“You dance with the one that brung you,” goes the American saying. In 2016, Donald Trump carried the Republican Party to the White House, Inauguration Ball and all. Now, however, the party’s leaders are uncomfortable with his clinch. Trump’s administration has failed to find its feet. It has proven unable to co-ordinate its steps with the Republican majorities in the House and Senate, and has yet to generate a significant piece of legislation. Trump himself has degraded his office, and not just by gratuitously stepping on other people’s toes without apology. What will happen to the Republican Party when the music stops? And what of American conservatism after the Republican dance with populism?

The Republicans still call themselves the Party of Lincoln: the party that was founded as an anti-slavery caucus, the party that defeated the worst institutional racism in the history of Western democracy. Trump’s equivocal condemnation of the racist and neo-fascist fringe after the riot in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August makes a mockery of that legacy. Similarly, his misogyny and his bullying prevent the Republicans from claiming the moral high ground of American life. But then, what kind of Republican is Donald Trump? 

If the Republicans fail to distance themselves from Trump’s odious statements, they will tar themselves as the party of dog-whistlers and alt-right cranks for at least a generation. 

Trump has no constituency among the Republican factions of Washington DC. He is neither an evangelical by conviction nor a social conservative by habit, but a libertine. He is not a free marketeer; in economics, his policies would amount to autarky. He professes isolationism, but has recapitalised his business like a globalist, by franchising golf courses and luxury developments overseas. Before his turn from reality television to politics, he registered first as a Democrat and then as an Independent. He donated to the Democratic Party, and played golf with Bill Clinton. 

Trump is a plutocrat and a populist, not a Democrat or a Republican. He overran the Republican nomination process like a successful contestant in a reality television show, by rallying the audience against the judges. He repeated this trick in the season finale against a feeble Hillary Clinton. He is not of the party of Lincoln or Reagan. He is not even of the palaeo-party of Pat Buchanan. Trump is of the party of Berlusconi. And we all know how his party ended.

Yet Trump’s ratings are still high among his supporters. Since 2008, the inequities of American life, and the intimacy of the politicians and the plutocrats, have become so obvious that both of America’s parties have faced a revolt of their masses. First, the Republican base rebelled in the Tea Party. Then, the Demo­cratic-aligned Left took to the streets as Occupy. 

The leadership of both parties responded in the same way. They tried to master the populist revolts – not so much to address the grievances, as to capitalise on the energy. In Obama and Trump, the parties selected presidential candidates who vowed to revive America’s unwri­tten­ contract, the promise of an ever-­rising middle­-class – Obama by a great leap forwards into technocracy, Trump by a great leap backwards into the protectionism of Smoot-Hawley, and the kind of policies which, when implemented by FDR in the Thirties, may well have prolonged the Depression. 

Trump is of the party of Berlusconi. And we all know how his party ended.

Meanwhile, ambitious minor figures on the margins of each party sought to mobilise the insurgents. In 2010, Rand Paul, then running for the Senate, suggested the formation of a Tea Party Caucus in the House of Representatives. In 2015, the Freedom Caucus, in many ways the successor to the Tea Party Caucus, succeeded in replacing John Boehner, the Speaker of the House and a mainstream Republican, with Paul Ryan. And in 2016, Bernie Sanders came close to winning the Democratic nomination – so close, in fact, that the pro-Clinton party leadership conspired to block his run. 

If elected leaders dishonour their promises to the electorate, if institutions are incapable of repairing their decay, and if key sectors of the economy appear to be run by government-­sanctioned cartels, then populism is inevitable. It might even be necessary as a corr­ective. But, like chemotherapy for cancer, the cure is a poison. The architects of the American system recognised this. 

James Madison, in Letter 10 of The Federalist, warned that democracies are vulnerable to a tyrannical majority “united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community”. 

Americans elect their president by what Madison called “pure” democracy and we call “direct democracy”. Hence the division of powers between executive, legislature and court, and the mutual restraints of “checks and balances”. Like Gulliver on the beach at Lilliput, the will of the demos is restricted by the procedures of a republic ruled by “a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations”.

Gulliver, we recall, got up and walked. In an earlier Gilded Age, the agrarian populist William Jennings Bryan ran three times as the Democratic presidential candidate, and lost each time. Theodore Roosevelt, his Republican populist rival, became president in 1901 because William McKinley was assassinated, and struggled to control the Republicans in Congress. Still, though the system repelled Bryan and expelled Roosevelt, the anti-trust laws and party reforms of the Progressive Era expressed the populist energies that Bryan and Roosevelt had encouraged and manipulated.

It is not clear how America’s current wave of populism will translate into legislation reflecting the country’s “true interest”. In both parties, the base is antagonistic towards its leadership. When the Republican leadership made its cynical alliance with Donald Trump, it made the party a hostage to the mood of the mob and the caprice of a bigot. 

If the Republicans fail to distance themselves from Trump’s odious statements, they will tar themselves as the party of dog-whistlers and alt-right cranks for at least a generation. If the Republicans fail to produce legislation that addresses America’s economic and social dislocation, they will suggest that, like the Whigs in the 1840s, they have lost their purpose as a party. Either or both of these circumstances will exclude them from office. 

Trump is a plutocrat and a populist, not a Democrat or a Republican. He overran the Republican nomination process like a successful contestant in a reality television show, by rallying the audience against the judges.

And while conservatism and the Republicans are not identical in theory, they have become so in practice – or at least, they were linked in practice until Trump’s candidacy. Trump is no more a conservative than he is a Republican. But while the Republican Party went with Trump, conservative pundits and intellectuals led the “Never Trump” movement, with some supporting Evan McMullin as an independent candidate.

Paradoxically, American conservatism is a collateral victim twice over – ridiculed by Trump’s Know-Nothing populism, yet soiled by association with the Republicans. This is a double blow to the most dynamic intellectual force in American politics. It will not be the populist presidency’s last injury to the American body politic. As Mencken said: “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”