‘Populism’ is not a useful term for describing politicians or campaigns in a democracy, and it probably never was. To win election in a genuine democracy, a campaign must appeal to the masses; there is no other way to win. Saying that the winner of a democratic election appealed to the masses is redundant. It is particularly perverse — self-contradictory — to describe a minor party as populist in contrast to a major party. How do we know it was populist if it did not appeal to the masses nearly as well as the party or parties who won? Do we think that parties make no attempt to appeal to the masses and then win by accident?
If we define ‘populism’ more narrowly as anti-elitism, then it can usefully describe a style of campaigning and to some extent governance — though the highest positions in the government are always by definition held by political elites. There is nothing new about anti-elitist campaigning, even in the US. Donald Trump’s innovation was to marry conservatives’ longstanding cultural anti-elitism with a rhetorical economic anti-elitism. The latter was confined to rhetoric; anyone bothering to read his thin program would have seen it dominated by the usual GOP economic positions favoring the wealthy — tax cuts primarily for them, repeal of a health-care reform for the poor and working class, looser regulations on business. Trump promised to bring back manufacturing and coal-industry jobs that were not lost as a result of government policy and that he will be powerless to restore. In his recent public-relations coup in Indiana, he stood up to neither Mexico nor industry; he and governor Mike Pence gave Carrier incentives to keep one plant open while it moved another to Mexico. Far from being the bane of Wall Street, Trump is trawling its executives and alumni for his cabinet.
Former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, to take a valuable contrast, campaigned and governed for the masses in the countryside. Whatever one thinks of his policies, they actually favored the masses and were accordingly popular. After he was deposed in a coup, his disbanded party reformed under a surrogate, and following this pattern, the Thaksin parties have won every subsequent free election, to the bafflement of the Bangkok elite, who are in denial about their true numbers and appeal. A similar denial besets the residents of Cairo pondering the electoral success of the Muslim Brotherhood. For decades the pious Islamism of the Turkish countryside has defied the understanding of the pious secularists of the city. A similar charge might be made against the Democrats’ reactions to the election of Trump, but not fairly; their party’s nominee won by a healthy margin nationally, and if Democrats are baffled, it is at least partially because certain state polls were off so badly. I think it’s fair to say that Democrats had no idea — I certainly had no idea — how weak their support was in the Rust Belt, or Florida, or North Carolina, but that has more to do with listening to evidence rather than disregarding it. The Sunnis in Iraq who thought they were a majority were off by at least 30%. The Democrats in Michigan were off by .2%, and only because scientists told them so. That’s not cluelessness or self-delusion.
The global populist movement is not a thing. Properly construed, it would have to account for Joko Widodo, Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales, Beppe Grillo, the protests against Dilma Rousseff, and the anti-austerity left in Europe. Even confined to right-wing populism, it would have to account for the Hindu chauvinism of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the drug war of Rodrigo Duterte, and the adventures of Vladimir Putin, as well as Trump and the UK Independence Party, UKIP. What unites the right-wing “populists” in the US and western Europe is opposition to immigration. Based on distribution, this must be considered a phenomenon of cultural fear as much as economic fear, and probably more so. Those who oppose immigration do so not just because they have lost their jobs, or have reason to fear losing them, but because they have lost, or fear losing, what is familiar and comforting about their culture. Some of that is even a matter of privilege, though a number of otherwise-sensible contrarian liberals want to establish that it’s not. In that contrarian view, relentless political correctness and identity politics have driven less-educated whites, particularly males, into the arms of Donald Trump (or Nigel Farage, or Marine Le Pen); people who are poor or economically struggling are tired of being told that they are privileged, or that they are racist, and have said, “Screw it, I’m voting for the honey badger.” Notably, in that contrarian view, non-college whites who work as cops, firefighters, skilled tradesmen, truck owner-operators, and the celebrated factory workers, are conceived as poor, despite being safely in the middle class. And suddenly it does not matter whether Donald Trump’s campaign or any of his supporters are actually racist, because racism is a justifiable response to being called racist.
Jean-Marie Le Pen made the presidential run-off in France as far back as 2002, and his daughter has sanded off his rough edges, so to imagine that Marine Le Pen represents a phenomenon of the moment is simply wrong. UKIP did show dramatic vote growth between 2010 and 2015, but that was a period when mainstream conservatives were in power. The extreme right has long served as a reliable protest vote in Europe; since their parties are seldom in office, they are seldom the targets of anti-incumbent sentiment like their major-party counterparts, and voting for them has largely been consequence-free. Brexit itself resulted from David Cameron’s too-cute cooptation policy, meant to woo UKIP voters and keep Tory euroskeptics on side through the promise of a referendum that he expected then to defeat. The Brexit referendum did not create anti-EU sentiment in Britain; it was just the first time since 1975 that any government had put it to a vote, and the prior vote was for a very different sort of union. At the time of this vote, the left-wing party of the working class happened to be led by someone at best indifferent to the EU, and whose efforts to rally his party’s constituents for the EU were lackluster. Other Brexit stories might emphasize different local circumstances; but local circumstances are far more pertinent than any sweeping global narrative, in Britain, and in France, and in Austria, and in the US. And much of the success of Trump, the Le Pens, and Austria’s Norbert Hofer is owed to the quirks of each electoral-political environment, where fragmentary factions allow small ideologies to advance in a primary or first round, and then capitalize on polarization in a general election or run-off. Should Marine Le Pen qualify for the presidential run-off and face a candidate of the left rather than the right, perhaps she, too, will see her vote magnified.
To say instead that we are experiencing a nationalist moment is to forget how common nationalism is to standard conservative and centrist politics everywhere. People absorb the lessons of state-based nationalism in their state-run schools, and most retain them for life. Even liberals cheer when the national team wins in the Olympics or the World Cup. It’s rather the movement towards integration that requires a special explanation, and when it happens, the explanation is generally local as well. Notably, the desire in eastern Europe to join the EU after the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, at a time when the EU was already identifiably a mild form of superstate, was not a rejection of local nationalism but a continuation of the aspiration for modernist prosperity that western Europe had represented to Eastern Bloc citizens throughout the Cold War. The earliest EU precursor, the European Coal and Steel Community, was founded in 1952; support for the European project in the core members had been part of national identity for many citizens and was itself a form of conservatism. It had additional meanings elsewhere; supporting a Germany in the EU was a safe nationalism for the Germans, and supporting a France in the EU was in some ways pure, traditional nationalism for the French, who viewed their nation as leading the EU and using the EU to lead the world. The old nationalisms never went away. That a deep global recession and austerity, and an immigration crisis driven by recession and a nearby war, have added to the political appeal of the old nationalisms is hardly surprising, or indicative of an underlying change in global popular mentality.
Something Trump and Brexit have in common is that they were favored by older voters and rejected by younger voters. Predictions of a future world of fortress nation-states are hard to justify in light of that fact. People who remember older days of relatively closed, homogeneous states want to return to them. People who grew up in a more globalized world of diverse states are at ease in that world. The embrace by many younger voters of anti-capitalist movements must be understood quite apart from any manifestations of ethnonationalism. Cohort replacement alone could eliminate whatever nationalist backlash is taking place. As the population becomes more educated and more metropolitan, it also moves further away from the Trump and Brexit demographics; whatever their motivations, Trump and Brexit voters are the kind we’re not making much more of. In any case, the idea of a present world where nationalism is a new thing makes no sense in light of everything we know about the past. People have always been mostly conservative, and xenophobic, or at least xeno-anxious. We are in for a decade or two where the actions of a few states, possibly a few more, draw down the degree of global integration we had or expected to have. The EU will shrink and something like the Trans-Pacific Partnership will have to wait. But Britain was always relatively euroskeptic, and the US has long viewed itself as standing alone when necessary, cooperating with allies and partners when they saw things our way. How much, exactly, has changed?
It’s not that we didn’t know already that there is a nostalgia for an idealized past out of 1950s sitcoms. In other parts of the world, the referent is different, but the sentiment is the same. Every place has its memory of a time when things were different, and for certain people, better, more comfortable, and more prosperous. These nostalgists would never articulate, and might honestly deny thinking, that they want specifically to return to an era of homogeneity and stratification, when women and racial and cultural minorities were oppressed, and immigrant languages were spoken only in a few ghettos. But that is the practical effect of what they want. The only way to return to the era of comfort for non-college straight white male Christians is to restore their cultural, political, and economic supremacy. Even on the subject of economics, which is put forth as the generous explanation for the Trump phenomenon, supremacy was key: the living standard for select persons that existed in the past was possible only because of limited competition. Paying women and minorities less, or excluding them from jobs altogether, raised wages for white men.
So when Hillary Clinton ran a campaign promising equal rights for women and minorities, and equal concern for their issues, it was a threat to straight white male Christians only insofar as they want to return to a world without those rights and that concern, to reclaim the benefits of a system that privileged people like themselves. Note well, this is a different question from whether all males or whites or straights or Christians are privileged now. Perhaps, perhaps not, but for sure, if we want to recreate the past world that these groups are telling us they felt comfortable in, culturally and economically, we will have to restore a past privilege to them, and thus undo positive changes for everyone else. Likewise, if we want to recreate manufacturing jobs, we will have to cause a great deal of pain to all those who have benefitted from global trade (which is everyone working in export- and import-driven industries, as well as everyone who consumes globally-traded goods, which is everyone); we will need protectionism to a degree not required in the past, because the US faced less competition then. This means we will have to favor manufacturing workers in certain industries over the economic wellbeing of everyone else. If we want an English-only or Christianity-only environment where Anglophones and Christians don’t feel emotionally threatened, challenged, or even merely inconvenienced, we will have to remove or isolate not just immigrants but natural-born US citizens. If we want a world where no one has to bake a cake for a gay wedding or see two women or two men kissing in the park, we will have to send millions of our fellow citizens back into the closet, and teach a lot of teenagers to hate themselves.
Just as the working class is not the same as the white working class, populism that appeals to the white working class, and particularly the straight, Christian, white working class, is not genuine populism. The working class of the historically-dominant race and culture is dwindling in western Europe, and already a minority in the US. Hillary Clinton ran the actual majoritarian campaign, and she was rewarded by finishing first in the popular vote. What Donald Trump does, what Farage and Le Pen do, is scapegoating and fearmongering. Trump in particular ran a shamelessly-dishonest campaign in which not just his intentions but the facts of the world were blatantly falsified. The proper word for Trumpism is not ‘populism’, but ‘demagoguery’. It turns out that if you offer up simplistic enemies and simplistic solutions and are in no way constrained by the truth, you can get a lot of people to vote for you. This isn’t a novel phenomenon, and it doesn’t require a novel analysis.
The title is taken loosely from ‘The West Wing’ 2–16, ‘Somebody’s going to emergency, somebody’s going to jail’, by Paul Redford and Aaron Sorkin.