The Populist Right Turns to the Dark Side

Or how I learned to stop worrying and love the establishment

Election Tracker | Matt Boomer | January 27, 2016

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Introductory note: For full effect, play this music while reading.

Sarah Palin’s endorsement of Donald Trump last week, combined with the Donald’s persistent popularity, has confirmed to many a sobering thought: for conservative populists, the populism trumps (pun intended) the conservatism. In thrall to a cretinous, reprehensible charlatan, they are now unmoored by principle and the values they once claimed to espouse, and have given in to base instincts.

Palin’s speech was revealing in this regard. Her mode of speaking itself has deteriorated. Where she was once charismatic, if not overly enlightening, she has become stunted and meandering, almost completely devoid of substantive content. Her inchoate ramblings reflected the source of Trump’s popularity:

“Doggone right we’re angry, justifiably so.”

Anger. That is the essence of Trumpism. Americans, including Trump supporters, have a right to be angry at their government. But anger is not a cover-all justification. By itself, untempered by reason, it cannot solve problems, having only the power to destroy. Yet Trump exhorts his constituents to simply keep the anger coming and give in to the instincts it creates. All those ideas and values the other candidates talk about? They are nothing compared to your power when you…

Never gets old.

There is, indeed, little philosophical overlap between Trumpism and authentic conservatism. Limited government and individual liberty are not inherently desirable ends for Trump. He is happy to trample them underfoot to get what he wants. Free markets? Property rights? Rule of law? Trump gloats about bilking taxpayers for money and using donations to sway policy in his favor. He is a vocal supporter of eminent domain, a mechanism by which government can seize private property for its own purposes. His trade policies are aggressively protectionist. Conservative heroes, from the Founders to Lincoln to William F. Buckley, openly disdained Trump-style populism (in 2000, Buckley condemned Trump as a narcissistic demagogue, quipping, “If Donald Trump were shaped a little differently, he would compete for Miss America”). There is almost nothing in the conservative intellectual or historical traditions to recommend Trump.

Palin’s (and Trump’s) response to this is simple. First, the lies: Palin describes Trump as “pro-life, pro-Second Amendment, strict constitutionality,” none of which is a position he has ever consistently held. She then deflects. From her speech: “tell us that we’re not red enough? Yeah, coming from the establishment, right.” This is the entire Trumpian defense when attacked by conservatives: “You’re the establishment! You must be for Jeb!” It’s the right-wing equivalent of telling someone to check their privilege. The definition of “the establishment” has been expanded to the point where it means nothing, except anyone who criticizes Trump. It includes the insufficiently servile in all professions, of all ideological stripes. In fact, by Trumpite standards it would even include yours truly, a 22-year-old small-l libertarian writing in an unpaid capacity for a publication whose existence is predated by Trump’s campaign. Still in college, and I’m already a GOP power player! My parents must be so proud.

The “establishment” retort is a small mind’s exercise in self-preservation – willful ignorance and reductive finger-pointing to stave off the assault of reason. Anyone, however ideologically committed and unconnected to the actual “establishment,” can be dismissed by it without meaningful engagement.

In reality, Trump ought to repel any conservative, establishment or otherwise, save one kind: one who never cared for ideas, but went along because Republicans were a smidge closer than Democrats to expressing his preferred cocktail of chest-beating nationalism and white identity politics. Finding in Trump his true avatar, he casts aside pretensions and turns on his former allies in service of his new master. Anyone who stands in his way is an enemy.

Sound familiar? Just like in Star Wars, the populist right’s turn has surprised people. And just like in Star Wars, it shouldn’t have. The signs were there. Indeed, Anakin Skywalker provides a perfect model by which to understand Trump enthusiasm: as the final petulant act of a well-intentioned, but profoundly misguided group whose fears and anxieties have been exploited by a cackling egomaniac.

Palin is the ideal figure to mark this descent because, as others have noted, her nomination for the vice-presidency in 2008 was a crucial step in it. Starting with her, the Republican Party and many of its supporters felt compelled to defend figures who, while charismatic and brash, were philosophically incoherent and intellectually bankrupt (Michele Bachmann, Ann Coulter, Christine “I’m Not a Witch” O’Donnell and others come to mind), holding them up as folksy truth-tellers flipping the bird to the media and connecting with “Real America,” even as they moved further and further from ideological consistency and common sense. Trump is the coup de grace of this phenomenon, and now presents the ultimate sick irony: voters who abhor the system and its corruption, its preying upon the common man, are embracing an authoritarian crony capitalist who boasts of his history of corruption – of not being bothered by buying politicians and enlisting the government to force senior citizens out of their homes so he can demolish them and build casinos. Quoth Obi-Wan Kenobi: “You have allowed this Dark Lord to twist your mind, until now…until now you have become the very thing you swore to destroy.”