Donald Trump and the Crisis of American Populism

Donald Trump and the Crisis of American Populism January 5, 2016

In the 1960s William F. Buckley famously quipped that he’d rather be governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston phone book than by Harvard’s two thousand faculty members. I still agree with Buckley, but events of 2015 have made my populist leanings waver. We are waiting to see whether Donald Trump’s enormous lead in polls will actually translate into votes, but we already know enough to see that the reputed “common sense” of regular American people has turned out not to be so common.

I know, there’s usually nothing new under the sun, and hopefully we will only look back on Trump’s candidacy as a repeat performance of segregationist George Wallace’s formidable but unsuccessful 1968 campaign. The fact is, a segment of the American electorate has a taste for race-baiting and religious bigotry. Those themes have popped up with regularity in the history of American politics.

But the Republican party has some serious soul-searching to do, no matter who gets the nomination. Yes, there are serious candidates in the GOP primary this year. But the party has split between Romneyesque “47 percent” Wall Street types, and working-folks populist types like Sarah Palin. George W. Bush was the last consensus GOP presidential candidate, because he had the blessing of both factions with his aristocratic lineage and faux-working man Texas airs.

The populist wing has produced its share of once-promising candidates, including Palin and Mike Huckabee. After her remarkable 2008 GOP convention speech, Palin’s credibility dropped like a rock. She has appropriately become a fading reality-show star and devotional author. As I noted last summer at the Washington Post, Huckabee, like Palin, squandered a strong showing in 2008 by becoming a fixture at Fox News Channel. Huckabee cozied up with discredited history writer and GOP activist David Barton, opining that “all Americans [should] be forced — forced at gunpoint no less —  to listen to every David Barton message.” Soon thereafter Thomas Nelson Publishers had to withdraw Barton’s The Jefferson Lies from circulation because its contents were so embarrassing. (Ted Cruz has more directly cozied up to Barton, who is now the head of Cruz’s Super PAC, a fact that has gone almost unnoticed in the media.)

Signs of the GOP populist wing’s influence are everywhere. They are behind the enduring success of conservative talk radio stalwarts like Rush Limbaugh, they buy Ann Coulter’s books by the millions, and they put Fox News luminaries like Bill O’Reilly and Brian Kilmeade at the top of the New York Times bestseller list. And their new champion is Trump.

I would love to see a GOP candidate emerge who is not beholden to the Chamber of Commerce wing, and who really cares about the plight of working-class folks. Someone who understands the need for family-friendly reforms, who recognizes the ever-wider gulf between the haves and have-nots in America, and who is serious about national security and terrorism, but who is not eager to keep sending our working-class sons and daughters off to shoulder the burdens of interminable wars.

The problem is that I’m not sure there is a constituency for such a candidate in the GOP. Too many rank-and-file GOP voters, Fox News watchers (in spite of Trump’s faux-contentiousness with the network), and talk radio listeners don’t want an honest-to-goodness friend of working people. They prefer bombast, misogyny, and more racial animosity.

It remains to be seen if the populist or the Wall Street wing will win this time. (If Trump wins the nomination, we’ll have the worst of both worlds – a pretend populist who’s really a Wall Streeter!) Either way, it seems likely that the result will be a Hillary Clinton presidency.

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  • petefromhiram

    Valid albeit somewhat trivial viewpoint except that I detect a certain bias in the subtle but detectable promotion of a certain kind of candidate. What, the phone book only works so well?

  • DissidentsDismay

    I really do not see how many of the assertions in this article make any sense. For one thing, the battle between Fox News and Trump is not at all fake. The GOP establishment, including the Fox empire, does not want Trump to win.

    Second, the author’s assertion that there is a segment of the GOP electorate which enjoys race-baiting and religious bigotry is simply comical. “Race-baiting” is entirely a product of the left and if Trump’s proposals amount to “race-baiting”, then we are setting the bar very low. Trump wants to stop illegal immigration and put a moratorium on benefit-free, NSA-empowering, CAIR-emboldening Islamic immigration. Wow, what a Nazi he is. I am so horrified at the thought of this racist freak taking over the USA.

    Third, whatever so-called “religious bigotry” there may be toward Muslims at the present time has a very substantial basis in reality. Dimwitted Islamic apologists can come up with bogus excuses all they want, but the fact is that it is “mainstream” Muslim communities that are shielding those ferocious “extremists” who perpetrated the Paris and San Bernardino attacks. Furthermore, if Mr. Kidd actually thinks that a group like CAIR is a respectable and pleasant addition to American political dialogue, then he is either ignorant of their track record, willfully delusional, or utterly clueless. Ibrahim Hooper is far more of a segregationist than George Wallce ever was. Hooper clearly hates all non-Muslims and wants to repress any conversation about Islam that does not amount to praise. Hooper is far more of a hatemonger than Donald Trump.

    Fourth, calling Trump’s supporters misogynistic is laughably stupid. For one thing, many of them are women. Second, women’s issues have hardly played a role in Trump’s campaign. Third, and most important, if we are going to set the bar for misogyny at making some unpleasant comments about Megyn Kelly or Carly Fiorina, then we are again setting the bar very low and it is a bar that Bill Clinton, Eliot Spitzer, and John Edwards exceed far and above Donald Trump.

    I hate to say it but this article is just a bunch of errors and bad arguments…..

  • kierkegaard71

    The vindictive attitude toward David Barton by the history “establishment” is palpable, oozing out at regular frequency. What relevance should his heading of Ted Cruz’s Super PAC have to the public? Give the guy a break! Just because he has written failed history doesn’t condemn him to a defeated life. I am reminded of HL Mencken’s definition of Puritanism: “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” Well, it seems to me that if this writer is representative of the academy, then the academy is gripped by the haunting fear that somehow, somewhere, David Barton may be prospering.

  • Peter Bylen

    Hillary is not in Wall Street’s pocket?

  • cken

    Yep, Republicans are longing for a return to the days when women knew their place was in the kitchen, the bedroom, and at PTA meetings. What a crock! I am surprised an article with such hateful bias made it in to Patheos. It does seem however that based on his criteria for a President, Rubio fills the bill. He may have a point, and maybe that is why Rubio out polls Hillary nationally.

  • J. Inglis

    There’s nothing vindictive about pointing out Barton’s factual errors. I also think it appropriate to point out his frequently poor logic, and bigotry.

    Furthermore, Barton’s pejorative or even nasty replies to his critics, together with his failure to address the substantive critiques is in stark contrast to the reasoned approach of the critiques themselves, which focus on demonstrable errors and documentary evidence.

    Barton is no member of the “academy” by any stretch of the imagination, and certainly not representative of it.

    Lastly, you exaggerate greatly that he is being condemned to a defeated life. No critic has said that, and Barton certainly wouldn’t think his life defeated.

  • The Happy Atheist

    David Barton has passed himself off as a historian for years. Actual, academic historians dismissed him long ago as an ideological hack at best, but we understood that he was just preaching to a choir. No harm, no foul. Things would have stayed that way had he not strutted out onto the national stage with all of his preposterous historical writings, and I don’t use the pejorative lightly. He has no formal training and no real experience. He is utterly unqualified to posit a serious historical thesis of any kind. When corrected, he invariably doubles down, refusing to change an iota of his ill-conceived, half-understood nonsense. That is why historians hate David Barton.

  • Red Mann

    There is one Patheos blogger whose sole published book is a smear of David Barton, plus posting 2 or 3 anti-Barton articles per week. And he calls himself a Christian. Amazed at the hate that Christians can spew.

  • It seems obvious to me that the author has crossed off all of the types of Republicans currently running. The type he is looking for no longer exists in the GOP. They have been purged from the Republican Party.

  • RPlavo .

    Don’t count on Hillary winning the presidency, the angry white electorate is sure to vote, as they have filled states legislatures and governor seats with Republicans

  • Guthrum

    Trump is saying things that a lot of people are thinking and would like to hear our president say. ISIS knows if Trump gets elected, it will be a new sheriff in Dodge City and their days are numbered. Trump is not a racist. People are tired of all the pc junk that politicians and the news media is dishing out.

  • James

    Reasoned, evidence-based criticism of bankrupt assertions ≠ hate

  • Peter Bylen

    A pox on both their houses!

  • Mark0H

    If you mean WT, he hates any author who is a success because he himself is a total flop. His latest post spews his envy at Mark Driscoll for getting a $400,000 advance on his book. He’s a pathetic failure who envies people who wrote books and made money.

  • Mark0H

    Nothing “reasoned” about WT, he’s unhinged.

  • You sound like a leftist, to be honest. You’re buying into the media meme that the GOP is misogynist and racists, which is patently untrue. Those are Marxist tactics..and I’m surprised you have fallen for them. Also, you are wrong on Trump. He is a working-class icon and hero, successful, and speaks in plain language. If you look at the Founders, that is how they would have it.

  • James

    David Barton is a lying hack – demonstrably so

  • Paul Watson

    “I would love to see a GOP candidate emerge who is not beholden to the Chamber of Commerce wing, and who really cares about the plight of working-class folks. Someone who understands the need for family-friendly reforms, who recognizes the ever-wider gulf between the haves and have-nots in America, and who is serious about national security and terrorism, but who is not eager to keep sending our working-class sons and daughters off to shoulder the burdens of interminable wars.”

    You’ve just defined yourself out of the GOP. I hate to be the one that breaks the bad news – but if that’s what you’re looking for, you’re a Democrat :~)

  • ravitchn

    Samuel Johnson it was, I think, who said: “The people, Sir, is a great beast.” Indeed populism is bad because you cannot trust the masses. When the pot boils the scum will rise.

  • Andrew Dowling

    You are omitting that the GOP has been using race-baiting politics since Nixon’s campaign in 1968 and the ensuing Southern strategy to win conservative southern white voters (who didn’t all stop supporting segregation overnight as revisionist history likes to pretend).
    This has backfired on them in recent years, because a) The minority population has skyrocketed and b) The response to a growing minority population and cultural change has been ever more extreme reactionary rhetoric and ideology, which has alienated both minorities and younger whites.

    The result is an aging and more radical “base” and Trump is the Frankenstein monster the GOP embrace of the “tea party” has produced.

  • Andrew Dowling

    History establishment=people who actually care about people publishing outright historical falsehoods and lies?

  • Andrew Dowling

    “He is a working-class icon”


  • HarrisonWellsII

    Trump hasn’t made a single actual plan or policy. He’s spouting out a lot of hot air but hasn’t actually said anything of substance.
    Just look at his ad
    He’ll close the border and make Mexico pay for a wall… How?
    He’ll make sure Muslims can’t come to America… How?
    He’ll destroy ISIS… How?

  • HarrisonWellsII

    Working class?
    He was given millions by his father to run a business and he bankrupted several of those businesses…
    The man wouldn’t know working class if it spat in his eye.

  • Monique Lynn

    Just because he is saying what many are thinking doesn’t make it good. I would HIGHLY recommend to anyone who finds themselves agreeing w/Trump to really rethink their lives. There is very little he has to stand for or say that is in line with anything God has or wants for us.

  • darh477

    Homosexuals publish false history all the time in promoting their agenda.

  • kierkegaard71

    Pardon me. I guess my attempt at light sarcasm failed. I admit that David Barton has written erroneous history. However, it seems a little much to plead for media attention on his role as Ted Cruz’s SuperPAC chairman. Yes, I was over-the-top in my wording, but nonetheless, I am amused by the continuing fixation on him at every turn.

  • Guthrum

    Trump has the reputation of getting things done. “When Trump talks, people listen. “

  • Jeb Barr

    It’s worth attention because Barton doesn’t merely make factual errors. He makes factual errors consistent with a false, unsupported narrative of American history. His position within Ted Cruz’ campaign as well as some of Cruz’ own comments show he shares this false narrative of our history. It also shows that Cruz himself doesn’t really care that a discredited historian is leading a significant part of his campaign. He’s either content with this person’s falsehoods so long as they help him get elected, or he’s unable to discern between Barton’s errors and the factual claims of Barton’s critics.. Either way, we need a President with better discernment and a more accurate understanding of our history.

  • Jerry Lynch

    People like Huckabee and Palin and Cruz (Oh, my!) rely on Barton’s mythology to undermine the Constitution and promote bigotry. Many Christians when confronted with actual history see it as the revisionists’ lies of liberals with a socialist agenda. This view is especially clear in Barton’s crusade, through erroneous quotes and twisted logic, to end the separation of church and state, corrupting the real reason and purpose behind that understanding in the 1st Amendment. And this, in turn, leads to Christians who see Barton as a light in the darkness of the deceptive liberal view of this nation’s history, becoming more combative and divisive in their stance on cultural issues. The preference for bombast comes with Christians deceived into thinking their is a war of Christianity over church and state, demanding a need for fighting words.

  • Max

    Another Barton-hater.
    What a bunch of bored losers.

  • Jerry Lynch

    I expressed no hate toward Barton; just noted he is a proven bad historian, a revisionist with an agenda that tends to distort the past for his desired ends. Rebuke is important to fellowship and is used not only when a brother or sister is sinning but also when they misinterpret scripture or look to deceive for whatever reason.

  • John Hutchinson

    “He has no formal training and no real experience. He is utterly unqualified to posit a serious historical thesis of any kind.”

    This basis (formal training) for denigrating the quality of any person’s work I always find wanting. Certainly, if I want to know what is the current cant in any discipline, those with credentials are who you listen to. But the world’s geniuses are far less likely to attend formal training sessions or be able to survive them.

    Maybe we should construct a Turing test. Is the writing/proposal/invention/art form (in whatever discipline) from one with a college degree or one without a college degree?

    David Barton is a lousy historian, not because of lack of credentials, but because of lack of intellectual integrity and competence. I am not at all impressed that those with credentials are particularly better in that regard.

  • The Happy Atheist

    You’re right, in the sense that simply having an advanced degree in something does not make you good at it. That said, the process by which one acquires an advanced degree in history virtually assures that the candidate will be far more competent in that discipline than any person without one, no matter how widely read and intelligent he or she may be. It’s true that anyone can read lots of stuff on a historical event, but the ability to critique sources and factor in the historiography on that event takes intensive training. Without it, you really have no context for what you’re reading. There’s no epistemological framework. You don’t even know what historians have already written and how it was received by academic peers.

    David Barton is a smart guy. He writes well. He has good rhetorical skills. From my perspective, his biggest problem is that he is woefully ignorant of the very things that are the hallmarks of an advanced degree in history.

  • Pebbleson

    It is a bit rich for Democrats to accuse the Republicans of racism, misogyny, or populism. Just look at the Democratic South of most of the last century. Or for that matter much of the mainstream Democratic Party leadership right up to the past two decades.

    Much of the Yahoo element supporting Trump are Democrats voting in Republican Primaries because Trump is their kind of guy. I do not say all the Yahoos supporting Trump are of that background, since there are more than enough to go around, unfortunately.