Why are the GOP's top populists so disappointing?

The populist “answers” to middle-class economic anxieties, for instance, are usually gimmicks that would make the problem worse: Buchanan’s post-cold-war case for protectionism; Huckabee’s zeal for the so-called Fair Tax; Paul’s call for a return to the gold standard; Cain’s budget-busting “9-9-9” plan for tax reform. The populist “answer” to the growth of federal power is usually a rote invocation of the 10th Amendment, with little detail on how it should actually be applied. And at least during the debt ceiling debate, the populist “answer” to Wall Street’s influence in Washington was to shoot financial markets in the head by refusing to pay the country’s debts.

These policy failures have been exacerbated by the weird celebrity culture that Fox News creates around conservative politicians, which can make Republican presidential campaigns feel like cable news auditions. Thanks to Roger Ailes’s network, the right’s populist folk heroes have career incentives to choose superficiality over substance — the better to follow in Huckabee’s and Palin’s footsteps, and segue into a career as host of “Bachmann Overdrive” or “9-9-9 at 9.”

This is the irony of Fox’s impact on Republican politics. In a sense, the network’s shows have given right-wing populism a larger megaphone than it’s ever had before. But by turning populism into mass entertainment, they’ve made it less and less likely that a conservative populist will ever actually deserve to win.

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