When I first heard the word “populist” bandied about in the early days of election 2016, my immediate reaction was “Ugh!”– back we go to Father Coughlin and a bunch of guys with pitchforks. Not promising.
Then, when I began to support Donald Trump, first grudgingly and then more enthusiastically, I discovered that I might therefore be a “populist.” Heaven help me.
According to Daniel Hannan — British member of the European Parliament and contributor to the forthcoming (November 28) anthology Vox Populi: The Perils & Promises of Populism — that assignation is not likely to make me popular, at least in, er, Belgium (and undoubtedly in a lot of other places). Hannan writes:
The vilest slur in Brussels, the insult to end all insults, is “populist.” Eurocrats spit out, rather in the manner of a teenager at a party who mistakenly takes a swing from a beer can that was being used as an ashtray. Yet, monstrous as the word is an a Eurocrat’s vocabulary, he is surprisingly vague about its meaning.
Now I have little sympathy for those tedious elitists known as Eurocrats, but I must say the guy has a point. I’m rather vague about the meaning myself (though I suspect in his case it may equal “Trump supporter” or, lately, supporter of those “boorish” renegades now leading Poland, Hungary and, most recently, the Czech Republic and Austria).
Even historian George H. Nash, after beginning the above-referenced essay collection with a brilliant tour d’horizon of the conservative movement, seems a little confused by what this new populism really is. Some of the other contributors, however — notably James Piereson, Roger Scruton, Victor Hanson, Andrew McCarthy and Conrad Black — have more precise theories.
I will leave them to the reader of the anthology, which I suspect will be a touchstone for a necessary discussion as conservatism moves into the future, and try to come to grips with the question for myself. What in the Sam Hill do I think, or maybe hope, this populism is?
But before I do, let me say that political terminology in general does not turn me on. On one level I think it’s all a bunch of hooey. Following in the tradition of E. M. Forster, who only gave two cheers for democracy, I only give two cheers for ideology, sympathetic as I may be to some. As was expressed so well in My Fair Lady, “Sing me no song, read me no rhyme/ Don’t waste my time, show me.”
Which of course leads me to what I think is the first pillar of the new populism: pragmatism. Just get it done already. In the “Deplorables” and in Donald Trump there’s a little bit of Chairman Deng Xiaoping, whose famous watchword in overcoming Maoism was “I don’t care if a cat is black or white, I only care if it catches mice.” Donald and the “Deplorables” (sounds like a sixties soul group, doesn’t ?) are in some way Dengists — without realizing it, I assume, in most cases. But to my mind Deng was the most revolutionary figure of the twentieth century, having brought the world’s most populous country into modernity and in the process probably having saved millions of lives.
But pragmatism does not wash in Washington which is, pardon the expression, awash in partisanship at all costs on one side and the business-as-usual near-terminal stasis of The Swamp on the other. Which brings me to the second pillar of the new populism: anti-elitism. A large, and I am certain rapidly growing, number of Americans just can’t stand elites anymore — from politics to business to entertainment to the media to the academy and on and on. They have had it with these almost always hypocritical overlords (wouldn’t you know I’d have to get Harvey Weinstein in here somewhere?).
For some that makes Bernie Sanders a populist of the left, but socialism is not populist, not even faintly. It’s far too rigid and ultimately ultra-elitist (Stalin and Mao). Populism must follow the Deng Xiaoping line to be truly anti-elitist. It must not care if a cat is black or white. (Accusations of “nativism” are a deliberately destructive distraction employed to shore up those same elites.)
So pragmatism and anti-elitism are the twin pillars of the new populism. When I say this I am knowingly giving short shrift to the issues — the border wall, taxes, the debt, healthcare, foreign policy etc. Yes, we all have opinions on these and others, but they are essentially fungible and will be replaced by still more as time goes on. Something more noteworthy is going on. The overall attitude of a large part of the public has changed. That the billionaire Trump became the medium of this new attitude is certainly ironic — but it’s happened and it’s here. Meanwhile, another significant cohort of Animal Farm-wannabes is graduating from our campuses, the exact opposite of the new populists. All that can said with confidence now is the cliché of clichés — the future lies ahead.
NB: Vox Populi: The Perils & Promises of Populism is edited by Encounter Books and New Criterion publisher (and PJ Media columnist) Roger Kimball, who provides the introduction and an essay of his own.
Roger L. Simon is an award-winning novelist, Academy Award-nominated screenwriter and co-founder of PJ Media. His latest book is I Know Best: How Moral Narcissism Is Destroying Our Republic, If It Hasn’t Already. Find him on Twitter @rogerlsimon.