS act, boom, you have $60 billion in investment,” Cass said.  

And they like Biden’s focus on antitrust enforcement, particularly against Big Tech companies, which they view as unfair to conservatives. They also like the Biden administration’s move to eliminate private sector non-compete agreements, which hurt workers’ ability to find higher paying jobs. 

Ahmari goes so far as to call himself a “Kahn-servative”, in tribute to Lina Kahn, Biden’s Federal Trade Commission chair and a leader of the left’s thinking on antitrust issues. 

FTC Chairwoman Lina Khan testifies during the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government hearing titled “Fiscal Year 2025 Request for the Federal Trade Commission,” in Rayburn Building on Wednesday, May 15, 2024. 

Tom Williams | Cq-roll Call, Inc. | Getty Images

That leads to a Venn-Diagram politics, in which populists from the left and right could team up on specific issues.

This could be a welcome change for voters, many of whom say they are exhausted by constant political gridlock in a country where civil society is frayed by ideological divisions.

It could also offer something more tangible: A roadmap to gaining legislative traction for bold policy ideas in a Trump 2 administration.

In March, for example, Vance partnered with liberal Rhode Island Democratic senator Sheldon Whitehouse to introduce the “Stop Subsidizing Giant Mergers Act,” which would end tax free mergers and taxpayer subsidies that the senators see as consolidating corporate power.

The two politicians listed the types of tax free mergers they would like to block in the future, including Facebook’s $ 19 billion acquisition of What’sApp in 2014 and AT&T’s $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner in 2018.  

And in February, Vance raised eyebrows in Washington when he said that the FTC’s Kahn is “doing a pretty good job” – rare praise from a conservative for the Biden Administration. 

But that praise comes in a context that is something new and different in Washington, and which many on Wall Street and in corporate boardrooms don’t fully understand yet.