Ever since the end of the Cold War, the standard of respectability in politics has been clear. Respectable politicians are those who believe in international trade agreements, sing the praises of mass immigration, and insist that military force should be used to advance some abstract notion like democracy—whether under the auspices of the United Nations or of the White House. Politicians who hew to this globalist consensus can be assured of favorable press coverage. Those who challenge it will be accused of isolationism or protectionism or xenophobia or the like. Of course, these epithets simply make it clear that the politician in question is a nationalist of some stripe.
Just before the Republican presidential debate in December, the Sunday New York Times offered a reminder of who is respectable and who is not. The paper pictured House Speaker Paul Ryan as fighting what the paper termed “polarizing populism” and the “angry insurgent refrain blasting into the winter primaries.” To counter all of this anger, Ryan told the Times that he favored “an agenda that’s inspirational, that’s inclusive, that’s optimistic.” The Times mentioned Donald Trump’s campaign as the current focus of this polarizing anger, but Ryan himself said that the battle against political darkness has been going on for far longer than the current campaign: “I remember working for Jack [Kemp] fighting the Buchanan wing of the party on similar issues.”
Of course, if the “inspirational,” “inclusive,” and “optimistic” policies touted by Ryan worked as well among voters as they do with the guardians of respectable opinion, there would have been a Vice President Kemp, not to mention a Vice President Ryan. The reason Ryan didn’t reach that height wasn’t because he was insufficiently inclusive and optimistic; it was at least in part because many white working-class voters chose to stay home in 2012. Such voters concluded that a party that drives down their wages by supporting transnational trade agreements and by acquiescing in, if not actively supporting, mass immigration wasn’t worth voting for. And concerns over declining wages have only grown more salient since 2012. According to a Pew study released in early December, the middle class shrank significantly between 1971 and 2014. Many of those who left the middle class during that period grew richer, but those who remain middle class are getting poorer: Pew found that the median income of middle-class households was 4 percent less in 2014 than it had been in 2000, and the median wealth of those households declined by 28 percent from 2001 to 2013.
Alarm over “polarizing populism” became even more pronounced after the Republican debate. Trump sounded nationalist themes from the outset, telling Wolf Blitzer in response to the first question that
my total focus [has been] on building up our military, building up our strength, building up our borders, making sure that China, Japan, Mexico, both at the border and in trade, no longer take advantage of our country.
In his second answer, Trump observed that “Our country is out of control. People are pouring across the southern border. I will build a wall.”
No other candidate echoed Trump on trade, but both Ted Cruz and Rand Paul joined him in questioning the wisdom of open borders, with Cruz promising that “We will build a wall that works,” and Paul arguing that “the one thing that might have stopped San Bernardino, that might have stopped 9/11 would have been stricter controls on those who come here.”
So distressing did moderator Hugh Hewitt find this kind of talk that he asked Carly Fiorina, “in the first ten minutes, we haven’t heard a lot about Ronald Reagan’s city on a hill. We’ve heard a lot about keeping . . . Americans safe and everybody else out. Is this what you want the party to stand for?”
On foreign policy, Trump, Cruz, and Paul each denounced the idea of using regime change to promote democracy in the Middle East, with Cruz forthrightly stating, “I believe in a[n] America first foreign policy.”
The guardians of conservative respectability were not happy. The Washington Post’s George Will wailed that a Trump nomination would “mean the loss of . . . a conservative party as a constant presence in U.S. politics,” and Jennifer Rubin excoriated Cruz for sinking “further into the far-right brew of isolationism and xenophobia” in “his courting of the Trumpkin base” and for adopting Rand Paul’s “isolationist policies.”
Nonetheless, it seems many Americans are interested more in listening to dissenters from the globalist consensus than in heeding the likes of Will and Rubin.
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