Ryan Lizza analyzes the Trump vs. Cruz race in this week's New Yorker. He emphasizes that Trump "doesn't use the traditional language of the right," while his supporters are "uninterested in how conservative the G.O.P. should or shouldn't be." Standard conservative litmus tests don't apply to The Donald; his supporters prefer to choose a la carte from the ideological menu. Ann Coulter, for instance, likes Trump's position on immigration so much that she wouldn't care if he "wants to perform abortions in the White House." A non-celebrity fan, who also claims to be a fan of Kim Davis, the homophobic county clerk from Kentucky, says that Trump's apparent lack of religion doesn't faze her, since "strength" and "forthrightness" determine her political preferences. Lizza notes that Trump's strongest supporters are "less educated and less well off" while his fiercest opponents (among Republicans, that is) have "advanced degrees and high incomes." In effect, Lizza claims, "Trump has turned what is traditionally an ideological fight into a class war." Quoting another observer, Lizza writes that Trump is forcing Republicans to ask and answer a new question for them: "To what extent should the G.O.P. be the advocates for those struggling in the modern economy?" No Republican can stop Trump, Lizza warns, unless that candidate "can realistically address the economic anxieties of its base without succumbing to Trump-style bigotry."
Given all this information you might ask why Trump is still considered a candidate of the "right," except that Lizza answered the question in that last sentence. However I may define the term "populist," it often means "working class bigot" when used to describe Trump's fans, if not Trump himself. When a Trump supporter says "We're tired of being run over," Lizza makes sure you understand the person means they've been run over by welfare cheats and their political patrons. This particular person says her husband works two jobs for seventeen hours a day with one leg -- and there's the hubby to confirm this -- but while a liberal progressive or democratic socialist might say that a person in his condition shouldn't have to work any job, he's more interested in seeing Trump put those other people to work. Of course, there's also the anger vented at protesters and journalists at Trump rallies, while Trump's own attitude toward the press -- expressed most recently in his boycott of tonight's Fox News debate -- is rightly disquieting to the media. The left wants Trump's base to be angry, but they have to be careful of whom they're angry at to avoid being relegated to the "right." But what is "the right" now? Trump and Cruz are fighting to determine that, whether Trump is aware of the stakes or not. He may well think of himself as a man of "the right," if only because he perceives a "left" that he despises, however he defines it. To any left, I suppose, "the right" means privilege. Cruz obviously upholds the "privileges" of wealth and business, but to the left Trump and his people uphold some sort of privilege, also, whether it's "white skin privilege" or something else along those lines. In this case it might be best to oppose "privilege" to "inclusion," a supreme value of the 21st century American left. Whole groups of people don't feel welcome in the Trump movement, probably including many Trump hasn't actually attacked or criticized. That's most likely because the left assumes that to exclude one is to exclude all, that hostility to Mexicans or Muslims is only an aspect of that universal white (or white male, or straight white) hatred of any Other that, to some, virtually defines western civilization.
But while the left perceives any sort of exclusionary populism as "the right," that populism actually occupies the center of at least one continuum of thought. At one end, the "right" of capital and free enterprise, anyone can succeed and the successful are welcome everywhere, but nothing is promised, much less guaranteed, to anyone. For them it's survival of the fittest, albeit within certain self-justifying rules, and the losers can rot. At the other end, which in this case means liberalism rather than an often less-forgiving hard left, everyone must make it, with no questions asked, or else the world is unjust. In the middle are those who believe that their membership in a particular group entitles them to something more than the right would grant, but believe that entitlement to be a birthright rather than a human right to be shared unconditionally with everyone else. Populists often think of themselves as "the people," but at the same time they effectively affirm that they are a people who are distinct from others and like it that way. Let's say they see themselves as the people who define a people as a distinctive thing. This becomes problematic if they're not the only ones who form a particular people, but it shouldn't be as problematic when they demand that a people, in the national sense of the word, ought to be considered by their nation before the nation looks abroad for monsters to destroy (today's populists oppose neoconservatism and liberal interventionism, seeing them as two sides of the same coin) or strangers to embrace. It needn't be a matter of hate or ethnocentrism or any sort of prejudice. It can be as simple as what I hear every day: why do we spend so much money on foreign countries when there's such crying need in this country? Democrats hear that and say: no problem, we'll tax the rich more to help you out without changing anything else; while most Republicans won't listen unless someone can profit by addressing those crying needs. The middle ground between those positions doesn't have to be "the right" unless the people occupying that ground are pushed there. That doesn't mean those people have no obligation to think straight about who all the people are who make this a people, but it does mean that the rest of this people have to think hard about their priorities, too.