Matthew Continetti writes at The Washington Free Beacon:
Two decades ago, in the spring of 1996, Newsweek magazine described a group of voters it called the “radical middle.” Formerly known as the Silent Majority, then the Reagan Democrats, these voters had supported Ross Perot in 1992, and were hoping the Texas billionaire would run again. Voters in the radical middle, Newsweek wrote, “see the traditional political system itself as the country’s chief problem.”Peter Wehner writes at Commentary:
The radical middle is attracted to populists, outsiders, businessmen such as Perot and Lee Iacocca who have never held office, and to anyone, according to Newsweek, who is the “tribune of anti-insider discontent.” Newt Gingrich rallied the radical middle in 1994—year of the Angry White Male—but his Republican Revolution sputtered to a halt after the government shut down over Medicare in 1995. Once more the radical middle had become estranged from the GOP. “If Perot gets in the race,” a Dole aide told Newsweek, “it will guarantee Clinton’s reelection.”
That Trump is not a conservative, nor by any means a mainstream Republican, is not a minus but a plus to the radical middle. These voters are culturally right but economically left; they depend on the New Deal and parts of the Great Society, are estranged from the fiscal and monetary agendas of The Economist and Wall Street Journal. What they lack in free market bona fides they make up for in their romantic fantasy of the patriotic tycoon or general, the fixer, the Can Do Man who will cut the baloney and Get Things Done. On social questions their views tend toward the moderate side—Perot was no social conservative, either. What unites them is opposition to elites in government, finance, culture, journalism; their search for a vehicle—whether it’s a political party or an outspoken publicity maven—that will displace the managers and technocrats and restore the America of old.
Our political commentary is confused because it conceives of the Republican Party as a top-down entity. It’s not. There are two Republican parties, an elite party of the corporate upper crust and meritocratic winners that sits atop a mass party of whites without college degrees whose worldviews and experiences and ambitions could not be more different from their social and economic betters. The former party enjoys the votes of the latter one, but those votes are not guaranteed. What so worries the GOP about Donald Trump is that he, like Ross Perot, has the resources and ego to rend the two parties apart. If history repeats itself, it will be because the Republican elite was so preoccupied with its own economic and ideological commitments that it failed to pay attention the needs and desires of millions of its voters. So the demagogue rises. The party splits. And the Clintons win.
Mr. Trump is given a special absolution – amnesty, if you will – from his past/current liberal deeds and words. And that absolution, that amnesty, is granted by virtue of Trump’s style. He embodies what some on the right apparently believe politics needs more of. And that’s the problem for many of us. Trump embodies crudity and insults, anger and attacks, banalities and “barstool eruptions,” in the withering words of Charles Krauthammer. Yet it turns out that those qualities make a man like Trump, who has held left-wing positions, a star with some on the right. Being perceived as an enemy of the much-loathed “establishment” is a ticket to stardom. Nothing else really matters, or matters nearly as much.
Which leads me to my final point: What appears to be happening is that some of those who claim to be champions of conservatism are actually champions of populism. They are not the same thing, philosophically or temperamentally. (Populism has beendefined as “an ideology which pits a virtuous and homogeneous people against a set of elites and dangerous ‘others’ who are together depicted as depriving (or attempting to deprive) the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity and voice.” It has different manifestations, some more responsible and some less, but resentment is often a key ingredient in populism. It’s also a movement that’s been historically susceptible to demagogues, a concern held by philosophers from Plato and Aristotle to the American founders.)
There is room for populism within conservatism — it can be a “cathartic response to serious problems,” in the words of George Will — but it should not define conservatism. Yet increasing, in some quarters, it is; and the sympathy and support some on the right are giving to Donald Trump is clear evidence of this.
This distinction between conservatism and populism goes a long way toward explaining why different people on the right, who might otherwise agree on a fair number of things, react in fundamentally different ways to Donald Trump. And it’s why the Trump candidacy may well catalyze a broader, clarifying debate about what the true definition of conservatism is. For many of us who are conservative, Donald Trump not only doesn’t define it; he’s antithetical to it.