Donald Trump’s sustained dominance in the Republican presidential primary has exposed and deepened the fissures within the party. His foes have failed to condemn the candidate’s rhetoric without also seeming to disparage his supporters. A Trump nomination would threaten conservatism’s core values. But pointing that out alone isn’t enough. Conservative leaders must also appeal to the disaffected, populist supporters driving Trump’s candidacy. Otherwise, there may be no saving the GOP.

A tradition of fiery populism courses through American political history. It stems in part from deeply American instincts: a basic sense of fairness, a concern for the working class, and a mistrust of distant centralized power. At its best, the nation’s Jacksonian streak works to preserve liberty by advocating for federalism and equality of opportunity, irrespective of social class. At its worst, populism sows resentment towards those who prosper and those who are perceived as “others.” In doing so, the movement comes to resemble much of what it was meant to counter.


Populism has a proud, rightful place at the heart of conservatism. Jacksonian conservatives vigilantly work against Republicans who, enamored with Washington’s trappings, eschew the people’s will and grow government further. Populists advocate a pragmatic foreign policy, recognizing that the U.S. must prosper domestically before it can be mighty abroad. They are the impassioned counterweight to the GOP’s other factions.

Republican party elders have done much to earn populist ire. Election after election, GOP officials spout conservative principles while campaigning, which they abandon upon arriving in Washington. For too many politicians, the people’s struggles and fears fade amidst Washington’s glitz.

GOP populist rage has simmered for a decade, maybe longer. The party’s base understands that President Obama disdains them. Obama campaigned on the promise that he would fundamentally transform America, and in many ways he has succeeded. Grassroots conservatives endured this social and cultural dislocation while waiting for an economic recovery that never came. Obama’s animus, combined with the GOP’s perceived inaction, left the working class feeling abandoned and ignored. It was a state of affairs ripe for a demagogue. Enter Donald Trump.

Trump has dominated the Republican primary in part by displaying deft political instincts. He sensed the people’s percolating rage and exploited it. Ever the branding master, Trump relentlessly conveyed to voters that he was different. He’s not bought-and-paid-for, and he doesn't conform to the effete, politically correct campaign pageantry. He tells it like it is. But speaking frankly is not a virtue in and of itself. Candor is necessary, but not sufficient. The substance of what is said is still paramount. All of Trump’s insults and demagoguery cannot change that.

With that in mind, cast aside Trump’s bombast and focus on his substance, or lack thereof. Many of Trump’s views seem lifted directly from the Democratic Party platform. He favors socialized medicine and for years supported the savage practice of partial-birth abortion. In light of these views and his inflammatory rhetoric, citing his longtime public support for Hillary Clinton almost seems beside the point.

Trump doesn’t derive his views from a core belief system. He adopts and discards positions according to self-interest. In this campaign, he has spewed hate to distract from that fact. 

It is incumbent upon everyone to condemn his bigotry against Muslims and others. However, when speaking to voters, conservatives must pivot quickly from that necessary premise to contrast Trump’s hate with an optimistic conservative vision. Conservatives seek to empower all citizens by fostering equality of opportunity. We believe that all people thrive when they are allowed to keep more of what they earn and when they are unencumbered by onerous regulations. Republicans understand that free enterprise and self-reliance—not government dependency—lead to a fulfilling life. 

Trump has never bothered to articulate these values because he does not share them. Great conservative leaders, like Ronald Reagan, were animated by a love for the country, not a love for themselves. These figures sought to unify voters behind a common set of values and recruit new followers to the movement. Trump alienates entire demographics by spouting hate. He is not a leader; he is a demagogue, a cancer on conservatism and this country.

Will, a graduate of Princeton University, is a law student at the University of Virginia, where he is co-president of UVA Law Republicans.