Who in GOP Field Will Seize Trump's Populist Mantle?

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On Devil's Night, the night before Halloween, in 1964, Barry Goldwater forecast a “stunning upset” for himself in the presidential election just days away, with the aid of “millions of unhappy and disgusted Americans.”

The Arizona Republican spoke to a rally in Pittsburgh's old Civic Arena, a day after rival Lyndon Johnson spoke in the same venue.

Johnson praised the goals of his “Great Society” and predicted that, by the year 2000, Americans would earn an average of $15,000 annually.

Populism's impact on political parties is complicated: Johnson won in a landslide, yet Goldwater's populist candidacy became a catalyst for the conservative movement.

Goldwater's loss gave liberals the moment to overreach — and they did. Within three-and-a-half years, Johnson dropped his re-election bid, and Republican Richard Nixon won the presidency twice.

This column has warned about the populist movement on both sides of the political aisle since just after the 2012 presidential election; the Washington media never picked up on it until entertainer-businessman Donald Trump started to cash in on it.

At first the media dismissed Trump, which only made angry voters support him more. That led to a ratings bonanza for national media outlets; they decided to legitimize — and to exploit — his run.

In short, they still don't get Main Street's anger and frustration, but they are more than willing to cash in on it with Trump. Everyone — Trump and the media elite — is riding the populist wave to the bank. Everyone except Trump's supporters.

Those people are still angry, still tired of all things establishment, still appalled at government incompetency, still weary of party labels, and still tired of no one listening to them.

Neither party's elites represent the majority's views on an issue such as immigration; Trump does. In a way, he is like Goldwater — a too-extreme version of what, in the future, could be a successful populist orientation for the GOP (when moderated and better thought-out).

Trump often promotes nastiness in pursuit of legitimate policy concerns. Yet his populism also taps into real frustration with two things: first, today's political correctness and the one-size-fits-all progressive moralism of America's cultural leaders; second, the paternalistic GOP establishment, which patronizes the nation's populists for their votes while holding them at arm's length as if they were rabble.

The problem for Republicans is not how Trump eventually falls from favor, but how to get Trump to go away satisfied so he doesn't mount a third-party challenge in 2016.

The classic answer is to take the wind out of his sails by co-opting (and moderating) some of his positions, thus not allowing him to be the only candidate tapping into populist frustrations.

Even with all of his clownery, Trump won't implode until folks have another choice that satisfies the feelings he evokes.
One or more of the other Republican candidates needs to draw stark contrasts between themselves and Trump, without diminishing the voters' needs and frustration.

They also need to harness the energy he has exploited. To give those frustrated voters a reason to believe they can take the country to a better place, can connect us together rather than divide or marginalize groups of us in order to win elections.

If you look beyond the hype, Trump already has peaked in the polls — at least for now. According to an average of national polls by RealClearPolitics, he was on top on the day of the first Republican presidential debate nearly a month ago, at 24.3 percent; his support softened that day, and his average now is down to 22 percent.

There is a difference between Trump's legitimate populist appeal and his dangerous demagoguery.

Populism is a funny thing, however: You cannot create it on command, and the kind of rage needed to foster it is sustainable for only so long before it fades.

The person who can successfully seize that mantle has yet to emerge — but one will. And if that person is a good leader, then he or she can take this movement and the people over the finish line.

Salena Zito is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial page columnist. E-mail her at szito@tribweb.com
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