Matt Continetti’s characteristically incisive “Crisis of the Conservative Intellectual” is well worth reading in full, and its final paragraph warrants especial consideration. He outlines some of the trends that have brought the GOP and the conservative movement to the present moment, especially highlighting the at times contentious relationship between conventional conservatism and populism. Continetti argues that conservatives have long allied with populists (offering Reagan as an emblematic figure) but fears that “on the presidential level most clearly . . . the alliance with populism is bringing diminishing returns.” Finding that some of the more adversarian impulses within the Right might eventually poison the broader coalition, Continetti suggests that the very trends that helped bring movement conservatism to power might now be tearing it apart.
The rise of Donald Trump is, of course, a key backdrop for this essay. It’s certainly true that there are real differences on the right. It’s also true that a substantial rethinking of conservative priorities (or at least the reimagining of the application of conservative principles to present-day challenges) seems a promising, if difficult, enterprise.
However, at least part of what has troubled the GOP at the present moment has been the aping of populist language without delivering on various populist policy priorities. “Taking the country back” from Washington “elites,” restoring power to “real America,” and invocations of “Establishment” betrayal have been thoroughly mainstreamed in the rhetoric of the Right. This rhetoric clearly plays to populist impulses and has led to increased distrust of the established institutions of power. I’m not saying that this rhetoric is necessarily inappropriate, just that it is common. Meanwhile, on domestic policy, populist-inclined Americans might feel that they have gotten little from Republicans in recent years.
This tension between language and policy is especially keen on immigration, one of the major populist (though not only populist) flashpoints. Republicans run on “secure the border” and pledge their opposition to “amnesty,” only for many of them, once in office, to champion “comprehensive” immigration reform that frontloads legalization, expands guest-worker programs, and makes easily vitiated commitments on enforcement. Populist fires are stoked by rhetoric only to be frustrated by policy. This frustration only exacerbates a sense of alienation and distrust.
All this brings us to Trump and the likely result on November 8. A lack of accommodation to populism — on immigration, trade, and elsewhere — provided a massive policy opening for Trump in mid 2015. Trump’s celebrity played a role in his gaining media attention, but a policy vacuum was necessary for his success. Rick Santorum and, by late 2015, Ted Cruz did more than their rivals to try to adapt populist themes, but, for different reasons, they could not displace Trump; Santorum struggled to get a critical mass of media coverage, and establishment hatred for Cruz ensured that he could never consolidate the non-Trump vote.
Moreover, much of what might be ailing Trump is more about him and less about populism. Poll after poll after poll suggests that doubts about Trump’s character — not his policy positions — are dragging him down. Alternative history is a particularly parlous form of punditry, but it can still sometimes reveal in its distortions. If Marco Rubio or John Kasich had won the nomination on a somewhat populist platform, it would seem likely that we would not right now be risking a pro-Clinton blowout (a point Peggy Noonan also contemplates).
Much of what might be ailing Trump is more about him and less about populism.
Before the meltdown after the first debate and the Access Hollywood tape, Trump had kept this race fairly close. A candidate who had run on some of his issues while showing more discipline on the campaign trail would surely be doing better and likely winning. All this suggests that some kind of populism is not necessarily poison in the general election. It also implies that responsibly adapting to some populist trends can be a way of ensuring that populist fires do not get out of control. If conservatives want to channel populist energies responsibly, they must ensure that responsible men and women address populism in a good-faith way.
One possible way of decreasing the temperature of the controversies described by Continetti would be to adapt to some policy impulses of populists while moderating the burn-it-all-down rhetoric. It’s worth noting in passing that some of the impulses of the recent populist fever are not at odds with the broader project of conservative reform; populism has been fueled by a breakdown of civil society and increased working-class economic anxiety, two areas of no small concern for reform conservatives. The current populist explosion — culminating in Trump’s victory in the presidential primaries — should be seen as a bright sign for the need for reform.
— Fred Bauer is a writer from New England. He blogs at A Certain Enthusiasm.