Donald Trump, Wharton School of Business graduate, is supposed to be emblematic of a new populism in American politics. Or something. (Reuters/Brian Snyder)

Glenn Reynolds devotes his USA Today column to explain the political rise of Donald Trump:

The rise — and, for that matter, the fall, if fall it is — of Trump is an indictment of the GOP establishment and, for that matter, of the American political establishment in general. And that failure bodes poorly for the future, regardless of what happens to Trump.

Trump’s rise is, like that of his Democratic counterpart Bernie Sanders, a sign that a large number of voters don’t feel represented by more mainstream politicians. On many issues, ranging from immigration reform, which many critics view as tantamount to open borders, to bailouts for bankers, the Republican and Democratic establishments agree, while a large number (quite possibly a majority) of Americans across the political spectrum feel otherwise….

To this ruling class, the rest of the country is sometimes an annoyance or obstacle, sometimes a source of necessary funds or votes, but always the “other” — not our kind, dear. Too ignorant, too unpolished, too unconnected to the right institutions and pieties to really count. With ruling-class Republicans having more in common with ruling-class Democrats than with the people they rule, it’s unsurprising that… millions of voters feel orphaned. Democracy doesn’t do much for technocratically set policy that always seems to reflect ruling-class preferences, and people feel they’ve lost control of their own fates.

So Reynolds is spinning a straightforward populist story. And there’s definitely something to this. If you read Drew Magary’s GQ story from last week about Trump’s Iowa supporters, for example, you get the following vignette:

“He is for America,” Karen says. “He is for the elderly. He is for the quiet people.”

Who are “the quiet people”?

“The people like us, that a lot of times walk around with the attitude that, ‘Oh, it doesn’t matter what I think. I’m just from Osky [Oskaloosa, Iowa].’ You know? The quiet people. The people who don’t think they have a voice.”

That rhetoric might be as close as you’ll get to Richard Nixon’s “silent majority” in the 2016 campaign.

The thing is, however, that upon closer inspection this isn’t really a straightforward populist story, for two reasons. First, the policy preferences that Trump is pushing aren’t all that popular. If you look at immigration, for example, Gallup’s time trend shows most of the country drifting away, not toward, a nativist position:


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ polling reveals a similar trend:


Despite a recent uptick, there simply isn’t the same degree of hostility toward immigrants that there was 20 years ago. It is likely that American attitudes about illegal immigration are more in line with Trump, but even there, Gallup concludes that immigration is “an issue that — while not the very top problem on the public’s radar — is at least one of a cluster of mid-range issues of concern to Americans.” So yeah, it’s a thing, but it’s far from the most important thing.

Reynolds is likely correct that there is frustration among some Americans that their immigration position is being ignored (even though the elites’ immigration reform agenda has gone nowhere over the last decade). I wonder, however, if that frustration is born more out of panic that they’re in the minority rather than frustration at being the silent majority.

The other thing is that if Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz — generally recognized as the “protest candidates” among the Republicans — are supposed to be the populists, they’ve got a funny way of showing that they’re common folk. To go back to Margary’s GQ story, there’s also this element:

If Donald Trump has one undeniable virtue as a politician, it’s that he does not try to fake being one of us. He’s not going to the [expletive] Bowl-o-Rama on a Saturday night in a plaid shirt to prove he’s a man of the people. The whole thrust of The Donald’s campaign is that he is special. He is extraordinary. In Osky, he compared his business acumen to Jack Nicklaus’ golfing ability and Babe Ruth’s hitting ability. (“It’s called talent. Talent.”) He is a WINNER, and he is here to help this nation of sad losers learn how to win again.

And then there’s this:

And it’s not like Cruz is any more man-of-the-people-ish, as Jason Zengerle’s 2013 GQ profile makes clear:

It’s hard for Ted Cruz to be humble. Part of the challenge stems from his résumé, which the Texas senator wears like a sandwich board. There’s the Princeton class ring that’s always on his right hand and the crimson gown that, as a graduate of Harvard Law School, he donned when called upon to give a commencement speech earlier this year….

The elite academic circles that Cruz was now traveling in began to rub off. As a law student at Harvard, he refused to study with anyone who hadn’t been an undergrad at Harvard, Princeton, or Yale. Says Damon Watson, one of Cruz’s law-school roommates: “He said he didn’t want anybody from ’minor Ivies’ like Penn or Brown.”

You’ll forgive me for thinking that Wharton and Princeton graduates don’t exactly scream “populist.” (As for Bernie Sanders, we’re talking about a University of Chicago graduate whose appeal seems largely confined to college towns. Again, not exactly “populist.”)

Again, I don’t think Reynolds is entirely wrong in his claims. But the problem isn’t necessarily that America’s political elites are advancing unpopular policy views. The problem might be the opposite — these views are reasonably popular, but there’s a strident minority that doesn’t like being a strident minority. And they are so angry about it that they will turn to any political vessel that channels their views — even folks who have as elite a pedigree as one can get in this country.