The conservative mood is angry, frustrated, fed up. People have had enough, they’re tired of making excuses, they’re ready to really let their party have it.
I’m not talking about the voters, though — I’m talking about pundits and political professionals. Over the last month, as Donald Trump expanded his polling lead, prominent conservatives passed from a mild bemusement to a weary patience to a slow-burning fury with the voters — the “Trumpen Proletariat,” as National Review’s Jonah Goldberg memorably dubbed them — who support him.
The fed-up columnists have reasonable questions for Trump-supporting Republicans. How can fiscal conservatives support a single-payer-praising crony capitalist? How can social conservatives support a thrice-married sybarite? How can anyone who mocked the celebrity element in Obama’s 2008 campaign embrace the host of Celebrity Apprentice?
But if you’re looking for the candidate whose polling surge looks most like a march of voter folly, the Donald and his Trumpistas wouldn’t be the place I’d start. Instead, I would pick the Ben Carson phenomenon, and the evangelical Christians who increasingly form the core of his support.
Though Carson is running close to Trump in Iowa and rising nationally, he’s attracted a fraction of the scrutiny, and his supporters have earned a fraction of the political class’s scorn. To some extent this is understandable, since Carson is temperamentally nonflamboyant, with none of Trump’s insult-comic style. He’s decent, modest, soft-spoken, devout, with an astonishing biography and an admirable character.
But the growing evangelical embrace of Carson is arguably a greater folly than Trumpmania. That’s because the Donald, for all his proud ignorance about policy detail, is actually running an ideologically distinctive campaign: He’s a populist and nationalist, a critic of open immigration and free trade and a backer of Social Security and progressive taxation, and he’s drawing support from working-class Republicans who tend to share those views.
The Trump phenomenon, then, isn’t just a study in celebrity-besotted conservative delusion, or a case of evangelicals betraying their faith to chase a shiny object. (Despite what you may have read, Trump isn’t particularly popular with religious voters.) It’s a class revolt, driven by a sadly-justifiable sense that Republican elites don’t have working-class interests close enough to heart. And it’s already won some (very) modest victories for populism — by prodding Scott Walker to make an economic case against low-skilled immigration, for instance, or by encouraging Jeb Bush to go after hedge fund managers in his tax plan.
Carson, on the other hand, is running a more content-free campaign. Like Trump, he’s underinformed and prone to wild rhetorical flights, but unlike the Donald he doesn’t have a distinctive platform. He’s offering a collection of pieties and crankery; mostly, his candidacy is just about the man himself.
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