Ross Douthat and I were in the same exact place back in ’08. We wanted to see a reform conservatism, a socially conservative populism that offered plausible policy proposals to help the working classes more than the GOP usually did. Ross, along with Reihan Salam, even wrote a book about it. Then, out of nowhere, came Sarah Palin. For Ross and for me, it was lurv:
At which point the chattering classes went temporarily insane. Or maybe I went insane, who can say? But either way it seemed like everything I hated, a mix of sneering social liberalism, fecundophobia, anti-evangelical paranoia and class contempt, was being hurled at a candidate who seemed to fit exactly with the “Grand New Party” mold.
So I defended her. I assailed her critics. And then — well, you know what happened then.
Palin gave interviews — terrible, terrible interviews. She was in over her head. Her own paranoia took center stage. She became her critics’ caricature, embracing a mix of willful ignorance and proud ressentiment. What was distinctive about her Alaskan career was subsumed into a much more conventional sort of movement conservatism, which she picked up from the professional ideologues who rallied to her during her trial by fire. And eventually the movement tired of her, the culture tired of her, and her act ceased to be interesting even as reality TV.
But now that she has re-emerged to endorse Donald Trump, uniting her brand with his “Make America Great Again” nationalism, it’s worth revisiting the original Palin, the outsider who took on a corrupt Alaskan establishment.
Ross goes on to say that Trumpism is filled with braggadocio and white identity politics, but lacks the substance that a healthy conservative populism would offer. Maybe, though, the voters don’t want eat-your-vegetables populism, he concedes:
That is, at a certain point disillusionment with the system becomes so strong that no wonkish policy proposal is likely to resonate anymore. So you can talk all you want (as Marco Rubio’s water-treading campaign has tried to do) about improving vocational education or increasing the child-tax credit, and people will tune you out: They want someone who will arm-wrestle the Chinese, make Mexico pay for the wall, smite our enemies and generally stand in solidarity with their resentments, regardless of the policy results.
Since this is a recipe for American-style Putinism, it’s not exactly a good sign for the republic that it seems to be resonating. But those of us who want a better, saner and more decent populism than what Donald Trump is selling need to reckon with the implications of his indubitable appeal.
This might be a clue. It’s hard for a lot of us to filter out Palin’s moronic “right-wingin’, bitter-clingin'” rhetoric from the other night and hear the deeper message embedded within it. The Intercept, which is very much on the left, says that while all right-thinking progressives are sneering at Palin’s speech the other night, she actually said some things that make sense:
[Trump] is beholden to no one but we the people. …
Trump, what he’s been able to do, which is really ticking people off, which I’m glad about, he’s going rogue left and right, man. That’s why he’s doing so well. …
The permanent political class has been doing the bidding of their campaign donor class and that’s why you see that the borders are kept open. For them, for their cheap labor that they want to come in. That’s why they’ve been bloating budgets. It’s for crony capitalists to be able to suck off of them. It’s why we see these lousy trade deals that gut our industry for special interests elsewhere.
We need someone new, who has the power, and is in the position to bust up that establishment. …
His candidacy, which is a movement. It’s a force. It’s a strategy. It proves, as long as the politicos, they get to keep their titles and their perks and their media ratings. They don’t really care who wins elections. …
And the proof of this? Look what’s happening today. Our own GOP machine, the establishment, they who would assemble the political landscape, they’re attacking their own frontrunner. …
We, you, a diverse dynamic, needed support base that they would attack. And now, some of them even whispering, they’re ready to throw in for Hillary over Trump because they can’t afford to see the status quo go. Otherwise, they won’t be able to be slurping off the gravy train that’s been feeding them all these years. They don’t want that to end.
That’s powerful stuff, and it was uttered on behalf of the candidate who, as Noah Millman points out today, is in a stronger primary position than any non-incumbent Republican candidate in modern history.
Many on the left, of course, want populism, but in a left-wing version. Some of us on the right want populism, but of a more refined, thoughtful sort. But the people want neither of these things. They don’t want Jimmy Stewart; they want James Dean.
One of the shibboleths of American politics that is getting eviscerated this election cycle is that The People Are Always Right. It was never true for anybody; certainly any conservative knows, or should know, that a crowd can easily turn into a mob, and a mob is always a destructive force. We may be seeing this year the political equivalent of a mob.
But mobs don’t come from nowhere. It’s very easy to look at Trump voters and dismiss them as thoughtless vulgarians who vote their prejudices, and who therefore can be dismissed as too morally compromised to take seriously: in other words, not just wrong, but bad. I would ask you, though: is this the way the media and others regarded the mob of Ferguson rioters? No: we had a long, loooooong national conversation on the roots of Ferguson’s rage. And we ought to have had that conversation, however ideologically constrained it may have been.
As Ross’s column points out, we will never know whether or not a more mainstream socially conservative populism would have had a chance. Palin could have been the standard-bearer for it, but she was fatally flawed. I remember back in 2006, I think it was, looking at the Pew Research Center’s political profile of the American electorate, and seeing that there was a big opportunity for a socially conservative candidate who was more economically centrist to liberal (as judged by the standards of the Club For Growth) … but there was nobody in either party to fill that role. In fact, Pew found that both the Democrats and the Republicans only had small minorities (around 10 percent each, if memory serves) who were ideologically pure, but those were the people who ran each party. Most Americans at the time, according to Pew’s research, were pretty much social conservatives and economic centrists, leaning liberal.
At this point, the one undeniably good thing I see in this depressing race is that Trump, chiefly by force of his personality, has blown open a space for that sort of candidate on the right. Buchanan tried but failed back in the 1990s. Trump is not a principled conservative like Buchanan, but when a sniper doesn’t get the job done, you need the guy with a bazooka.
The thing is, are there any socially conservative populist Republicans to follow Trump? Huckabee might have been that guy, once, but no more; years on Fox have made him a conventional Republican mouthpiece.