Populism After Trump

William Howell and Terry Moe on *Presidents, Populism and the Crisis of Democracy*

Bob Zadek
18 min readJan 14, 2021


I recently spent an hour with Reason editor Nick Gillespie, putting the Capitol Riots in the context of longer-term erosion of trust in our institutions.

In this program, I continue this theme with Professors William Howell and Terry Moe, authors of Presidents, Populism, and the Crisis of Democracy Howell, the Director of University of Chicago’s Center for Effective Government, alongside Terry Moe of Stanford’s Hoover Institution, provide an even broader historical framing for the enduring appeal of populist figures like Donald Trump.

However, Howell and Moe argue, Trump was merely a symptom of a deeper phenomenon that pre-dates him, and which will outlast his administration. If the Democrats in power neglect the root causes of our national malaise, say the authors, then we may be due for another populist uprising in the next election.

The book is an excellent read for libertarians who wish to challenge their beliefs. Rather than seeing the failure of our current government as an opportunity for more libertarian policy and a return to the founders’ ideals, Howell and Moe see a need for institutional reform in a different direction. He wishes to build up a “big thinking Presidency,” which would require the executive branch to offer real policy solutions rather than populist platitudes.

Hear Howell and Moe’s explanation of 21st-century populism.


Bob Zadek: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Bob Zadek Show, the longest running live libertarian talk radio show in all of radio. We are this morning and always the show of ideas, never once the show of attitude.

Four years ago, nobody heard the word “populism,” at least we didn’t hear it in reference to American politics. We heard it in reference to what appeared to us to be dysfunctional governments around the world. It was not a very flattering concept. And if we were political junkies, we paid passing attention to it so we could feel smug–that that wasn’t us. These other countries were suffering from populism. We discussed the causes and the effects and how populism might be destructive, and what the dynamics of populism were. Along comes the Trump Presidency.

The word populism now enters the political vocabulary, where it has resided almost nightly for the past four years. We don’t know much about it.

What exactly is populism? Is it something to be welcomed? Is it a political phenomenon to be feared? Are there advantages? Are there disadvantages? Do we favor political figures who are populist and who gained power and influence by being populist? To help us understand it, I’m happy to welcome to the show William Howell and Terry Mo. They were good enough to benefit all of us by writing, Presidents, Populism, and the Crisis of Democracy.

William and Terry will be joining me this morning to help us understand the phenomenon of populism and where it fits in a democratic system such as ours.

A Definition of Populism

Bob Zadek: Terry, let us start with the premise that populism is a new concept in the consciousness of American voters. So what is populism? Is it a system? How does it fit into the system of government we have now.

Terry Mo: So let me start by giving a little background. Donald Trump’s rise to power was propelled by a white backlash to growing social diversity but also by enormously distant eruptive socio-economic forces of globalization, automation, and immigration that brought economic harm and cultural anxiety to millions of Americans.

These were serious problems that our government has been entirely ineffective over the decades in dealing with and the result has been a surge of anger against the system that doesn’t work in their view, and the support for a strong man who can attack that system. These are the conditions that Trump took advantage of in getting himself elected. These are the conditions that have shaped his populist presidency. The way to understand Trump is not just that he has a bizarre personality, it’s that he’s a populist. From Juan Perón, to Huey Long, to Viktor Orban, there’s a common playbook. They embrace the role of the strong man.

Bob Zadek: I may be in the minority making this observation: In the 2016 election, I have always felt that Trump didn’t win–Hillary lost. When you read the political studies of the campaign of the 2016 campaign, and you read those who know how to run campaigns, Hillary ran a tactically bad campaign.

Let’s start with the premise that Hillary ran a horrible campaign — if Hillary had won, a lot of conclusions about the collective psyche of the country would be very different. We wouldn’t be talking about the disenfranchised, or disaffected, and lower-class white males. The conversation would be entirely different.

I am just a tiny bit reluctant to draw conclusions about the country based upon the fact that Hillary had a bad campaign manager. It doesn’t indict the country. It indicates the campaign manager. Am I off in making that observation?

William Howell: Trump’s rise to power in 2016 was not just a fluke because she ran a bad campaign. He also had to emerge from a deep bench against 16 to 17 well-established and well-funded Republican candidates in the primary season. He rose up and got the nomination as an outsider as somebody who was tapping into anger and disinfection and grievance from the very get-go. That was his ticket to rise up within the Republican Party and to grab a hold of the Republican Party, in order to channel this populism.

“Trump’s rise to power in 2016 was not just a fluke because she ran a bad campaign. He also had to emerge from a deep bench against 16 to 17 well-established and well-funded Republican candidates in the primary season.”

The last four years has also been an opportunity for us to learn about what populism looks like, the threat it represents, and how it degrades our and threatens our democracy. A big part of the book is trying to underscore the deep structural foundations of government failure that have led to the rise of this anger and disaffection.

Over the last four years we’ve seen [populism] capture a major American party, degrade small democratic commitments. It would be a mistake to think Biden can return to a kind of normalcy and civility and lower the temperature in the room and all will be well. There are big forces at play here. We need to understand them and to figure out how to address them.

The Cause of Populism: Ineffective Government

Bob Zadek: Your book is thought-provoking in its cures. But a bit more about populism. You’re not talking about something as banal as style. It’s not a question of political tactics or how you present yourself to the voters as a manipulation. Every president has their own style. Likeability is always important – which Trump didn’t have, of course, at least not broadly.

Help us understand how populism is more than just style. We are talking about something deeper, because style is not an existential threat to democracy.

Terry Mo: Populism in the United States is partly due to a white backlash to social diversity, and to powerful worldwide socio-economic forces of globalization, technological change, and immigration, that brought real economic harms and insecurities and cultural anxiety to tens of millions of Americans. These are real things.

People are really feeling these things and they are angry at a system that hasn’t solved these problems with an ineffective government. If Hillary had won those people would have still been angry. It would have been like a volcano ready to explode. Trump simply took advantage of that in 2016. If he hadn’t won, someone else would have taken advantage of it later on.

Bob Zadek: The petri dish or fertilizer that fueled the attraction of a populist was dissatisfaction by voters and a feeling of powerlessness. A lot has been written about the core constituency, who are disaffected, feeling like the government wasn’t solving their problems.

“Where does the concept arise that it is the government’s job to insulate citizens from market forces?”

You mention globalization as a problem. Exporting jobs is a concept I don’t buy into. Of course, there are lots of people who are unhappy [because of] the change from a manufacturing economy to a service economy, which leaves people who have less-developed brain power and more-developed muscle power disaffected.

Where does the concept arise that it is the government’s job to insulate citizens from market forces? If a citizen is selling service, whether it’s personal services or selling a manufactured product, and somebody else comes along and offers a more competitive service or product that citizen will be out of work is that a fault or is that simply a byproduct of market forces?

William Howell: Let me highlight two things. The first is that when we point towards these big structural changes to our economy and our modes of social organization, we’re not saying they’re unmitigated harms — or things to be resisted — in fact, they generate a lot of wealth. But there are those who suffer, there are those whose community communities have been decimated and who have lost their jobs and who have experienced greater levels of economic inequality. Then the question is, how are we to respond to that?

Your point is that one answer is, “Do we need to respond at all?” If you read the Constitution, there’s no part of the kind of political or social pact that dictates that every harm receives some kind of redress.

We live in a world in which people on the left and the right for good or ill routinely look to the government to solve problems. There are arguments by Democratic and Republican presidents about what constitutes a proper response but they all come forward with plans. They’re all coming forward and saying, “I’m going to do something.”

The failure of the government to attend to those manifest wants breeds all kinds of anger and disaffection. If people didn’t have those wants or they didn’t expect the government to do these things, then there wouldn’t be this base for kind of populist sentiment, right? I think it’s like a political fact that we have to deal with. It’s the failure to meet people’s expectations of government that then leads to the anger and disaffection. Now whether or not those meet your exact expectations are justified by reference to one reading of the Constitution or another, that’s a separate matter.

Bob Zadek: That’s a wonderful answer. The fault line is the expectation. People have come to expect that if there is anything amiss in your life, you look to the government first. As a libertarian, we say, “No, no, no, where is it written, look to yourself first. It’s not the government’s job.” And more importantly, a government would be unable to fix many of the problems because the fix is simply like wealth redistribution, and it is to impair the rights of somebody else to fix the squeakiest wheel for the minute.

The government ought to just say, “It is not fixable by the government,” for certain things. It’s like, “I want to be smarter.” Well, the government can make us smarter, they can give you tools that can get in the way. If we start with the premise that the government must fix it, then, of course, a populist who says they have the secret sauce is very appealing and very seductive.

In your book, you mention that one of the great dangers of a populist is that once they take power, they use the tools of government in a way that in your view, is contrary to core principles. Help us understand how one of the attributes of populism is using the tools of government to, in effect, weaken government, or have it leave its core principles.

William Howell: What does the populist do? The populist steps forward and offers a wholesale undifferentiated critique of a political order. It calls it rigged and broken and antiquated and not attending to the interests of the true people. What the populist does not do once he assumes power is remake the political order constructively. He doesn’t say, “Let’s set to work and actually try to attend to the problems at hand.”

What the populist does both in justifying his rise to power but also in maintaining power is to continue to sow anger and disaffection and maintain this oppositional stance. It is about tearing down. Every time there’s an observed failure or something that is blocked or something that isn’t achieved, the populist claim is that this is further justification for his hold on power, because the existing order is so broken and is so antiquated and rigged.

It’s not about coming together and constructively setting to work and building a smaller, but better government. It’s about tearing down, all the way through. In that way, not only do you have an attack on democracy and small democratic commitments, you also have an undermining of the apparatus of government itself.

The Concurrent Rise of the Administrative State

Bob Zadek: I believe he used the phrase “hollowing out of government.” In your book, you clearly support the evolutionary rise of the administrative state, probably starting back with Woodrow Wilson. In your view, what do you mean by the hollowing out of the administrative state?

Why isn’t hollowing out of the administrative state a good thing? Why do you put so much faith in an unhollowed-out administrative state, and therefore the hollowing out of the administrative state is a bad thing? Why is it not a good thing?

William Howell: All modern governments have administrative states and the administrative state is nothing more than all the government agencies that carry out the programs of government. Governments have programs because as democracies, they’re filled with people who experience all sorts of socio-economically caused problems that the government is expected to solve and is expected to take action on — from antitrust, to poverty programs, to environmental programs, to agricultural programs, you name it.

The administrative state is just the organizational means by which those things are carried out. The only way you would have no administrative state is if you went back to some kind of primitive government in a primitive society. That’s not the society that we live in. The founders did. We don’t. And so that’s why we have an administrative state. What Trump has done is he has sought to hollow it out by undermining professionalism and expertise and science and the capacity of government to actually solve governmental problems. In his view, this is a good thing, but all it does is undermine the government’s capacity to actually do what citizens want it to do.

We can think about a principled effort to limit the reach of government — the problem with government is that it is too big, and therefore we can then think about how we scale back the reach of government. That’s not what the populist is doing. The populist is laying waste to this vast sort of apparatus, but not in a principled way. It’s about undermining professionalism and undermining expertise.

Terry Mo: A big part of the reason that populists can take on the administrative state is that they don’t have a constructive agenda. They’re really in the business of attacking the system. They’re constantly on attack, their anti-expert, anti-science, anti-professional. Trump never did have a constructive domestic agenda or international agenda.

“Trump never did have a constructive domestic agenda or international agenda.”

He just tore away at all these agencies like the State Department, causing hundreds of top level Foreign Service officers to depart and really crippling the State Department. He doesn’t replace it with anything, because really, his mission is simply to attack.

People who criticize the administrative state need to sit back and think more clearly about what kind of government we need in a modern complex society that is overwhelmed by problems that need to be addressed. The administrative state is the way that they get addressed. Those people are not unaccountable. They’re held accountable by the representatives that we elect at the top of the government. This is the way the government works.

Proposed Reforms

Bob Zadek: You mentioned that many voters ask government to fix issues. You’ll always have the poorest 20%. I don’t even know what it means to eliminate poverty. It’s simply a feature of a free market system and a feature of any meritocracy that some people will do better than others. That’s a feature, not a problem.

Let’s talk about some creative solutions, because solutions help us focus on the problem. You can’t discuss a solution without saying it is solving a very specific problem. Help us understand what the structural solutions in your book? Why will they make what you see to be a problem, diminish or go away?

William Howell: We think we ought to evaluate proposed institutional reforms. If the appetite for and the rise of populism is born of ineffective government, then we need to think about how to design institutions that can more effectively solve problems that the public recognizes as the legitimate subject of public action. Here, we see a real need for leveraging the kind of national, long term outlook that Presidents stand to offer. We’re not arguing on behalf of shutting down the Presidency.

The trick is we need to find ways of leveraging what Presidents have to offer in the service of a more effective government. That’s laid out in some detail in the book. We also recognize that Presidents represent a real threat to democracy and can do unbelievable damage to our country in all kinds of ways. The trick is when we think about institutional reform is to weigh these two things: To recognize at once the need for leveraging the promise of presidential leadership and our focus is on the presidency, but on the other hand that some Presidents in the White House can do incredible damage.

Bob Zadek: You feel the president right now has too much power.

William Howell: In some ways, presidents have too much power, and in other ways presidents are underpowered. We don’t have a modern presidency for modern times. That’s what we need. We need a presidency that allows for a more effective government but that also can’t do extraordinary damage to our democratic way of life.

“We don’t have a modern presidency for modern times. That’s what we need.”

We then lay out a host of reforms, some of which have to do with empowering the presidency, some of which have to do with restricting or taking away powers that Presidents currently have.

Bob Zadek: It’s really interesting that you say that, because almost all of the power that our presidents have today has been bequeathed upon them by the legislature. The Constitution gives the President almost no power. Ministerial power only, not not dictatorial power. All the rest of it was done through the democratic process. That is to say, the President starts in 1789 with very little power.

Power is accumulated not by the action of the President, but by the action of the legislature. Therefore, it is the democratic system that created the problem. The Founders feared a strong President.

What are some of the solutions, because they don’t require constitutional amendments. This is like a manual to the legislature. Here’s your job — to get back to the original intent of the word that gets people to dander up the original intent of the founders. Share with us some of your observations about what changes we ought to be thinking about in regards to too much power from the executive.

Terry Mo: As William said, the trick is to balance the promise that presidents have to offer for effective government and the fear that we rightfully have that Presidents will use too much power to undermine our democracy. So we proposed both types of reforms, reforms that expand presidential power and reforms that constrain it.

The main reform that we propose for expanding presidential power has to do with the legislative process. The legislative process is a complete mess. Congress is divided into two houses that have 535 people, each of them from states and districts. That’s a parochial institution, and nobody’s held accountable for actually creating programs that work. No surprise, our history is filled with programs that don’t work very well.

We have an ineffective government. One way to try to overcome this problem is to shift power in the direction of the one actor who really cares about crafting effective programs, because his legacy depends on it. That is the President. The reform is to shift decision making to a fast-track model, the same model that’s been used in international trade for 40 years, quite successfully.

The way it would work for all legislation is that the President would have the right to craft legislation on any subject and to propose it to Congress. Congress would have to vote on that proposal without changing it, up or down in the House and the Senate. They would have to vote on it on a majoritarian basis, no filibusters within a specified period of time.

They can’t delay. This would completely streamline the legislative process, and Congress can still vote no. Congress can still propose its own bills, which the President could veto. But with fast track, we know that bills would be voted on and we would actually get some action one way or another. The actor that’s crafting these proposals, is not going to craft them like these Christmas tree bills that Congress puts together where you get yours and I get mine. The President is much more concerned with crafting legislation that actually solves a social problem.

Bob Zadek: That seems to me like taking all the legislative staffers and moving the entire congressional staff to the executive branch, because staffers exist to do the research and to draft legislation. If you need staffers, then the staffers just move to the executive branch. The legislature is just there not even to hold hearings.

Isn’t that a huge transfer of all of the drafting, to the executive branch, and the legislature has a veto. In effect, you’re flipping it around. The legislature is the veto. The President is the drafter of legislation?

William Howell: It is making the President’s agenda setter. Right now the only agenda setters reside within Congress. Now we’re going to allow the president to be an agenda setter as well. But the president isn’t going to be able to simply dictate that which is going to become policy. Legislators on their own and their staff can reckon with the proposals that presidents make. Because right now we have the legislators and their staff making sure that the local interests and the immediate interests of their constituents are attended to, but when you think about how we are going to deal with a coherent immigration policy or health care policy or tax policy, how is that going to be addressed?

I’ll say that this is on the expansion side. We’ve got a whole host of things that have to do with curbing presidential power and eliminating presidential power, and it’s worth recognizing those as well.

Bob Zadek: Give me one example of how you would cut back on presidential power.

Terry Mo: Number one, we would dramatically cut back on the number of political appointees. Right now, Presidents make about 4,000 political appointees. A lot of these people are simple loyalists, they don’t have expertise. They politicize the bureaucracy and undermine its effectiveness. This is not a good thing for the country. A populist like Donald Trump can really use this to undermine democracy.

Number two, we would take steps to insulate the Department of Justice and the intelligence agencies from total control by presidents and make it much more difficult for them to have to control those agencies. They’re way too dangerous and too powerful for one guy to take control. We would eliminate the pardon power. That would take a constitutional amendment, but there’s absolutely no basis for presidents to be issuing pardons.

Bob Zadek: Terry, that is where I embrace those concepts. Every one of them. I hadn’t thought about the excessive power in appointing heads of government agencies. You’re exactly right. You said they are people who support the President. I would say they are donors. They’re all donors. I am always pained by how political the Justice Department has become, as well as the IRS.

Now, you don’t like the electoral college. You would support a national popular vote for President.

William Howell: We’ve inherited these commitments in the Constitution that make no sense for the modern era, and no other country has seen fit to replicate when writing their own constitutions. This one clearly needs to go.

Bob Zadek: I think we should have a proportionate distribution of electors based upon the popular vote in each state. So it’s not a winner take all. That would fix the problem. I defer to other shows of mine to learn more about the Electoral College. The book is a very strong book. I’ll make an observation. I wonder if the book would have been written, if Donald Trump had not been elected as president. The book is highly educational for anybody who is even remotely curious about how the political system works and the Trump phenomenon in general.

The lessons of the book are exportable as you learn about what’s going on in other countries.

The book is called Presidents, Populism, and the Crisis of Democracy. It’s written by William Howe and Terry Mo. It is a must-read for anybody who wants to understand where we have come from in the past four years. Whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing, there are some people who say we need more fixers in this country and less talkers.

William and Terry, thank you. I’m sorry, we didn’t have an entire semester on the air. We had an hour. We did the best that we could.

This is Bob Zadek saying so long to my friends out there, and so long to my new friends, William and Terry, I hope we get a chance to chat again. Thank you so much, guys.

Terry Mo: Thank you, Bob.

William Howell: That was really nice of you.

Bob Zadek: Have a nice Sunday, everyone.