The phenomenon of Palin raises the question: Does populism need to be anti-intellectual? The answer is: No. The populist mythology surrounding Abraham Lincoln was not only the rail-splitter born in a log cabin, but the youth who studied books by candlelight. He was, indeed, dismissed as a rube. But he wasn’t one. He quoted Shakespeare with ease and suffused politics with thought.
Populism, by definition, is anti-elitist. But that is very different from being anti-intellectual. It was William F. Buckley who provided the best description of conservative anti-elitism. “I would rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the Boston telephone directory than by the 2,000 people on the faculty of Harvard University.” The assumption of wisdom in ordinary people is the basis for free-market economics and, ultimately, for democratic theory. But every conservative would hope that the phone-book ruling class would possess some knowledge of our national history, some acquaintance with our founding documents, some ability to make reasoned political arguments. These things they would not gain from watching “The Celebrity Apprentice” or “Amazing America With Sarah Palin.”
In this vacuity, Palin and Trump are a perfect match. They both embrace a politics of personality, a politics at war with reason. Who would go to either for advice on Medicare reform or Syria policy? In the two-dimensional politics of Palin and Trump, depth is not even a category. There is only establishment vs. anti-establishment, weakness vs. strength.