In the wake of the unexpected insurgence of Sanders and Trump, it has become commonplace to pit “populism” against the “Establishment.” Supporters praise the uprising of popular politics against the shared interests of an entrenched patrician and business elite, while party leaders and pundits on both sides fear the rising tide of populist fervor. Their fear is outmatched only by a palpable disbelief in the success of these ‘outsider’ candidates.
The fear is not unwarranted. Trump’s campaign has unleashed passions that, however legitimate in origin, are arguably dangerous, not least because of the growing violence on display at his rallies.
But populism is not the problem. On the contrary, “populism,” as the late Christopher Lasch once said, “is the authentic voice of democracy.” And we are, after all, committed to that particular political experiment. No, the problem with Trumpism is not populism; the problem with our populism is Trumpism.
In a superficial sense, of course, Trump’s campaign is populism to a tee: plain speech, division of the country into a “silent majority” versus an elite minority, and a refusal to respect the social conventions of the latter. Trump has an almost preternatural ability to sense and to respond to the anxieties of the average citizen—or at least the average primary voter—rather than pandering to them reluctantly.
Even Trump’s refrain that the American people have gotten a “bad deal” recalls populist movements of the last century, from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal to Theodore Roosevelt’s “square deal.” The latter is especially instructive.
In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt, a wealthy New Yorker, broke with the Republican ‘establishment’ which he criticized for being in the pocket of big business, and formed the “Bull Moose” Party (which split the vote and paved the way for an otherwise unelectable Woodrow Wilson). Roosevelt was the quintessential “strong man” who did battle for the “common man”: he took on the corporations (“trusts”), defended worker’s rights, and exuded all manner of manly stereotypes.
Of course, the differences between the two men are also stark. The Bull Moose had a literary disposition, being an avaricious reader who penned numerous scholarly books and delivered some of our country’s best political speeches. His panoply of “manly” experiences included military service, ranching in the West, and hunting big game in Africa. Roosevelt was also a seasoned politician, having served on the United States Civil Service Commission, as a New York state assemblyman, police commissioner of New York City, assistant secretary of the U.S. navy, governor of New York, and vice president of the United States —all before becoming president of the United States.
Still, Trump has skillfully coopted the politics of populism. One might be forgiven for mistaking one for the other. Like popular movements of the past, Trumpism was made possible by a political climate in which—as Lasch put it over forty years ago—our “parties no longer represent the opinions and interests of ordinary people,” while the “political process is dominated by rival elites committed to irreconcilable ideologies.” What Lasch described in 1972 as “the familiar materials of popular discontent, quietly persisting through three decades of ‘affluence,’” are once again on the rise: “distrust of officials and official pronouncements; cynicism about the good faith of those in positions of great power; resentment of the rich; a conviction that most things in life are ‘fixed.’”
But while Trump’s popularity may be a response to a similar state of affairs, he’s no populist. He represents, rather, a demagogic perversion of populism.
Lasch spent much of his career resuscitating the legacy of a specifically American populism, which he thought was tarnished by a false association with rabble rousing and reactionary politics. For Lasch, true populism is rooted in mutual respect, which demands that we hold ourselves and our fellow citizens to shared standards of conduct and discourse—a necessary precondition for both civil disagreement and a healthy body politic. The erosion of such standards, Lasch worried in 1994, leads us to accept “second-rate workmanship, second-rate habits of thought, and second-rate standards of personal conduct. We put up with bad manners and with many kinds of bad language, ranging from the commonplace scatology that is now ubiquitous to elaborate academic evasion. We seldom bother to correct a mistake or to argue with opponents in the hope of changing their minds. Instead we . . . shout them down.”
In other words, Trumpism is precisely the kind of problem for which Lasch saw populism as the solution.
Consider Trump’s so-called political incorrectness, his widely-praised penchant for “saying it like it is.” Whether or not Trump means what he says, his speech is no more “plain” than his manners. Instead, his rhetoric signals a rejection of the very notion of politics. What politicians say and how they say it is essential, especially in a democracy. Democratic politics is the art of persuasion, which, however passionate, requires civility and diplomacy no less than rational debate. Even if Trump’s provocations reflected his true feelings or those of the average citizen, it is not the role of the statesman to give voice to feelings.
Trump knows this of course; that’s the key to his success: he rejects the very role of statesman. In this he is a masterful politician. It’s just that his political rhetoric is predicated on the incoherent and dangerous proposition that politics can only become populist when it is stripped of the political—when rhetoric becomes unrhetorical. It’s the emperor’s new politics.
It’s preposterous that a New York billionaire and media personality (much less a sitting Senator, Bernie Sanders) could be considered any sort of “outsider” to the elite political-media-business class. Perhaps, as some argue, Trump channels the anxieties of a class whose economic and social standing is in demonstrable decline as a cynical ploy to win popularity—this is a man who once called the poor “morons”—while winking at the ‘establishment,’ who can take comfort in knowing that this reality-television caricature of themselves actually shares their political opportunism, if not their economic values. If so, Trump adds Machiavellian insult to demagogic injury.
In fact, Trump’s reputation as an ‘outsider’ stems not from his sociological position so much as his anti-political posture, which is buttressed by his having never been “tainted” by political experience. His popularity is predicated on widespread distrust of our public institutions—and, paradoxically, an openness about his own complicity in their corruption—from which he would liberate us by destroying them.
But populism, to say nothing of our democratic republic, depends upon healthy institutions that provide the framework for our shared political projects. Lasch reminds us that the corrosion of our democratic way of life and especially our public discourse has its roots in widespread distrust of our institutions and the traditions around which they have developed and of which they are the expressions—whether the family, church, and local communities, or private enterprise and all the various levels of government.
It is for this reason that defending (not bashing) and reforming our form of government, which—quelle horreur—includes the federal government, is populist rather than elitist. For our constitutional heritage is one of limited powers, which is predicated on and was designed to ensure a civic life distinct from political life. Limited government provides a framework in which our other institutions and communities can flourish. Thus our national, partisan politics presupposes politics of another, classical sort: that we are by nature members of a community, bound together by what Cicero called the “tie[s] of social affection, which originally united men in political associations for the sake of public interest,” of which our national politics is only one, albeit essential, part.
It was some such vision of our country that Lincoln—a true ‘outsider’—evoked with his “mystic chords of memory,” which, “stretching . . . all over this broad land, will swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” Trump, in stark contrast, enlivens our baser passions by blending mass entertainment and national politics into a discontented froth, promising to redress our ills through belligerent action. Thus does he pervert that populism at the heart of American civic life at its best.
M. Anthony Mills, a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, is an associate editor of The New Atlantis and executive editor of Big Questions Online.