The American 'Populist Right' After Trump

An interview with Saagar Enjeti, an Indian-American conservative who represents a large "populist right" worldview which hopes to 'realign' the Republican party towards fighting for unions and a welfare state.

Abiding by his campaign promise as well as his 2020 election adversary’s nickname for him, US President Joe Biden during his first week in office slashed cable news viewership nearly in half. The ratings slump coincided with a Wall Street story for the ages, where a large group of small money investors coordinated on the Reddit forum “Wall Street Bets” and blew up the stock value of GameStop in a gleeful act of rebellion, after discovering that numerous hedge funds had been deliberately undervaluing the video game retailer’s stock by betting against it. As the cable news audience moved over from politics to business, to watch finance speculators howling for more regulation now that the tables had turned, consumers of internet news turned, as they always do, to a mixed martial arts cage fight announcer’s take on the matter.

The five million viewers who showed up to watch Joe Rogan’s video clip in the past week were referred to fellow podcaster Saagar Enjeti’s revelry in the collective act of “Average Joes” taking on people he “despises the most,” as the 28-year-old conservative commentator observed in his screed against those waking up now after having been “silent on the crimes of actually influential people who rig our economy on a daily basis.” Saagar himself recently surpassed a million subscribers on the morning news hour Rising with Krystal and Saagar, an internet program run by The Hill newspaper, which gained notoriety for its (rightly) favourable coverage of “anti-establishment” presidential candidates such as Bernie Sanders and Andrew Yang when corporate-owned cable news was hostile to both. Soon after, Saagar – a social conservative and fiscal liberal – and avowed socialist co-host Krystal Ball co-authored The Populist’s Guide to 2020 (Strong Arm Press), their bestselling companion to the elections told from what they call “populist left” and “populist right” perspectives.

If the American “populist left” was animated by the emerging socialist consciousness from #Occupy through Sanders’s 2016 and 2020 runs for the highest office, the “populist right” was left to contend with former president Donald Trump’s cult of personality; while the Sanders movement now asserts itself through a growing body of Democratic Socialists elected to the US House of Representatives, Trump’s insurgency has derailed into conspiracy-mongering carried out by elite Republican politicians claiming – like the man himself – that the 2020 election was stolen. Can one “realign” this party, which continues to induce its working class voters into acting against their own interests, towards fighting for unions and a welfare state?

Here’s what Saagar had to say.

Thank you for doing this interview, Saagar. First of all, congrats, Rising just got 1 million YouTube subscribers. I’ve been one since back when your videos got 1,000 views on average. I was drawn to the fact that you’re upfront about your ideological positions, which to me seems better than being a news show that pretends to be neutral. Can you give me a glimpse of these ideological beliefs and talk about the formative stages of your politics?

It’s a misconception that I started out as a rock-ribbed Republican. There’s a pipeline that most people who call themselves “conservative pundits,” come from. They would have attended one of a few colleges and been part of some youth student organisation. That just wasn’t it for me. Ideologically, 9/11 made me politically active. Although growing up in Texas, I rejected GOP normative orthodoxy. The original formulation of my politics was embedded in this guy who used to represent the district I grew up in. Called Chet Edwards, he was a Democrat representing one of the most conservative districts in the US. Growing up thinking of him as the conception of the Democratic party, I got to Washington at 18 interning for him, and realised, “Oh man, he was so far out of step with the rest of the Democratic party.”

So, I was not a Republican, and I’m not a Democrat. I didn’t feel like I had any home whatsoever, which is how a lot of people feel. I’ve always been “anti-woke,” although that wasn’t really a thing ten years ago, but there were inklings of the rejection of identity politics. I never fetishised fiscal conservatism, so the only thing that I encountered and thought, “Wow, that’s me,” was this burgeoning movement embodied by Reihan Salaam and Ross Douthat’s book The Grand New Party, about the working class GOP and how the majority of people who vote Republican do not benefit from the party’s economic policies. So, the rejection of identity politics and embrace of pro-worker economic policy is central. When I say rejection of identity politics, I don’t mean in a glib way. I mean maximising the unit that’s most important, which I think is family, having children, and having traditional values.

Krystall Ball and Saagar Enjeti host ‘Rising with Krystal & Saagar’ for The Hill. Photo: Twitter/@esaagar

How do you ensure that you represent the views of working class conservatives both on Rising, as well as your podcast ‘The Realignment’ – referring to the realignment of the Republican coalition based on class rather than identity, if I see it right? Who are some activists and organisers whose views and research you represent or share?

I don’t want to be seen as a spokesperson for certain people. I have an ideology and a guiding set of principles. I praise people who occasionally align with them, and I’ll criticise them when I don’t. Josh Hawley was somebody who on policy, I was aligning with, in a lot of different ways. But he was also someone who pursued “Stop the Steal,” president Donald Trump’s election fraud claims, and I dissented very strongly. I don’t see it as my job to be a spokesperson or representative for anybody, and if anything, I see it as my job to say what I think, and I’m fortunate that a million people care. It’s great if activists or politicians want to be talked about or want to collaborate, but I don’t look at it the other way around.

Imagine a world where president Donald Trump did not happen. Can you trace the steps an ideal “populist right” candidate might take, from the lowest rung on the ladder? How would such a candidate campaign, to what offices, and how would he/she govern?

That’s a great question. I don’t honestly know the answer because the truth is, I’m not sure anyone but Trump could have done it. I think you did need somebody who was so bombastic, and the other side of it, which everybody underestimated is, he was just so famous. He was a household name. He needed billions of dollars of free advertising in order to overcome the deficit of the biases within the media, you know what I’m saying?

Cache, you mean. 

Yeah, exactly. So, I’m not sure what the answer to that is.

You’ve worked for a Democrat politician, you use the word “heterodox” a lot, and you liked Andrew Yang among Democratic presidential candidates in the 2020 US Primary election. If Yang was up against a standard fiscally conservative and socially posturing as liberal Republican politician, would you vote Democrat? And if you’re embracing heterodoxy, why are you still with the Republican party?

This is a very tough question, Karthik. I’ll answer it honestly. Why do I like Yang? He has done the best to transform the culture wars and cut through to what’s the core rot in American society. Yang is one of a few who had the courage to call out pharma companies for their publicity during the opioid crisis. He is one of the few people willing to talk about class disparity. The third thing I love about Yang is the universality of his message. A universal basic income applies to everybody. Yang is focused on lifting up people, no matter race or religion.

The flipside of the coin, though, is what else does Yang say? He calls out pharma companies, but he also says, we should legalise heroin. I don’t agree with that. While he says we have a mass depression and suicide epidemic, he seems to be calling for being more socially libertine. Those are not things I support at all, and in fact, I think it will dramatically contribute to exacerbating the problem.

I will always appreciate people like Yang, Bernie Sanders, AOC [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez], even Ilhan Omar, or any progressive leftist who talks with compassion about poor people in this country. But I think that their solutions would be dramatically destructive to people they claim to want to represent.

So, I don’t know all that the Republican in your question supports, but if he/she really aligned with me on the social stuff, then I’d feel compelled to vote. For sure less so against Yang, because Yang legitimately does want to help people raise their families. I believe that, but I think he’s mistaken when it comes to a lot of socially liberal policies. Yang is at his best when he’s describing the problems we have. The reason I praise him or Bernie, or anyone, is because I want somebody to talk about them. That’s it. That doesn’t mean I agree with their solutions to those problems.

Andrew Yang. Photo: Reuters

Interestingly, this is the situation on both sides of the aisle. On both populist right and populist left, politicians agree on the diagnosis of problems but disagree on solutions. Because there’s definitely bipartisanship between Democratic and Republican establishments, how do you think there can be bipartisanship between the populist right and left?

This is funny, people ask me this all the time, and I have a stock answer now – it’s not going to happen. One of us has to win because we’re diametrically opposed. The left wants to legalise all drugs. The right says, no actually, drugs are bad, and punitive measures are important so that the populace doesn’t get hooked on addictive substances and falling into destructive patterns. This comes into play, frankly, after the Black Lives Matter protests, and I’m sure that I’ll get some heat for this, but the beating heart of all liberalism, both progressive and “normie” leftism in America is a socially progressive ideology to the extent that progressive leftists believe in universal programs in order to solve racial inequities. I’m not saying there are no racial inequities – I’m saying they use their justification of neoliberal race theory in order to push their programmes. When I talk about income inequality and student debt, I am talking about freeing up people in order to get married in America. The left is talking about just being free to do whatever the hell you want.

This diametric opposition of the goal makes it so that you can’t work together. Let me give you another example – childcare. I’m not saying this is representative of my view, but I see the left being like, we need universal childcare so that everybody can get out to the workforce and go work. The right is like, we need tax credits for stay-at-home moms in order to take care of the kid. So, in one case you get a more productive free person to produce economic value and achieve individual actualisation, and in the other, you get similar type policy to maximise family formation in the US.

It’s crazy how you’re saying you want to get politics out of the culture war, but you’re also saying it has to keep it going. How do you engage with the culpability of politicians and media personalities animating violence among the electorate, whose provocations are oftentimes purely performative or worse, cynically exploitative?

We don’t talk nearly enough about the culpability of the people who got us to where we are, and to the extent that there is an alliance between left and right, this is where it should be – let’s tear down the people who got us into the war in Iraq, got us into NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement], and wrote the WTO rule so we could be dominated by China. These are the people who set the conditions that got us to where we are today, and I blame them more than I blame anybody.

To the extent that there’s a right-wing critique of me that I’m too cozy with the left – and probably the same thing from the left of my co-host Krystal – look at the people who want to take us down. So whenever there are calls to de-platform me, functionally, what makes them different from those by a libertarian billionaire’s who wants to make sure I don’t have a voice. It’s always important to know your enemies, and to the extent that we can unite, it should be to tear down the figures who got us to where we are. Then we can have the Battle Royale.

How do you plan to build alternative institutions that can contest Bush-era figures? Also, since you talk about its importance, how do you spread this family consciousness, or are you reflecting an already-growing awareness? On the left, we talk about “education” as an important aspect of organising. What does that involve on the right?

You don’t have to educate people on how to form families and have kids, man. It’s innate in all of us. In fact, education in America functionally teaches you not to value those things but instead to value the money in your bank account more than having a kid, getting married, and being around your parents. You don’t need promotion of that. All you have to do is build up institutions that already exist, and that were then destroyed by neoliberalism.

Let me give you another example, which is again a very conservative point. People who have stable jobs with income to support a family of four, will have children, were generally happier, and reported greater satisfaction with their lives. How do you do that? You need unionisation. You need to have collective bargaining through non-governmental institutions to achieve the desired policy outcome. In 2018, we had the lowest marriage rate on record. It’s not that people don’t want to get married. They can’t afford it. You know how much it costs to have a kid in America? It can be up to $10,000, depending on what your deductible is. It’s crazy.

How would GOP and conservatives writ large regain trust on unionisation, when the Republican party is arguably responsible for the destruction of unions in the first place? 

That’s a good question. You don’t need to regain their trust, because liberals are losing their trust through pursuing identity politics. In 2016, Trump won 40% of the union vote, man. We don’t have the vote totals in 2020 yet, but I’m willing to bet it was higher. What does that tell you? If you try and take away the bedrock of what they value, people are not going to vote for you. That’s increasingly been the trend with the Democratic party. You want to get that union vote to 65-70. You’re never going to get to 100%. Politics is about margins. For example, everyone says the GOP only won 35% of the Latino vote, but it was 17% last time. That’s how you saw Florida go from GOP +0.8 to +3% in 2020. Trump won Florida by more than Obama in 2008. So, all you have to do is improve performance on the margins.

How do you engage with legitimate concerns of racism, especially among the working class GOP electorate, regardless of the culpability of politicians in stoking them?

I grew up in a town that was essentially segregated between people affiliated with the university system, and the working class people who “served” them. I chalk up the racial discrimination that I experienced to the fact that there’s a deep-seated frustration with the idea of this foreign elite living in the city whose parents their parents work for. And you know what, that’s as much a race story as it is a class story. You can’t unbundle those things. So, when I think about the people who even gave me a hard time, some of them are not doing so well. Maybe they still hold onto their beliefs. My thinking is that, it’s the responsibility of any elite class – and this applies to Asians more than any other immigrant group in America – to understand the problems that poverty can bring, and the horrible ways that they can manifest themselves. A lot of people will be mad and say I’m making excuses for racists. There’s always going to be a section of the population that will be racist in a multiethnic democracy, but I believe that people are good people, and to make society marginally more harmonious, you have to give people equitability and buy-in into the system by reducing economic disparities.

A demonstrator holds a sign during a Black Lives Matter protest following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, in Hemel Hempstead, Britain, June 13, 2020. REUTERS/Andrew Boyers

An American journalist would have led with this given we live in the so-called “post-truth” age; I love how they talk like they haven’t contributed to that. How can either political party be held accountable if the media ecosystem is entirely hijacked by this intra-K-street politics? Does anybody care about being accountable to independent media like you?

No, they don’t care at all. To the extent that they do, it’s because they recognise that I have an actual audience. I will tell you the one thing that woke everybody up. People in DC don’t care about YouTube. You and I know that a million viewers is a lot. Here, they don’t care about that. They equate YouTube with guys sitting in basements, as in it’s not legitimate. That’s what Eric Weinstein calls the gated institutional narrative. They would rather be well-known among the 400,000 CNN viewers, than they would among my viewers. But when the book did really well, a lot of people started paying attention. Nevertheless, nobody on Capitol Hill is like, did you hear what Saagar said. Hugh Hewitt, who has way less listeners than I do, his voice matters much more. If somebody were to write a Wall Street Journal column, they would have much more impact on Capitol Hill than anything I have to say. What I’m doing is “fringe,” and even if they might be shocked by the numbers, they would never even admit to listening to anything I do. I think that might be changing as the new generation grows up, because while a Congressman might not care what I think, their staff do, but I don’t want to exaggerate my power.

China is a favourite topic of yours, which you briefly alluded to earlier. Recently, China nationalised Alibaba and ANT, their largest tech companies. I think recently Jacobin had made their separate argument for nationalising US Big Tech firms as an anti-monopolist measure. Can you share your thoughts on China in general as well as this specific instance?

Should you allow groups of firms to have massive economic, political and social control over your country? No, but that doesn’t mean you have to silence one of the most successful people who has ever come out of your country. Look, I don’t want the government nationalising everything. The problem is, the libertarians would say, then the alternative is that you must allow a massive Google. There’s a midway here. It’s deep in the American tradition to pursue anti-monopoly policy and have regulation, which is not the same thing as Xi Jinping silencing Jack Ma because he realises that Ma could use his influence to counter the goals of the Chinese Communist Party.

So, I don’t believe and never will, in the Chinese model or anything, even though it’s obviously more efficient. But what I think makes us great is our ability to have actual balance. And to the extent that there’s an argument here, it’s that we have fallen way out of balance. The debate should be about what the strictures and the balance looks like. We have to tear down the current infrastructure, and then I want to have a war on what that looks like.

Jack Ma and Mark Zuckerberg. Photo: Reuters

Last question. What would the “populist right” foreign and immigration policy be? Does it believe in an America of “the poor and huddled masses”?

It’s not mutually exclusive, but I also hate the Statue of Liberty question, because what do you want to do, run your immigration policy based on a Statue that got here in 1885? I think that immigration should enrich the nation. I don’t think its primary goal should be enriching people who are not your citizens. Immigration policy should be geared towards a win-win situation, and not a lose-lose one as it stands in many cases. The way we talk about immigration is largely a function of the lack of familiarity with history, the lack of respect for cultural friction, the lack of respect for people’s wages, and in many ways it’s driven by an elite hatred of the people who live here, and an apathy for their suffering. The foreign policy would be a rejection of military adventurism for the sake of adventurism, and see—this is where I differ so much from the left. When I say I want troops out of Afghanistan, me and leftists agree, but then they’re like, it’s because America’s an irredeemably evil racist nation. And I’m like, do you know what Afghanistan does to its people? So, I want to get out of Afghanistan, retool our military in a productive capacity so we can take on China, our geopolitical competitor for the next 40-50 years. I don’t want to go to war with China. I don’t want to see regime change in China at the US’s hand; I think that would be bad because we’re bad at it. But we need to be able to defend ourselves. So, it’s about recognition of America’s military adventurist limits, and not seeking out ideological wars like, for example, invading Iraq, or staying in Afghanistan for 17 years hoping we can turn a 12th century society into a Western liberal democracy overnight.

Karthik Purushothaman is a writer who grew up in Tamil Nadu and now lives in the United States. His work has appeared in journals such as BoulevardHyperallergic anRattle.