For more than two years, the United States has been living through the political equivalent of a volcanic eruption. The volume of volcanic ash that it has generated—in the form of media coverage, blogposts, and tweets—has been staggering. In these tumultuous circumstances it is hard to think afresh about our condition. Nevertheless, we must try.

First, a brief definition of terms. By “conservatives” in the essay that follows, I shall refer primarily to American conservatives who grew up in, or are the products of, the conservative intellectual and political movement that developed in the era of William F. Buckley Jr. and Ronald Reagan. In other words, those conservatives who, until quite recently, saw themselves as inhabiting the conservative mainstream. By “populism” I shall refer simply to a recurrent phenomenon in American politics concisely defined...


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