Be Warned of the Rising Tide of Populism

Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th president Friday. With his inauguration, the Republican Party was officially given complete control of government. Yet, despite this fact, the newly dubbed President’s inaugural address had little to do with traditional conservatism. In fact, there was little to no mention of liberty and limited government. Rather, Trump’s address was like many of his campaign speeches, laced with rhetoric of a populist tone and protectionist promises.

What surprised me was the onslaught of traditional conservatives, and even libertarians and classical liberals, defending his remarks above constitutional principles. This populist tone is one that was heavy throughout the campaign trail, but with this being the center of his inaugural address, the tone is officially set. The tone is not that of constitutional principles or limited government, but one that can go with the flow of populism.

What concerned me the most during the election was what Trump would do to the conservative and liberty movements. For so long, those of us in the movements have unquestionably associated being anti-establishment as being pro-liberty. It never seemed to occur to anyone that the two are not synonymous to one another. Not, that is, until Trump happened. Now I see many people, who I once thought understood the fundamentals of liberty, cheering Trump on when he says widely authoritarian things, merely for nationalistic or anti-establishment reasoning.

Take this one section from his address, for example.

“Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families. We must protect our borders from the ravages of other countries making our products, stealing our companies and destroying our jobs.

Protection will lead to great prosperity and strength. I will fight for you with every breath in my body and I will never ever let you down.”

The conservative movement once stood for fiscal responsibility and free markets. Yet, many cheered this as he called for greater protectionism. In no world would “protection” lead to any kind of prosperity and strength. Economically and historically speaking, protectionism has always been more closely associated with the economic left. Notice even when Trump speaks of border control here he speaks not of a physical wall but an economic wall. One that would surely ravish the economy.

Economist and libertarian philosopher Henry Hazlitt warned of the dangers of protectionist trade policies:

“It is not true that {tariffs} benefits all producers… On the contrary, as we have just seen, it helps the protected producers at the expense of all other American producers, and particularly of those who have a comparatively large potential export market.

This used to be fundamental to conservative roots, yet now the leader of the Republican president has set the tone of the first term of his administration being antithetical to those principles.

This is because we have forgotten in American politics that populism should be always a means, but never an end. On one hand populism can be used to achieve great goals and overcome awesome obstacles. When the overwhelming outcry of the people demand something, that can be incredibly powerful. Yet, it should be reminded that the will of the people is not always what is best for the people.

The last great populist movement was around the turn of the century during the progressive era. During this time, under the guise of anti-elitism and the will of the people, government expanded to the likes it has never seen before in our country. Claiming “the people” would regain control, federalism was effectually diminished and the constitution suffered.

Ron Paul would appropriately be considered a “populist.” Bernie could be called the same with equal accuracy; as could Vladimir Lenin.

Understand that I am not attempting to claim Trump is like any of these men. On the contrary, I believe Trump is very much his own person. The conclusion I am attempting to draw with these comparisons is to illustrate the misguided notion that populism in and of itself should be an end goal. Guided by principles, it can be of great good. Likewise, without those principles, great evil can be achieved.


“Let us act in the name of the constitution, which is the only true way to defend the many individuals feeling forgotten.”


Trump’s appeal with a populist rhetoric may very well help achieve some incredibly positive things. Without question, even some of the worst administrations have contributed some positive highlights to our history. He has made very promising comments concerning an audit of the Federal Reserve, for example. But the dangers that may come with this tone mustn’t be ignored for the sake of a few good achievements.

My fear is that this form of populism is used once again in the way it was used in the progressive era. Making “the will of the people” the reasoning to violate the very rights and liberties of the people they are supposedly supporting. Should we continue to become a more populist nation moving forward, let us do so with conviction and use it as a means rather than an end. Rather than acting “for the people,” without regards to the consequences, let us act in the name of the constitution, which is the only true way to defend the many individuals feeling forgotten.

Until this happens en masse, we must constantly stand guard against this rising tide of populism; A tide, I fear, that will continue to rise in the next four years for all the wrong reasons.

About Caleb Franz

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Caleb Franz - your neighborhood libertarian, Caleb is the Podcast Director for OUTSET Magazine and a media entrepreneur, finding new and unique ways to convey the message of liberty . Caleb frequents the radio waves and is an avid fan of Marvel comic books and movies. He is the host of OUTSET Magazine's very own podcast, "MilLiberty with Caleb Franz" - airing every Thursday. When he isn't fangirling over the Paul family or overdosing on coffee, you can find this Eagle Scout defending liberty and promoting free markets at @CalebFranz. For show updates, be sure to follow @MilLiberty.