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Latest Article From Chilton Williamson
Posted: March 8, 2017


Who's a Populist?

The Mood In Washington during the weeks leading up to the inauguration of Donald J. Trump combined the bloodthirsty rage of the Reign of Terror with the wild comedy of A Night at the Opera, as the New Jesus and his holy family prepared for their ascension from the Capitol Building on January 20 immediately following the swearing-in of the New Antichrist.  The judgment expressed by Andrés Manuel López Obrador following his defeat in the Mexican presidential election of 2006 perfectly conveys the mood of the Democrats, and of liberals generally, these days: “The victory of the right is morally impossible.”

As damaging as the practical political loss sustained across the board by the Democratic Party last November was, the symbolic affront by the Republican candidate to what liberals call their “values,” to their idols and orthodoxies, and to themselves was perhaps more damaging still.  That is the reason for their volcanic reaction to Trump’s predictably aggressive response to the view of Rep. John Lewis, a veteran of the civil-rights demonstrations who was beaten and jailed in 1965, that Trump would be an “illegitimate” president.  Though Lewis could have offered no greater insult to a President-Elect than this one, Trump was instantly assaulted by swarms of enraged army ants for saying that Lewis would do better to look to very real problems in his own district than to challenge the results of the recent election on imaginary grounds.  “I don’t think we have ever had a president so publicly condescending to what black politics means,” a black professor of African Studies at Duke University told a reporter for the New York Times.  “He doesn’t feel the need to perform some sort of belief that [the civil rights movement] is important.”  (Awkward as the phrase “perform some sort of belief” is, it succinctly describes a large part of modern liberal behavior.)  The Lord rebuked Saint Peter when he made an ass of himself, but a man of color whose claim to secular sainthood was established in Selma, Alabama, ranks several steps higher than the Fisherman and consequently stands for all time above reproach—never mind that from Lewis’s charge of Trump’s illegitimacy it is but a short step to calling the 63 million voters who supported him illegitimate as well, owing to their political views lying beyond the pale of American politics.  That, indeed, is the plain position of the Democratic Party at the commencement of the new Republican administration.

A recently published book goes a long way toward explaining the violence of the liberal opposition to Donald Trump during the election, and since.  Although many millions of his admirers are well or highly educated, economically secure, and socially established people, Trump was widely viewed as a “populist” candidate—a term not usually understood by the upper ranks of society as a compliment, though Christopher Lasch thought populism the true voice of democracy.  In What Is Populism? Jan-Werner Müller describes it as “a degraded form of democracy that promises to make good on democracy’s highest ideals (‘Let the people rule!’).”  “For populists,” he continues, “there cannot be such a thing as legitimate competition when populists run for office . . . When they are in power, there is likewise no such thing as a legitimate opposition,” since “Populism . . . is a particular moralistic imagination of politics.”  Müller’s description conveniently overlooks the fact that both a refusal to recognize the legitimacy of one’s opposition and a moralistic form of political engagement have been demonstrated far more directly and unambiguously in the recent past by Americans who call themselves liberals than by those whom liberals call populists (or even conservatives).  When Müller adds that populism is also “a moralized form of antipluralism,” he fancies himself on unequivocal grounds.

So what actually is populism?  Müller properly distinguishes between populism of the American and European sorts.  “In the United States, it is common to hear people speak of ‘liberal populism,’ whereas that expression in Europe would be a blatant contradiction, given the different understandings of both liberalism and populism on the two sides of the Atlantic.”  He lists as necessary elements of populism antielitism, identity politics in some form, antipluralism, opposition to diversity and what dissidents from liberalism see as “enemies of the people,” and the intent to “hijack the state apparatus,” including by free elections.  Thus populism “tends to pose a danger to democracy,” partly because populists “actually rely on a symbolic representation of the ‘real people’”—though the description clearly applies equally to liberals, as the postelection protests across the country, and around the world, show.

Populism has actually meant different things in different times and in different situations, though it is, indeed, always antiestablishment.  And so the nature of an establishment necessarily determines the nature of its populist opposition.  Were the French, Russian, Mexican, and American Revolutions “populist”?  (Müller considers the first possibility but in an unsatisfactory way, as he denies that Rousseau’s ideal society as an expression of the “general will” was populist without noting that Rousseau’s model was Geneva, a small and homogeneous republic.)  He quotes the Dutch scholar Cas Mudde’s definition of populism as an “illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism”—a negative or a positive description, depending on your opinion of modern liberalism.  Most importantly, though, populism in its present usage is a term used by one elite or another to discredit any opposition to the program devised and imposed by that elite.  At the beginning of the 21st century, populism in the Western world simply means revolt by disillusioned or simply old-fashioned liberals and democrats (also by conservatives) against illiberal democracies and undemocratic liberals.  Because populism is situational, it is, like any other political tendency or movement, only as good as the opposition is bad.  But the Western left, which defines the term to suit its interests, applies it to any political movement with broad (not necessarily majoritarian) popular support that either resists it, or that the left doesn’t like or of which it disapproves.  One of the principal uses of this rhetorical strategy is to avoid or deflect the question, Can “populist” mean simply “popular”?  Can it be something other than an ism?  Of course, it not only can be, but is—in Europe as well as in America.

What Social And Political conditions encourage populism and help shape its agenda?  Müller answers: those created by the cultural and ethnic pluralism that liberal governments encourage.  This being so, can populist reaction against pluralism as a liberal political and social program ever be justified, politically and morally?  Müller acknowledges popular resentment resulting in frustration and anger as an empirical fact, but hastens to qualify the concession when he adds, “This is not to say, of course, that all these reasons are plausible and should just be accepted at face value,” while nowhere mentioning that pluralism has been aggressively pursued for decades by Western liberals.  The pluralist democracy opposed by contemporary populists is not the liberal democracy of the pre-postmodernist past; it is the wildly exaggerated hyperpluralist one being pressed today by liberal governments throughout the West.  Pluralism in the age of mass multicultural transformative immigration is quite a different thing from what pluralism was historically, and popular acceptance (more or less) of the old pluralism hardly entails the same consequences as acquiescence in the new one.  Advanced liberalism systematically destroys a liberal social order that was barely workable and replaces it with a greatly exaggerated version of it that is not.  It is the caricature that populists are presently resisting, not the original thing.  Modern populism sets itself resolutely against advanced liberalism—liberal excess, liberalism gone mad.  And this is the case too with Trumpism, which refuses to accept the new liberalism’s reinvention of national (and human) reality.  Trumpism is a natural human response to the smug arrogance of the liberal, or neoliberal, establishment succinctly expressed by the following passage from a recent article in the New York Times describing the World Economic Forum in Davos the week before Donald Trump’s inauguration:

The growing electoral strength of populist, anti-European Union parties in France, the Netherlands, Italy and Germany has intensified fears that the union may not endure.  These developments have yielded a gnawing sense that a complex world is suddenly short of adult supervision.

The correspondent for the Times further recognized President Xi’s address to the conference as a hint that China’s policies of economic globalism would help to ensure that the world will be managed (in the reporter’s gloss) by “serious-minded people . . . taking considered action to address consequential challenges.”  This is the portavoce of undemocratic liberalism speaking, the ruling liberal class that considers itself the sole “adult” and “serious-minded” presence in the world today: the new establishment which, in its earlier liberal incarnation, taught the peoples of the West to resist and rebel against those “undemocratic” establishments it identified as conservative—a lesson it is no doubt regretting having taught them, today.

When one half of the United States is so far alienated from the other half that marriage between Democrats and Republicans is increasingly rare, “populist” rebellion is a wholly inadequate, still more a dishonest, explanation for the present state of American politics.  Seeking to explain Trump’s Inaugural Address, the media found the key in “populism,” a political phenomenon whose origins they erroneously located in what Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., called the “Age of Jackson.”  In fact, the period was known to contemporaries as the reign of “The Democracy,” the Democratic Ascendancy.  The word populist came into use in the United States only toward the end of the 19th century, with the founding of the Greenback Party in 1874 and, following that, of the Populist Party in 1890.

On The Morning that President Obama became former President Obama, the White House posted the following message to the American public on Facebook: “The single-most powerful word in our democracy is the word ‘We.’ ‘We The People.’ ‘We Shall Overcome.’”  Obama, surely, does not consider himself a populist, nor is he one.  (Surely, this wielder of the pen and the phone, the Master of the Executive Order, is no democrat, either.)  Nor is President Trump, whose Inaugural Address several hours later was a Declaration of American Independence from the world and its importunate, unceasing demands on America, and a rededication of the nation to the needs of the American people.  That his words, like the others Trump spoke along the campaign trail, should be thought “populist” shows how far a great many Americans have come in losing sight of what democracy really is, to the point of mistaking it for the “populism” that for their “leaders” signifies ignorance, reaction, racism, xenophobia, and a hatred of the establishments that oppose these evils.  That is a dishonest caricature.  But even were it not, Trump and his “movement” are not populists but simply old-fashioned democrats of the kind that liberalism had driven almost to extinction—or thought it had.  “What will always need to be present [in populism],” Jan-Werner Müller says, “is some distinction between the morally pure people and their opponents.”  But it is modern liberals who assert their moral purity, not “populists”; the party of Hillary Clinton, not of Trumpism.

For both Republicans and Democrats, the “Other” has become one half of the country.  America is in a state of cold civil war, to which notions of “populism”—and Trumpism as populism—are either irrelevant or, like the “populist-nationalist” advocacy initiative founded just before the inauguration by a group of former employees of Breitbart, unrepresentative of a broader movement.  In the 1930’s John Dos Passos, then in his liberal phase (20 years later, he was a contributor to National Review), concluded in disgust and despair, “All right we are two nations.”  Today, America is still two nations, but in a different and far more dangerous and unnatural sense.  Then, the division Dos Passos perceived was social and economic.  Three quarters of a century later, the United States is really two worlds, two metaphysical realities inhabited by what seem almost to be two separate species.

Originally Published by Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture FEBRUARY 02, 2017

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