The New American Populism: Four Views from Nowhere

by Tedd Siegel

PHOTO CREDIT: FLICKR. YUMIKRUM. ESCAPING THE DOME.

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.”

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).”

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.

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).”

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 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.

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

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