Paul Waldman writes (boldface mine):
Both parties are drawn to populist appeals, but they come in different variants. The Democratic version tends to be both performative and substantive — they’ll rail against the top one percent, but also offer policy ideas like upper-income tax increases and minimum wage hikes that are intended to serve the interests of regular people. Democratic populism says that the problem is largely about power: who has it, who doesn’t, and on whose behalf it’s wielded.
Republican populism, on the other hand, is aimed against “elites” that are decidedly not economic. It’s the egghead professors, the Hollywood liberals, the government bureaucrats whom they tell their voters to resent and despise. And part of that argument is that despite what those know-it-all experts would have you believe, all our problems have simple and easy solutions. All you need is “common sense” to know how we should reform our health care system, fix the VA, or control undocumented immigration. Understanding how government works isn’t just unnecessary, it’s actually a hindrance to getting things done.
There may be no candidate who has ever sung this tune with quite the verve Trump does, but he’s following in a long tradition. Ronald Reagan used to say, “there are no easy answers, but there are simple answers” — all it takes is the courage to embrace them. George W. Bush trusted his gut more than his head, and saw a world where there are only good guys and bad guys; once you know who’s who, the path forward is clear and only a wuss would worry about the unintended consequences that might arise from things like invading foreign countries.
Where I disagree with Waldman is that the simplicity is the point:
While people have described Palin as engaging in identity politics, that sells identity politics short. Palin along with the proto-movement surrounding her–Palinism–practices what could be call ‘politics of the blood.’ It’s derived from Giovanni Gentile’s description of fascism: “We think with our blood.” In Palin’s case, it’s an emotional appeal to a romanticized, mythical past of “real America.” And that’s why I think the fixation people have on Palin’s complete policy incoherence and ignorance is missing the point.
Her policy ignorance isn’t a bug, it’s a feature. Palin is conceptually and intellectually poor because her politics are not about policies, but a romantic restoration of the ‘real’ America to its rightful place. The primary purpose of politics is not to govern, not to provide services, and not to solve mundane, although often important, problems. For the Palinist, politics first and foremost exists to enable the social restoration of ‘real’ Americans (think about the phrase “red blooded American”) and the emotional and social advantages that restoration would provide to its followers (obviously, if you’re not a ‘real’ American, you might view this as a bad thing…). Practicalities of governance, such as compromise and worrying about reality-based outcomes, actually get in the way. Why risk having your fantasy muddied by reality?
In this way, symbols and short phrases are the goal, not a means (although others, such as corporations and lobbyists, are willing to co-opt the emotions these symbols generate to further their own agendas)…
But that romanticism is at the heart of Palinism. It’s not a forward-looking utopianism, but a desire to return to a mythical, halcyon America that was Christian, low-tax, small government, and had less racial and ethnic discord (the latter is the most absurd, but, if you were white, there weren’t racial problems: you were white–no problems!). This vision has not existed for decades, if at all, but it is a predictable reaction to the loss of primus inter pares status of Christian whites; they are no longer the default setting.
There is nothing puzzling about Trump (leaving aside his personal motivations)–he is a demagogue who has identified an Other who causes an existential crisis in a particular ethnic group. Importantly, this is a ‘zero-sum’ crisis: the mere existence of that Other somehow harms that particular group.
Given that Republicans have been riding this tiger for forty years, I’m only surprised it took this long for them to fall off.