The New American Populism: Four Views from Nowhere

by Tedd Siegel


This post is about the new American populism as seen through the prism of “the view from nowhere. By this I don’t just mean the philosophical work by Thomas Nagel that bears that title, that has to do with reconciling our subjective, all-too-human point of view with our apparent capacity to transcend it, approaching objectivity in various ways, at certain times, and under certain conditions; nor do I mean the subsequent use of it that has been made in media studies, to describe the troubling tendency of journalists, who, concerned to be unbiased, and report just the facts without judgments, fail to exclude untrue claims from their reporting. I also don’t mean, by the view from nowhere, what the world looks like from rural, red state America, the locations that we coastal elites call “the flyover states.” Finally, I also don’t mean the view from imaginary societies that fall under the label “utopia” (literally “no place”) which allow us to imagine the world differently, as it perhaps might be, different from the way that we find it today. The view from nowhere that I have in mind is one that wends its way, strangely, I admit, through all of the above. Please bear with me.

Democrats have no playbook for this: how to beat an independent populist.

The Populism of ‘El Caudillo del Norte’

In her January 26th, 2017 Wall Street Journal Op Ed, “Trump Tries to Build a Different Party,” veteran Republican ideologist Peggy Noonan, watching Trump issue his barrage of executive orders (oversees abortion ban, Mexican border wall, Keystone and XL pipelines, overturning Obamacare, withdrawing from TPP, new immigration rules) rather ruefully, reflected: “Normally Presidents ease into the job, rejecting the dramatic: don’t frighten the horses.” In departing so radically from all precedent, Noonan writes, Trump reasserts the central claim of his inaugural address: “I am a populist independent, allied not with the two major parties, but with the working men and women of America.” If one looks beyond the faux pas of the day, Noonan muses, one can see what he is doing. He is delivering for the white working class, for movement Christians, for the one percenters. He intends to deliver for them, in various ways, via trade, infrastructure, and energy; If he does, he just might get re-elected. Noonan concludes, “Democrats have no playbook for this: how to beat an independent populist.”

Noonan’s was not the only piece this week that brought the question of the new American populism to the fore. Also on January 26th, 2017 in his Washington Post piece entitled, “Trump is the U.S’s First Latin American President” Ishaan Tharoor echoed Noonan, saying that Trump’s presidency represents a radical departure from the norms of American politics. While Trump may want to stop the flow of migrants and goods from south of the border, Tharoor said, he has nonetheless imported a political style ingrained in Latin American politics, that of the “caudillo” or “strongman.” Populists, says Tharoor, promise to shake up an unfair system rigged against the common man. Trump’s belief in tough talk, his posturing as champion of the working class, his contempt for urban elites, and the machinery of governance, and his projection of a robust machismo over and against political correctness are all traits associated with “caudillismo.”

Pointing to the comments of Mexican essayist and publisher Enrique Krause before the election, Tharoor transcribes the given parallels: extreme self-inflation, a demand for unthinking acceptance of the supposed power of his personality, his ability keep America safe from the dangers of whatever straw man he can use to generate hatred and support for his economic proposals that in reality only benefit the very rich. These traits, we are to understand, transcend the politics of right and left; Trump is not a military leader like Pinochet, nor a leftist autocrat like Chavez. But for people who have lived under either leader, Tharoor says, “it feels like Trump has been taking notes.” Krause again: The Latin American populist leader harangues his people against those who are not our people. He proclaims the dawn of a new history. Once in power, “lying, decrees of official truth, external enemies on whom to blame failures.” The irony here, Tharoor concludes, is in the role reversal. Latin America has largely moved on from its days of populist demagoguery and dictatorship.

How to Culture Jam a Populist

If labeling Trump as “El Caudillo del Norte” was helpfully descriptive for understanding the new American populism, Andres Miguel Rondon’s piece in the Caracas Chronicles on January 20th, 2017 attempts to do one better, and be prescriptive, telling us “How to Culture Jam a Populist in Four Easy Steps.” Ronson’s advice to those of us suffering in the north, really stopped me in my tracks, and is actually the central provocation of this column. To begin with, Ronson makes it clear that the lessons he has to impart are hard lessons. Venezuelans wrote again and again, he tells us, “about principles, about the separation of powers, about civil liberties, about the role of the military in politics, about corruption, and economic policy.” This sort of arguing and reasoning was pointless, because it failed to understand some central truths about the relationship between the populist and his adherents.

The problem with the modern bogeyman, for the populists with their tribal thinking, is that you are a citizen of nowhere, whose utopia is a massive, world-wide kumbaya with carrot chips, no church, and no soul either.

First, one needs to understand that the populist needs his caricatured antagonists to remain the enemies of the people. Remember the populist’s recipe: “find a wound common to many, someone to blame, and a good story to tell. Mix well. Label the bad guys: the minorities, the politicians, the businessmen. Cartoon them as vermin, evil masterminds…hipsters. Paint yourself as the savior. Forget about policies and plans…just tell a good story that starts in anger and ends in vengeance. A vengeance they can share in.” The point, as should be clear, is that for the populism to work, the enemies must remain the enemies. As Ronson writes, “the problem is YOU.” What makes you the enemy? It’s the fact that you are not a member of the “in group.” Instead, you are “the modern bogeyman, the liberal, the urbanite hipster, who thinks all cultures and religions are equally worthy.” Such tribalists, we are to understand, have no conception of universal justice. They cleave to the jarring dictum of justice found in Aristotle: “treat equals equally, and unequals unequally.” Perhaps, you think, this formulation can work, even where justice is concerned, because we all recognize that since all humanity fall on the “equals equally side,” the “unequals unequally” half is a null set (because there are no unequals to treat unequally). But it is not so, because the tribalists are not moderns (modern persons believe in justice for all, because all humanity is their tribe). As Ronson writes, the problem with the modern bogeyman, for the populists with their tribal thinking, is that “you are a citizen of nowhere, whose utopia is a massive, world-wide kumbaya with carrot chips, no church, and no soul either…the problem is not the message…but the messenger (it’s you).”

So, what then is Ronson’s prescription? First, since populism requires polarization to survive, the focus has to be to “erase the cartoon,” and thereby to put one’s efforts into de-polarization. Second, he says, “show no contempt.” Contempt only feeds polarization. One must “leave the theater of injured decency behind.” Educated analysis of what is wrong with the populist leader’s policies, plans, approach, style, etc., don’t help because he simply says, “don’t listen to them; don’t let them school you and fool you. They are the ones that lie. They are the ones that are wrong. Listen to ME.” Third, “don’t try to force him out.” In Venezuela, Ronson, writes, we tried every trick in the book. But we failed. You will give him what he needs to call you a saboteur and an unpatriotic schemer, and the damage will last for years to come. Finally, he says, “find a counter argument.” We shouldn’t waste our time “trying to prove that this ism is better than that ism.” We should ditch the big words, Ronson says, because the problem, once again, is not the message, but the messenger (they hate you). Ronson concludes, “the problem is tribal. You have to prove that you belong to the same tribe as them. That you are American in exactly the same way that they are.”

Human Dignity (White Working Class Male Varietal)

Venezuela, of course, is not the USA. The middle class, the professional and managerial classes, knowledge workers, etc., are comparatively quite robust. The size and composition of the working class, and the manner in which they are differently semi-agrarian, is significant. Different country. Different cultures. Different history. It’s simply not clear that the white working class can somehow enact minority rule over, well, the rest of us. It’s not clear that Ronson’s advice completely applies, despite its authenticity and resonance. That aside, the logic of the piece presents a rather profound challenge. On the one hand, one can only defeat the populist by effective de-polarization. On the other hand, the populist demagogue’s followers hate you because you are not one of them, and because you are who you are, someone who “thinks all cultures and religions are equally worthy,” someone they see as “a citizen of nowhere.” Presumably, this cannot be easily resolved by attending stock car races and saying you like target shooting.

In “What So Many People Don’t Get about the US Working Class,” published in Harvard Business Review on Nov. 10th 2016, Hastings Law Professor Joan C. Williams offers up a red white and blue variant of Ronson’s points about the populist’s base. Her article is a sort of equivocal plea for tolerance of the intolerant. If Democrats or other liberals want to make progress with the white working class, one has to understand what shapes their world view. She starts by remembering her father, a working-class guy who held two jobs, worked incessantly, and rose from poverty to a middle-class life in mid-century America, who, decades ahead of his time, thought that “the union was a bunch of jokers who just took your money.” Williams’ wants us to understand the basic mindset. First, the white working class admires the rich (read self-made, struck it rich, answerable to nobody) but considers most professional people suspect. Managers are college kids who don’t know shit, but are full of ideas about how I have to do my job. Doctors are quacks. Lawyers are shysters. Professors are all phonies. Teachers suck (condescending and unhelpful). The white working class also resents the poor, Williams says. Democrats offer programs to help the working poor, like a hike in the minimum wage, and child care subsidies, which do nothing for the white working class.

Where Democrats talk about helping people on their path to middle class prosperity, they underestimate that extent to which working class whites don’t want to stop being working class. They want to continue to live within their own class assumptions, but with more money. In general, Williams wants to make a plea for an economic message aimed at the white working class. If Democrats want to make inroads with the white working class, she says, simply remember what it is that they want: they want to be able to have a solid middle class life without a college degree. In addition, she adds, remember that this year the white working class rejected BOTH Democratic and Republican establishments. What is needed is a program that can deliver middle class jobs. “The Republicans have one: unleash American business. Democrats remain obsessed with cultural issues.”

What can be the prospects for depolarization if the utopia of the populist demagogue’s supporters (the denial of all universalist claims seemingly in every domain) is in fact our dystopian nightmare?

As reasonable as this sounds, William’s piece is rife with elements that point in a different direction. “Manly dignity is a big deal for working class men” Williams writes. A major portion of the piece is dedicated to highlighting what she calls the culture gap. Along with distrust of the college educated and the professionals, Trump promises the white working class male “a world free of political correctness, and a return to an earlier era, when men were men and women knew their place.” Further along this line, Williams admits that the arrogance and smugness of a Hillary Clinton doomed her with these voters, even though the arrogance and smugness of Trump far outshined hers with its truly remarkable incandescence. The problem, of course, is that white working class males value “straight talk” so her truthfulness but lack of candor was beat out by his candor but constant lying. Plus, she had the apparent misfortune to be born a woman. So, while Williams implores us to “resist the temptation to write off blue collar resentment” as racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., because “while race and sex based insults are no longer acceptable but class based insults are” she also freely admits in the course of her argument, that “I wish manliness worked differently.” All they are asking for, she insists, is human dignity (male varietal).”

And it is here that we once again run aground. All we need to do is stop being obsessed with cultural issues. Just make economic arguments. Oh, and make sure we protect the entitled, fragile, white male ego. Promise the return of a world where a white male could lead a solidly middle class life without a college degree. So what, if part of that promise means making sure that he doesn’t have to compete with women in the workplace. So what, if basic human dignity is meant to apply only to people who belong to the “in group,” to members of the tribe, and people who belong to the out group, who aren’t American in exactly the same way, are entitled to precisely nothing, because I am a member of my tribe, and not a citizen of the nowhere of universal human rights and justice for all. Nope, no cultural issues here all.

The Four Views from Nowhere

After reviewing the new American populism, where does all this leave us? I would like to suggest that it leaves us precisely nowhere, but in some very specific ways. On the one hand, we are presented with a practical challenge: if we want to overcome the populist demagogue, we need to depolarize the electorate; but the populist’s supporters only recognize members of their own group, and it is precisely universalist appeals that they reject, and which make us the enemy, because we are, as universalists who make claims about equality and justice, utopian citizens of nowhere. What can be the prospects for depolarization if the utopia of the populist demagogue’s supporters (the denial of all universalist claims seemingly in every domain) is in fact our dystopian nightmare?

The Utopian imagination has been close to the heart of all modern projects which, as modern, have sought through the enactment of a tribunal of reason, to bracket customs, received ideas, and traditions, so that we might evaluate them, and in so doing finally reach our mature potential as a species. We imagine the world as it might be rather than as it is; we do this in disparate domains and in different ways. It’s not just imagining just/socialist societies, as in More, Fourier, or Saint Simon. It’s also there when we imagine, as in Kant, a moral utopia, a “kingdom of ends” where everybody is treated by everyone else as if they had infinite moral worth. It’s also implicated when we seek to confront all manner of ideologies of distortion. These utopias, these “nowheres” lead to ideals that guide us, like the application of a yardstick, as we employ critical reason to refashion our social and political reality as befits politically modern people, who believe in the project of human freedom as moral autonomy, as social and political emancipation, or any other in a list of different intonations of the project of modernity as enlightenment, past present and future. The ability to bracket our immediately subjective viewpoint, is of course also central to the goals and practice of modern science, which strives for objectivity concerning physical reality. As I mentioned in the introduction to this post, Thomas Nagel’s book, The View from Nowhere, is concerned with both kinds of reality (truth that can be verified by science, and that which is found through some version of rational moral objectivity).

The four views from nowhere described add up to the radical discontinuities presently found within our culture.

Having moved into this rather thin air, perhaps it is helpful, here at the end, to return to sea level. We have established that the supporters of the populist demagogue hate you, and why they hate you. They hate you, firstly, because you are not American in the same way that they are; you do not look like them, you do not live just like them, and most importantly, you don’t think like them. You reopen this wound, every time you try to overcome these differences, by making universalizing claims. They say you don’t look like them; you reply, yes, but we are all the same under the skin. They deny it. You say, well, for all our differences, we are all Americans, and the Constitution we all love, patriotically, guarantees the ideal of justice for all. They deny it. You say, something that amounts to “look, we can’t universalize the maxim that it’s OK to foul and pollute all our rivers and streams, so we should have rules that protect our rivers and streams. But they stubbornly refrain from performing such universalizability tests. As before, they deny it.

There is a reason for these denials and the associated suspicious counter-narratives. It has to do with another view from nowhere, also mentioned in the introduction. The journalistic view from nowhere. Recall the journalist, who, worried about the accusation of bias, is so concerned about reporting “only the facts” that he or she refrains from having a viewpoint, even about the truth or falsity of claims, whether they be social facts or empirical ones. The journalistic view from nowhere derives from the creeping mass societal insistence that social meaning determines both basic social facts and basic empirical facts, that all is ideology (distortion). In this climate, the ‘contest of interpretations’ can result in no moment of either legitimation or of integration.

The four views from nowhere described add up to the radical discontinuities presently found within our culture. People we casually think of as being from “nowhere” (jokingly but nonetheless contemptuously referred to as the flyover states) now in the political ascendency, accuse the holders of cosmopolitan, transnational values of being citizens of nowhere, and question the patriotism of people who see themselves as holding most dear the intentions captured by the framers in the US Constitution (remember the European Enlightenment? No? Ever read Montesquieu? Ok, I guess I better just shut up before you punch me in the face). Because of the pre-eminence of social meaning over all basic social and empirical facts, we fare no better where it comes to the objectivity of science. Those scientists telling us about the urgent threat of climate change? No need to understand their methods or look at their data. They’re all phonies; or they are just cherry-picking facts to suit their liberal ideology.

To overcome the populist demagogue, the man from Caracas tells us, we must depolarize the electorate. To appeal to the white working class, we must offer them an economic message. But the entire social, cultural, and political discourse is supersaturated with class resentment and cynicism so pervasive that even the rationality of science has no standing. We’re clearly headed nowhere fast. If we can’t find a way to come to grips with the dynamics of these conflicting ‘views from nowhere,’ we will find ourselves, liberals/progressives or right wing populists, nowhere good.

Following the 2016 presidential election, people seemed to be saying these words repetitively — “clearly, we’re living in dark times.”

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