However, at least part of what has troubled the GOP at the present moment has been the aping of populist language without delivering on various populist policy priorities. “Taking the country back” from Washington “elites,” restoring power to “real America,” and invocations of “Establishment” betrayal have been thoroughly mainstreamed in the rhetoric of the Right. This rhetoric clearly plays to populist impulses and has led to increased distrust of the established institutions of power. I’m not saying that this rhetoric is necessarily inappropriate, just that it is common. Meanwhile, on domestic policy, populist-inclined Americans might feel that they have gotten little from Republicans in recent years.
This tension between language and policy is especially keen on immigration, one of the major populist (though not only populist) flashpoints. Republicans run on “secure the border” and pledge their opposition to “amnesty,” only for many of them, once in office, to champion “comprehensive” immigration reform that frontloads legalization, expands guest-worker programs, and makes easily vitiated commitments on enforcement. Populist fires are stoked by rhetoric only to be frustrated by policy. This frustration only exacerbates a sense of alienation and distrust.
All this brings us to Trump and the likely result on November 8. A lack of accommodation to populism — on immigration, trade, and elsewhere — provided a massive policy opening for Trump in mid 2015. Trump’s celebrity played a role in his gaining media attention, but a policy vacuum was necessary for his success. Rick Santorum and, by late 2015, Ted Cruz did more than their rivals to try to adapt populist themes, but, for different reasons, they could not displace Trump; Santorum struggled to get a critical mass of media coverage, and establishment hatred for Cruz ensured that he could never consolidate the non-Trump vote.