In radically different ways, Trump and Sanders are addressing the deep anxiety stemming from the secular stagnation in wages and living standards that has squeezed the middle and working classes for a generation. Sanders locates the villainy in a billionaire class that has rigged both the economic and political system. Trump blames foreigners, most prominently those cunning Mexicans, Chinese, Japanese and Saudis who’ve been taking merciless advantage of us, in concert with America’s own leaders who are, alternatively, stupid and incompetent or bought and corrupt.
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My personal preference is for ... the reform conservatism that locates the source of our problems not in heartless billionaires or crafty foreigners, but in our superannuated, increasingly sclerotic 20th-century welfare-state structures.
Krauthammer's policy preferences aside, he may be on to something without realizing it. Leave aside also whomever Sanders or Trump actually blames for anything. The main point, the obvious difference between their "populism" and Krauthammer's ideology is that he blames systems for the nation's problems, while the populists, true to their name, blame people. Populism, I'd guess, is less concerned with the right ideas holding sway than with the right people doing so, whether they're defined individually or demographically. Hence the politics of personality that sees many rank-and-file religious conservatives supporting Trump despite their awareness of his many personal indiscretions, as well as many young people supporting Sanders, the seeming crabby old man, because a certain crabbiness may be what it takes to speak truth to power or bring it to account. For such people, structural change matters less as an end unto itself than the character of the change-maker. Senator Cruz also benefits from this to an extent, as the open contempt his fellow Republican Senators show for him signals to the grass roots that Cruz may have the personal qualities necessary to make change when ideological qualifications haven't sufficed. While Krauthammer might believe that a change of mind might redeem old politicians who sign on with "reform conservatism," populists probably feel that past failures -- as in failing the American people -- disqualify politicians from ever reclaiming public trust. That's how many Sanders supporters feel about Hillary Clinton, I suspect, and many of them probably won't vote for her if she gets the nomination unless they get really, really scared of the Republican nominee. Ditto for Trump supporters if their man loses, unless their hate for Clinton is as really, really strong. In any event, some sort of populism -- some sort of politics that calls on leaders "like us" to stand up for people "like us" -- probably rises inevitably from the bankruptcy of ideology. To ideologues, especially those skeptical towards Trump -- Krauthammer sees no evidence that the billionaire believes in limited government, for instance -- it looks like unprincipled politics, but if ideology, in the long view, proves to be the aberration in political life, the advent of a more populist (or simply more personal) politics may only mean that politics have returned to normal, or what it was supposed to be.