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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