Editors’ note: The following is an edited version of remarks delivered at The New Criterion’s gala on April 25, 2018 honoring Victor Davis Hanson with the sixth Edmund Burke Award for Service to Culture and Society.
Populism is today seen both as a pejorative and positive noun. In fact, in the present age, there are two sorts of populism. Both strains originated in classical times and persisted in the West until today.
One in antiquity was known as the base populism. It involved the unfettered urban “mob,” or what the Athenians disapprovingly dubbed the ochlos and the Romans disparagingly called the turba. Such popular movements were spearheaded by the so-called demagogoi (“leaders of the people”) or in Roman times the more radical popular tribunes.
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These were largely urban movements. Protesters focused on the redistribution of property, radical democratization, taxes on the wealthy, the cancellation of debts, vast increases in public entitlements, and civic employment. The French Revolution and European upheavals of 1848 reflect some of the same themes. Today, Occupy Wall Street, Antifa, Black Lives Matter, and the Bernie Sanders phenomenon all stand in the same current. Often, urban intellectuals, aristocrats, and elites—from the patrician Roman Republican street agitator Publius Clodius Pulcher and the Jacobin Maximilien Robespierre, to present-day billionaires like George Soros and Tom Steyer—have sought to assist the urban protesters. Perhaps these gentleman- agitators thought they could offer money, prestige, or greater wisdom, thereby channeling and elevating shared populist agendas.
The antithesis to such radical populism was likely thought by ancient conservative historians to be the “good” populism of the past—and what the contemporary media might call the “bad” populism of the present: the push-back of small property owners and the middle classes against the power of oppressive government, steep taxation, and internationalism, coupled with unhappiness over imperialism and foreign wars and a preference for liberty rather than mandated equality. Think of the second century B.C. Gracchi brothers rather than Juvenal’s “bread-and-circuses” imperial Roman underclass, the American rather than the French Revolution, or the Tea Party versus Occupy Wall Street.
The mesoi, or “middle guys,” both predated and remained somewhat at odds with contemporary radical Athenian democracy. Yet these agrarian property-owning classes were also originally responsible for the Greek city-state and thus for Western civilization itself. The Jeffersonian idea of preserving ownership of a family plot, and passing on farms through codified inheritance laws and property rights, were the themes of the constitutions of the early polis. The citizen—neither a peasant nor a subject—remained rooted to a particular plot of ground, and thereby enjoyed the tripartite rights of citizenship: military service, voting rights in the assembly, and the ability to be self-supporting and autonomous. The mesoi, then, lent stability to otherwise often volatile consensual politics.
Edmund Burke is often referenced as the archetypical sober and judicious conservative. Despite the difficulty of finding a systematic political orthodoxy in Burke’s vast body of largely forensic speeches and pamphlets, we are told that Burke serves as a model of modern conservatism in our own uncertain age. Burke, of course, saw through the French Revolution, while earlier having appreciated elements of the American cause. It is also understandable that Burke can be sourced to refute the current dangerous relativism of the radical Left, while defending classical liberalism from the excesses of populist nationalists and mindless mobs on the right.
But Burke often emphasized the stability of the property-owning middle classes and their custodianship of custom and tradition: the “unchanging constancy” that Burke argued ensures that “in what we improve we are never wholly new; in what we retain we are never wholly obsolete.” An ample property-owning class serves as a bulwark against confiscatory anarchy and revolutionary nihilism, as well as the excesses of monarchial and aristocratic insider and client autocracy. Likewise, that keen observer of early-nineteenth-century Americanism, the French nobleman Alexis de Tocqueville, in his Democracy in America, saw America’s unique strength in the populist influence of a nation of small agrarians. Such property owners were suspicious of both hereditary aristocracy and monarchy, and yet were economically autonomous enough to resist radical calls for government-enforced equality.
Yet somehow the contemporary conservative movement and the Republican Party have confused a traditionally destabilizing populism with the ancient restorative populism, or clumsily feared both equally.
Obviously, we are no longer, as was true at our founding, a nation largely composed of yeomen farmers. But in modern terms, the ownership of a house, a business, or perhaps even a retirement savings plan is the equivalent of Burke’s stewardship of property and tradition. Ancient American ideas like the right to bear arms and an end to inheritance taxes still reflect Tocqueville’s interest in maintaining the viability of a large middle class suspicious of both rich and poor. But in our modern context, the trajectory of contemporary Republicanism has been largely to downplay culture, especially the effects of globalization and de-industrialization on traditional small communities of property-owning citizens. That neglect led to startling political repercussions in 2016.
Illegal immigration and open borders were accepted as an unpreventable—or even an almost natural occurrence, with largely positive results for both the Left and Right. In collective fashion liberals championed the poor arriving on their own terms from Central America and Mexico in expectation of their permanent political support. They sought and received the changing of the Electoral College demography of the American Southwest.
The Republican Party has confused a traditionally destabilizing populism with the ancient restorative populism, or clumsily feared both equally.
Many Republicans, foolishly, either wished for cheap labor or deluded themselves into thinking that amnestied impoverished illegal immigrants would soon vote for family-values conservatives. Neither party worried much about the insidious destruction of immigration law, much less how federal laws that were otherwise applicable to most Americans could be arbitrarily ignored by a select few or how wages of entry-level workers were driven down by imported labor. Few conservatives raised the objection that mass influxes of illegal aliens, mostly non-diverse, poorly educated, and without skills, were difficult enough to assimilate quickly under the old culture of the melting pot, but even more so now, given the current paradigm of the tribal salad bowl.
There was a similar consensus across party lines to embrace globalization. It was seen not just as an inevitable result of Western cultural dominance and technological supremacy, but rather as something almost morally and culturally enriching. Internationalism and open borders would give way to a positive globalized sameness—even as such homogenization left millions of Americans between the coasts with stagnant wages, or lost jobs, or a sense of alienation from the centers of power in bi-coastal America.
Globalization without concern over its cultural effects was most un-Burkean, given its unchallenged assumptions that unfettered trade, outsourcing, and offshoring were to be welcomed as organic processes, certainly inevitable and thus ultimately moral for all Americans. An outsider might have remarked that writing off large swaths of the American interior as lost was among the most radical developments in American history. Did any bi-coastal Americans think that by de-industrializing and deprecating the value of traditional hard work there would be no cultural consequences, given the historic roles of the middle classes as custodians of American values?
Our popular culture reflected these new norms. Coastal winners were seen on sitcoms and in psychodramatic movies as smart, cool, upwardly mobile, and anointed, often even proudly neurotic and self-absorbed as they navigated hip restaurants, on-and-off-again hook-ups, and office melodramas. In contrast, the working classes in the interior seemed to be portrayed as near opposites, as aboriginal people worthy of caricature, who still insisted that Sarah Palin would have been a great Vice President. In reality TV’s Deadliest Catch, Ice Road Truckers, Duck Dynasty, or Ax Men, they shuffled about with rural accents and in bib overalls. Most had short tempers and were too eager to swear and fight. Lots of broken-down and often dangerous equipment, along with shacks and trailers, provided the film backdrops and sets.
Republicans had also come to believe in a holistic market that would adjudicate culture and values. A community’s lost aluminum smelters and fertilizer plants de facto proved that they should be lost, given the gospel that globalized rules of capital and labor always favored the most efficient—efficiency judged by lowest cost of production, without much regard for the larger ripples of culture. What was lost to the fading middle classes in good wages would supposedly be made up by cheaper imported consumer goods.
When, during the 2016 campaign, a crass Manhattan billionaire real estate developer began campaigning in terms of the first personal plural pronoun—our miners, our workers, our farmers—few emulated him. Most rivals were convinced apparently that he would prove as irrelevant as those to whom he appealed. Yet, again in Burkean terms, assembly-line workers, clerks, miners, loggers, fabricators, welders, and builders had been the traditional bulwarks of thousands of American communities. Their loss of viable livelihoods—at a time when their products were often highly coveted—was a radical prescription for cultural suicide.
So into this conundrum came Donald Trump, as a sort of self-described fixer, loudmouth, nationalist populist, or perhaps even a tragic hero of sorts. Of course, the very word “heroic” in conjunction with the name Trump appalls half the country, as do terms such as “nationalist” and “populist.” Nonetheless, one way of understanding both Trump’s personal excesses and his appeal to red-state America is that his not being traditionally presidential may have been valuable in bringing long-overdue changes in foreign and domestic policy—and in rediscovering the middle-class populists hidden beneath the nose of the Republican Party.
The billionaire Trump was able to connect with red- and purple-state voters in a way past Republican candidates had not—and not just in terms of his signature and unorthodox focus on issues such as trade, globalization, and illegal immigration. Trump, the person, mattered just as much. Throughout Trump’s invectives a number of messages were implicit.
One, Trump, by his manner of speaking, his temperament, and his vulgarity, was not embedded in the existing establishment or Washington power structure, and thus in theory he was not beholden to it in either the way he spoke or acted.
Two, like Homer’s Achilles, or Sam Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch, he was a disruptive force who could end a common threat (in the mythological fashion of “man-slaughtering” Hector or General Mapache’s federales) by the use of skill sets unavailable to, or felt to be unattractive by, his benefactors. Whether concerning the missiles of Kim Jong-un or the overreach of the federal government, Trump supporters wanted someone to try something different.
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Three, Trump’s own history and brand ensured he would not be able to partake fully of, or be accepted by, the restored society he sought to salvage, given his own distance from those he championed. Certainly, Trump’s own randy past, excessive appetites, and high-stakes financial dealings made him somewhat unappealing to those in York or Merced. But, ironically, his constituents thought he was nevertheless a champion who at a distance could be turned loose on their behalf against those they had grown to despise.
So Trump was a populist nemesis visited upon the hubris of the coastal culture. When he took on “fake news,” when he tweeted over the “crooked” media, when he railed about “globalists,” when he caricatured Washington politicians—and ranted non-stop, shrilly, and crudely—a third of the country felt that at last they had a world-beater who wished to win ugly rather than, as in the case of John McCain or Mitt Romney, lose nobly. As a neighbor put it to me of Trump’s opponents, “They all have it coming.”
The targets of Trump’s ire never quite understood that the establishment’s attacks on him, and their own entitled appeals to their greater sensitivity, training, experience, education, morality, class, and authority, were precisely the force multipliers that made Trumpism so appealing.
In 2016, pundits and experts had focused mostly on the populism of the race, class, and gender brand, and its would-be champions Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, who sought to channel the new identity, youth, and feminist politics for their own advantage.
All had forgotten that there was also another populist tradition, lying dormant. It was a quieter but far more potent bomb just waiting to blow up—if someone ever would be so uncouth and angry enough to detonate it.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 10, on page 4
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