The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics
by John B. Judis
Columbia Global Reports
Published October, 2016
The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction
by Mark Lilla
New York Review Books
Published September, 2016
What Is Populism?
by Jan-Werner Müller
University of Pennsylvania Press
Published August, 2016
So, it’s happened. Donald J. Trump, the guy hardly anyone thought could win the Republican nomination, and, having won the Republican nomination, hardly anyone thought could become US President, is US President. It still doesn’t feel entirely real, and the sense that we’re living in an alternative present, a counterfactual come to life – more Back to the Future Part II, at the moment, than It Can’t Happen Here or The Plot Against America – has yet to fully dissipate. But dissipate it will, must. The Cheeto Jesus is in da House. Hair Force One has landed.
Trump’s supporters are ecstatic, his opponents appalled: not since the war in Vietnam has the US looked so deeply divided. In his much-shared piece published the day after the election, New Yorker editor David Remnick warned against the media normalisation that was sure to follow the result. But if anything positions have hardened in the two months since the inauguration, with Trump’s people renewing their attacks on the media, and his political detractors – no, enemies – oscillating between denial and anger: denial that a man who lost the popular vote and possibly conspired with the Russians to undermine Clinton could ever be deemed legitimate; and anger that someone so remote from the standards of liberal decency now sits in the Oval Office. Thus do the first two stages of grief define the liberal and progressive reaction: not morning in America but America in mourning.
There is no doubt Trump is a disaster. His presidential campaign raised a stench to compare with the racism of George Wallace and the anti-Semitism of America First. He is a graceless, misogynistic creep. But there is a pronounced strain of smugness in the liberal reaction to Trump, to be found not just in the ostentatious despair of high-profile liberals like Aaron Sorkin, whose post-election ‘letter’ to his children was mawkish even by his standards, but in the characterisation of the people who voted for him as either irretrievably dumb, or racist, or both. There was more than a hint of this even in the primaries, with the Huffington Post relegating its coverage of Trump to the entertainment section of its site. Now you hear it in the superior talk of the ‘Trumpenproletariat’ and in the assumption that Trump’s campaign was founded solidly on racism and not on low wages and economic inequality. (Paul Auster’s interview with the BBC’s Newsnight is the perfect distillation of this mindset. Above all, you hear it in the description of Trump voters as resentful and hate-filled – adjectives that place them beyond (or below) reason, and thus remove the responsibility to engage them in reasoned debate. (Auster: ‘I can’t listen to what the rightwing says. I go nuts.’)
The whole ‘post-truth’ shtick – though not without some basis in reality – is an aspect of this moral framing, the reflexive response of a knowledge class increasingly blind to its own assumptions, convinced that its values are universal and right. But where have those values led in the past, a Trump voter could be forgiven for asking. Yes, it’s ironic, not to say tragic, that voters who claim to be against the system would put their faith in a billionaire who’s done better out of that system than most. (‘I’ll create jobs’ says the guy whose catchphrase was, until quite recently, ‘You’re fired!’) But is it any more ironic than expecting deliverance from an entitled, secretive, milquetoast neoliberal whose principal political ally is as responsible as anyone for the mess that has propelled that billionaire towards the White House? Just in case anyone needs reminding, it was one William Jefferson Clinton who ripped up much of what was left of the safety net installed by Franklin D. Roosevelt, who passed more deregulation legislation into law than any Republican would ever dare, who condemned countless young black men to jail in order to look tough on crime – who helped to create the very swamp that The Donald now proposes to drain. And it was Hillary Rodham Clinton who backed him up every time.
Why did people vote for Trump? That is the question we should be asking ourselves, and it’s one that’s given extra urgency by the fact that his ascendency is not an isolated case, but the most spectacular instance of a more general phenomenon. In Europe, a veritable basket of deplorables is now angling for the votes of the disaffected. Norbert Hofer in Austria, the Finns Party in Finland, Golden Dawn in Greece, Jobbik in Hungary, the Danish People’s Party in Denmark – the list goes on. The Brexit shock was partly (not wholly) the result of native prejudice, and this year could see a win for Marine Le Pen in France, though it’s looking increasingly unlikely. With some exceptions, it is to the working class that these nationalist demagogues make their pitch. If liberals and leftwingers are serious about wresting momentum from them, they will have to understand their appeal.
We might start by reflecting on language. Words such as ‘fascist’, ‘reactionary’ and ‘populist’ have been much in circulation in the past months and are set to define the current era in the same way that ‘terrorist’ and ‘neocon’ defined the decade after 9/11. That they will be lazily deployed, that politicians and commentators will use them to empty diverse ideologies of their content, lumping left and right together in an effort to shore up ‘the centre’, is inevitable. And it is for that reason that we need to be clear about what these terms mean, if indeed they mean anything. Hannah Arendt said that our political judgment depends on our ability to make proper distinctions. We need to get our classifications straight.
The Populist Explosion, by John B. Judis, is a good place to start, not least because it contains some excellent short histories of the various movements and parties commonly defined as populist: Huey Long’s Share Our Wealth movement, the US People’s Party, the presidential campaigns of Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan, the Tea Party, the National Front in France, to name only a few. Judis’ main aim, however, is not so much to describe these phenomena as to formulate a working definition of populism that can apply to all of them. What is it that connects these movements and what distinctions need to be made in order to talk about them meaningfully?
Judis is interested primarily in a modern form of populism that emerges from the US in the nineteenth century and is compatible with representative democracy. Yes, he says, there are similarities between the some of the new kids on the populist block and Hitler, Mussolini and the gang – the importance of the charismatic leader, the flaunting of democratic norms, the scapegoating of outgroups (on the right) – but that is not his subject. Rather he proposes to study those populist movements that embrace ‘the democratic competition for power’ – a list that includes both Trump and Bernie Sanders, France’s National Front and Spain’s Podemos. (Trump’s main European correlate, he suggests, is not Hitler but Silvio Berlusconi.) Nor are the rightwing populist parties expansionist in the manner of the interwar fascists, but nationalists in the isolationist sense – souveraniste, as the French far-right prefers (and in that case, of course, as in most other movements of the European far-right in recent times, the party’s platform is defined against a supranationalist organisation: the European Union). They want to strengthen their borders, not expand them.
What marks these various parties out as populist, in Judis’ view, is not a particular, codified doctrine – though of course there are areas of ideological overlap amongst the leftwing parties and the rightwing ones, and even some traffic between the two, especially when it comes to economics – but a certain political logic. Populists, he writes, conceive of politics, or affect to conceive of politics, as a struggle between a noble populace and an out-of-touch, self-serving elite. This struggle is a zero-sum game. That’s to say, it is not the populists’ aim to convince the elite to accommodate the people, nor to seek a rapprochement between the two, but to mobilise the people against the elite in an existential battle for power. This ‘basic antagonism’, as Judis calls it, is reflected in the demands the populist tends to make – demands the principal point of which is to establish a barrier between the elite and the people. Thus Trump does not demand an increase in the number of guards posted along the Mexican border, but a wall that the Mexican government must pay for, while the Danish People’s Party does not demand a reduction in asylum-seekers but the complete cessation of immigration. The point is to make it almost impossible for the mainstream parties to neutralise the issues around which the populist parties cohere – to define the struggle in black and white terms.
The content of what Podemos calls la gente and la casta – the people and the elite – changes according to who is invoking them. The elite can vary from the ‘money power’ decried by Thomas E. Watson to the ‘pointy-headed intellectuals’ reviled by George Wallace to the bankers (and their political proxies) targeted by Podemos itself. Similarly ‘the people’ can be a particular race, nationality, or economic group, such as Occupy’s 99 per cent. What defines populism, in other words, is not the exact composition of either group, but the relationship between the two. Nevertheless, Judis does make a distinction between populists of the left and the right. For while left populists tend to preach a ‘vertical’ politics of the bottom against the top, right populists will often posit a third entity, living among the people and said to be in allegiance with, or given special treatment by, the elite. Once again the content of this third group is variable: Jews, intellectuals, Jewish intellectuals, Muslims, the media, Mexicans, Poles – the list is as long as human bigotry is deep. Judis calls this ‘triadic’ populism and it is clearly very different in character from the dyadic populism of the left. (Our own version, of course, is Hansonism, which in recent years has substituted Muslims for its original outgroups, Aboriginal people and Asians.)
Indeed, so different are these two forms of populism – in point of structure and content: no easy distinction between those two things is possible, in my opinion – that I wonder whether grouping both under the same rubric obscures more than it reveals. Judis is very careful to distinguish between these two forms of populism, and it’s clear that he does so morally, too. But the division of ‘the people’, in the rightwing model, into legitimate and illegitimate entities – in-groups and outgroups; friends and foes – is so different from most leftwing conceptions of ‘the people’ that we are really talking about a separate phenomenon. Judis makes much of the fact that Podemos consciously chose not to emphasise class, taking their lead from the theoretical work of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. But that was partly tactical, a recognition that there is no longer a class – a mass class – linked to the point of production, able and willing to take control of the economy in the event of a major crisis. That they still have a broadly material conception of the relationship between the people and the elite – one very different from the essentialist framings of nationalists like the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán – is not to be doubted.
So, yes, a good start. But my sense is that Judis may be missing something, and that we need to pick away a bit more at the distinction he (rightly) identifies. If ‘populism’ is going to be a meaningful term, is it necessary to complicate it?
Jan-Werner Müller thinks it is. In his short book What Is Populism? he too suggests that populism should be viewed as a form of political logic and not a specific set of beliefs. But for him it is not a sufficient condition of populism to be critical of elites; it must be anti-pluralist, too. Thus Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan responds to his critics with sentiments such as ‘We are the people. Who are you?’ – sentiments, that is to say, that imply that whoever doesn’t support him is not a proper part of the people. ‘Put simply,’ writes Müller, ‘populists do not claim “We are the 99 percent.” What they imply instead is “We are the 100 per cent.”’
The invocation of the 99 per cent is significant. For in elevating what, for Judis, is an aspect of one kind of populism to a condition of populism per se, Müller has, whatever his intention, given populism a distinctly ideological tinge. To put it crudely, Sanders is now off the hook, while Trump remains on it; Golden Dawn in the crosshairs, Syriza not. The point is that in order to qualify as a populist one has to practice what the political theorist Nancy Rosenblum has termed ‘holism’: the belief that it’s possible for the people to be one and to have one representative. And from this it follows that populism is always a form of identity politics that posits some fundamental distinction between those who matter and those who don’t. It is always exclusionary, in other words. Here’s Müller:
For a political actor or movement to be populist, it must claim that a part of the people is the people – and that only the populist authentically identifies and represents this real or true people. Put in terms derived from ancient Rome, fighting for the interests of the plebs, ‘the common people’, is not populism, but saying that only the plebs (as opposed to the patrician class, never mind the slaves) is the populous Romanus – and that only a particular kind of populares properly represents the authentic people – is populism.
Recent instances of this mindset are thick on the ground. Post-the Brexit vote, UKIP leader Nigel Farage declared the Leave vote a victory for ‘real people’. Similarly, at a campaign rally last May, Trump announced that ‘the only important thing is the unification of the people – because the other people don’t mean anything’. In such utterances, Müller suggests, the ‘real people’ is an essentially symbolic notion. This is fundamentally different from a politics that paints the interests of the large mass of people as at odds with a ruling class or establishment – that says, in effect, ‘We are also the people’, not ‘We are the people’. Populism, he writes, is ‘a particular moralistic imagination of politics, a way of perceiving the political world that sets a morally pure and fully unified … people against elites who are deemed corrupt or in some other way morally inferior’.
The logic of such politics gives it much of its character. For example, since ‘the people’ is in the majority and its beliefs and priorities identical with the leader’s, any setbacks must be blamed on the corruption of the elite or the cunning of outgroups, or indeed both. Conspiracy thinking is thus a natural corollary of populism. Again, examples are not hard to come by. Ross Perot thought the Black Panthers were plotting to kill him, while Trump reacted to losses in the primaries with the charge that his opponents were committing fraud and more than implied in the presidential campaign itself that were Clinton to win he would reject the result. Time and again what Müller calls the ‘morally correct’ outcome of an election or poll is set against empirical evidence, with the latter adduced as prima facie evidence that the system is rigged against the people. (The reductio ad absurdum of such logic is Hitler’s belief that because Jewish leaders denounced The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as a hoax, it must therefore be genuine.)
The logic of populism, as defined by Müller, also means that populist politicians who come to power will launch assaults on the institutions of liberal-democratic society. Because the leader is the people and the people the leader, the populist is afforded, or affords himself, the moral right to override such institutional obstacles as he deems to be in his way. In Müller’s view, this can lead to the ‘colonisation of the state, mass clientelism’ and ‘discriminatory legalism’ as well as the systematic repression of sections of civil society. (Trump’s ban on immigration into the US from several Muslim-majority countries was, in this sense, typical.) Moreover, and as with Erdoǧan’s recent assault on academics and journalists in the wake of the failed coup, such actions are taken openly, not to say ostentatiously, cast as the proper revenge of the people upon remnants of the old elite and their proxies. Müller notes the irony that this leads the populist leader or party to become the very thing it seeks to replace, though I’d add here that in many cases this is precisely the point: as often as not, such populism is a form of political triangulation in which the interests of an elite are tied to the anti-elitism of a section of the people. An obvious example would be the Tea Party movement, which was largely co-opted by the very elite – let’s call it the 1 per cent – that had brought the world economy low, a manoeuvre that entailed casting Obama’s modest stimulus and help for families facing foreclosure as the thin end of the socialist wedge. In this connection, it’s worth noting that, according to his biographer Michael D’Antonio, Trump is strongly influenced by the Republican strategist Roger Stone, who got his start in politics running dirty tricks for Richard Nixon and whose attacks on the Democrats were designed to convince voters that the GOP, the party of big business, was the natural party of the working class.
The problems with Müller’s analysis begin with his supposition that populism, as well as being anti-elitist and anti-pluralist, is also, in essence, antidemocratic – an existential threat to the thing to which (I would argue) it is dialectically related in a way he doesn’t quite appreciate. ‘The danger to democracies today’, he writes, ‘is not some comprehensive ideology that systematically denies democratic ideals. The danger is populism – a degraded form of democracy that promises to make good on democracy’s highest ideals (“Let the people rule!”).’ He continues:
The danger comes, in other words, from within the democratic world – the political actors posing the danger speak the language of democratic values. That the end result is a form of politics that is blatantly antidemocratic should trouble us all – and demonstrate the need for nuanced political judgment to help us determine precisely where democracy ends and populist peril begins.
Here, populism and democracy are defined as related but separate entities, and the rise of populism characterised, accordingly, as a crisis of democracy. This is a popular view at the moment, and I think it misses some key points.
In order for this line to work, democracy must be defined as liberal democracy. Müller is refreshingly open in this regard, dismissing ‘illiberal democracy’ as a fair description of the populist vision, and suggesting that the institutions, rights and civil liberties that characterise countries such as our own are not mere liberal-democratic trimmings but constitutive of democracy as such. But according to whom is this the case? I don’t deny that these things should be defended; nor would I seek to quibble with Müller when he distinguishes between one vision of democracy and another, though there is more traffic between them than I think he supposes. But to make democracy identical with the liberal-democratic model, and to do so with a rather defensive reference to Francis Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’ thesis is to take the wish for the reality, while also ignoring the numerous populists who make a big show of their liberal credentials. (Geert Wilders is a case in point.)
No, the reality is less straightforward. As the economist Wolfgang Streeck has argued, most recently in How Will Capitalism End?, the ‘crisis of democracy’ is internal to capitalist democracies themselves. Contrary to what economic liberals maintain, capitalism and democracy are not inevitable soulmates. Indeed, to the extent that the former is based on the social creation of wealth and profit and its accumulation in the private sphere, they could be said to be at odds, the liberal model of democracy being one that extends mainly formal rights to citizens, including the right to hold on to your property, however much of it you happen to have and whatever you did (within the law) to acquire it. The labour movement was a direct challenge to that system and capitalism’s answer was social democracy, the genius of which was to ally a growth model of capitalism (the Keynesian one) to a regime of (partial) redistribution. That lasted for about thirty years, from the end of the war to the late 1970s, when the profit squeeze led western governments to adopt a new economic model, the effect of which was to drive down wages, increase insecurity and cause the credit economy to grow so big and byzantine that it had to blow. Thus the crisis of 2008 and the subsequent rise of populism, which is not a ‘defective’ form of democracy, as Müller claims, but an often defective response to a defective situation – not the disease, but a symptom of it.
This is what I mean when I say that liberal capitalism and populism are linked dialectically. In liberal capitalist democracies there is an inevitable gap between the language of equality, which is essentially the language of rights, and the reality of inequality. In the thirty years after the second world war – the French call it Les Trente Glorieuses – social-democratic policies were able, not to bridge that gap – that can never happen in a system based on private property and profit – but to narrow it. Wages increased and inequality declined; unionism, free education and health, unemployment benefits and the old-age pension made life under capitalism tolerable in a way that it had never been before.
Now, as those social safeguards are eroded, we are returning to a situation not unlike the one that obtained in the United States in late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century, when ‘populist’ movements preaching greater economic inequality (for white people, not for black people) exerted a powerful influence on the mainstream. (As Judis demonstrates in The Populist Explosion, the platform of the People’s Party was the first real salvo against laissez-faire capitalism, while Long’s Share Our Wealth movement had a definitive effect on Roosevelt’s New Deal liberalism.) There were warning signs in the 1990s: in different ways, the presidential campaigns of Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan were repudiations of neoliberalism. But it was the crisis of 2008 that really set the populist cats amongst the plump establishment pigeons. What we’re calling ‘populism’ is, however ‘defective’ or ‘perilous’ it may look to a broadly progressive knowledge class used to framing the debate, the authentic expression of a section of society that’s being royally screwed by capitalism.
As Mark Blyth argues in his excellent lecture on ‘Global Trumpism’, the liberal idea of democracy is essentially one of ‘process’: you have your say at the ballot box, and, if your party doesn’t get in, come back next time and try again, all the while exercising your right to free speech in an effort to influence political debate. But in times of crisis, Blyth suggests, and for precisely the reasons outlined above, the shortcomings of this ‘pure’ model are revealed. Moreover, when the crisis intersects with a sense that the really important decisions – economic decisions, more or less – have been placed in the hands of technocrats subject to few democratic controls, as they have in the case of the WTO, the IMF, central banks and the European Commission, then the backlash is all the more impressive. (In such cases, says Blyth, people ‘invent democracy’.) Müller, who is invested in the liberal model – he invokes Samuel Beckett’s line from Westward Ho: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better’ – seeks to paint the ugliness of many of these insurgencies as evidence of their undemocratic nature. But, again, he takes the wish for the reality, treating democracy not as a particular historical configuration – splendid in some ways, limited in others, a dialectical work-in-progress – but as a sort of philosophical terminus in which competing claims to representation and resources can be made and met.
At one point in What Is Populism? Müller suggests that, ideally, democratic constitutions facilitate ‘a chain of claim-making for inclusion’, noting how those in power are apt to push back against expanded or alternative characterisations of ‘the people’. He quotes the second US President John Adams:
It is dangerous to open so fruitful a Source of Controversy and Altercation [as universal suffrage]. There would be no End of it. New Claims will arise. Women will demand a Vote. Lads from 12 to 21 will think their rights not attended to, and every Man, who has not a farthing, will demand an Equal Voice, with any other in All Acts of State. It tends to confound and destroy all Distinctions, and prostrate all Ranks, to one common level.
Clearly, it is not ‘the people’ who worry Adams. It’s people, with their demands for rights and votes and an equal voice and claims and … ugh! so exhausting this democracy business! But I wonder if it occurs to Müller that his own views are, in some respects, an updated and more agreeable version of Adams’ fit of liberal pique. Of course, he could claim, and claim with some justice, that liberal democracy has delivered many of the things Adams warns against. But what he can’t claim is that formal equality has led to social equality, and I think he should consider the possibility that Adams’ is the authentic voice of a class that continues to get its way in many (material) respects, and whose interests are aligned in complex ways with the liberal-democratic model. Certainly when he characterises European technocracy as emerging from an anxiety about the return of totalitarianism – a necessary check on notions of ‘the people’ unconducive to the liberal consensus – he is only telling half the story. Much of that technocracy is a result of the neoliberal policies to which all EU members are, by dint of being EU members, signatories. It is a direct and purposeful assault on economic democracy, advanced in the name of liberal economics.
In essence, Müller’s analysis dovetails with a broader, vaguer notion that the rise of Trump, Le Pen et al. represents a ‘crisis of politics’ and even a ‘rejection’ of it, where ‘politics’ is axiomatically identified with liberal (capitalist) democracy. But I think we should regard the rise of populism as the return of politics, not as its absence, or as a perversion of its proper pursuance. The political scientist Cas Mudde has characterised the emergence of populism as an illiberal democratic response to an undemocratic liberalism, and this, for me, is the crucial point. To put it in psychoanalytic terms, populism is the return of the repressed. It isn’t pretty, but it isn’t surprising, and that needs to be the starting point if we’re to avoid the incomprehension and hysteria that has defined much of the liberal reaction so far. Only then, when we’ve agreed that, yes, there is a problem to which the populists are offering an answer, can we begin to pick apart the populist reaction and critique its content in a meaningful way.
As I say, I think Müller’s notion of ‘anti-pluralism’ is an important step in that direction. Whether we follow his lead and treat anti-pluralism as constitutive of populism per se is a debatable point, but we should certainly distinguish between that kind of politics and the politics of, say, Syriza. Indeed, I think it’s necessary to deepen the distinction a little more, to flesh it out philosophically. When a Trump or a Hofer or an Orbán looks at the world, what does he see that Alexis Tsipras doesn’t?
In the view of Mark Lilla, what he sees is a rupture – some trauma that separates the present from the past. In his collection of essays, The Shipwrecked Mind, Lilla suggests that the reactionary is stranded in time, clinging to the debris of whatever past he deems desirable. In this he is paradoxically linked to that other political constant, the revolutionary. But whereas the revolutionary looks forward to a necessary rupture with the status quo, the reactionary looks back in despair and anger. For him, the present is a foreign country.
Again, we are talking about a logic here – there is no one set of preoccupations that defines the reactionary mindset, though for obvious reasons the conservative temperament is more prone to it than the progressive one (under the rubric of conservatism could be included certain deep ecologists and elements of the anti-globalisation movement). Thus reactionary forces in France invite voters to believe that multiculturalism, and Muslim immigration in particular, have killed the ideal of the secular republic, while Trump promises to ‘Make America Great Again’ – an objective vague and capacious enough to include anxieties about the decline of manufacturing and the cultural demotion of the white male under the banner of ‘political correctness’. Theirs, writes Lilla, is a ‘militant nostalgia’ – a deep and often disordered attachment, not to what is or may one day be, but rather to what was. And, unlike hope, which can be disappointed, this nostalgia ‘is irrefutable’.
It is a prejudice, Lilla suggests, to assume that reactionaries are necessarily less thoughtful than revolutionaries, and his book is an attempt to anatomise the nature of reactionary thought through an analysis of some of its illustrious practitioners. To that end, he considers Franz Rosenzweig’s Christianity-Judaism theory, which conceives of Jews as in transcendental exile from history and thus at odds with the time-bound Christianity that led eventually to Hegel’s theory of human progress and the inexorable movement of history towards some predetermined end; Eric Voegelin, who regarded Christianity’s separation of religion and politics as the source of modern ‘political religions’ (this is a staple of counter-Enlightenment thinking and finds its most tenacious contemporary advocate in the British philosopher John Gray); and Claude Lévi-Strauss, who lamented that the Enlightenment had upset the necessary balance/tension between philosophy and religion – ‘Athens and Jerusalem’ – and led to fascism, communism and the 1960s – developments that, in the minds of his followers, were equally to be deplored.
Elsewhere, he takes aim at the ‘theoconservatism’ that traces a line ‘from Luther to Walmart’ or from ‘scholasticism to structuralism’; and at the strange band of neo-‘communists’ – Alain Badiou in particular – who make a fetish of the revolutionary movements of the past and sometimes even the totalitarian states to which those revolutions gave rise. That last group displays a fascination with the one-time Nazi legal scholar Carl Schmitt, whose ‘unabashed defence of the friend-enemy distinction as the essence of “the political” helped to recover the conviction that politics is struggle, not deliberation, consultation, and compromise’ – a mode of thought that has clear similarities to populism as defined by both Judis and Müller.
Early on in The Shipwrecked Mind Lilla suggests that it was the French Revolution that gave definition to this form of politics; after that cataclysmic event nostalgia ‘settled like a cloud on European thought’. Elsewhere, however, he implies that such cultural pessimism is a human constant, a mindset stretching from Hesiod to Cato to Augustine to the Reformation. And while he may be right in one sense – probably there’s a series of hieroglyphs somewhere that translates as ‘Things ain’t what they used to be’ – he can at times sound rather ahistorical and fatalistic, as if the problem were human beings’ failure to accept their existential lot. Indeed, he can sound a little reactionary. Consider, for example, the following passage:
Human beings should be content with such stories and the gods who come with them. But few of us are. Chronicles place the responsibility for history on our very small shoulders, which is a burden we would gladly shirk. We want comfort. So from time immemorial we have fabricated myths to convince ourselves that we understand the underlying processes by which the world took its present shape.
Such myths do nothing but feed a more insidious dream: that political action might help us find our way back to the Road Not Taken. The lesson of Saint Augustine remains as timely as it was fifteen hundred years ago: that we are destined to pave our road as we go. And the rest is in God’s hands.
Ah, in God’s hands is it? Alrighty then: I’ll cancel my subscription to Jacobin …
No, this won’t quite do. It reduces an historically contingent phenomenon to a flaw in human temperament, where what is needed is an analysis of how particular outbreaks of militant nostalgia or cultural pessimism are related to prevailing conditions. For my part, I think it’s abundantly clear that the current spike in nativism is a response to the economic failures (and indeed successes) of neoliberalism. The hyper-globalisation we’ve had for three decades does not just undermine social democracy; it undermines social solidarity, ripping up entire communities, compelling people to move or switch jobs, eroding and even proscribing identities – racial, sexual – long in the making, dissolving borders, undermining sovereignty, fraying the social fabric. Add in economic strife and what you have are the perfect ingredients for a nativist or nationalist reaction – a politics, if you will, of ‘walls’ – walls economic and cultural. Thus do Mexico and the Mexican, the EU and the Polish plasterer, become the scapegoats in a new conception of the people.
Far more illuminating, in this regard, are Lilla’s two essays on contemporary France, first published in the New York Review of Books. Lilla was living in France at the time of the Charlie Hebdo murders and his reflections on the way in which two forms of reaction – the Islamic kind and the nationalist kind – now collide and combust are invaluable. They’re a good primer for the torrid politics that are sure to engulf France in the next few months. In ‘Suicide’ he focuses on Éric Zemmour, whose anti-neoliberalism comes wrapped in racist demagoguery of the grand remplacement variety – that is, in the belief that, if left unchecked, Muslims will soon outnumber non-Muslims, in France and other European countries – and the charge that the post-material left now cares less about the working class than it does about immigrants and minorities. That this second charge is not completely unfounded – in the days after Trump won the US election, Lilla himself caused a minor stir by suggesting in a piece in the New York Times that the Democrats’ focus on identity politics was now a liability – does not detract from the opportunistic cynicism of Zemmour’s response. As Lilla writes:
It is one thing to say that the antiracist rhetoric of victimisation has blinded the French to the real threat of fundamentalist Islam brewing in the poor urban areas. It is quite another to dismiss out of hand, as Zemmour does [in his book Le Suicide français], the enormous independent effects of poverty, segregation, and unemployment in making people in those areas feel hopeless, cut off, angry, and contemptuous of republican pieties. The list of policies that contribute to these conditions – and, if changed, may help to ease them – is long. And France could change them while at the same time policing the streets, maintaining authority in the classrooms, and teaching the republican virtues of laicity [sic], democracy, and public duty – which one would think Zemmour would favour. But for a demagogue like him it is too important to convince readers that the rot is too deep, the traitors too numerous, the Muslims too hopeless for a patchwork of measures to have any effect. To follow his suicide metaphor, it would be like devising an exercise regimen for a patient on life support. On the book’s last page we read that ‘France is dying, France is dead.’ There is no final chapter on what is to be done to revive it. He leaves that to his readers’ no doubt vivid imaginations.
This seems to me to capture pretty accurately the space in which the right-populist operates, whipping up and then exploiting ‘an outraged hopelessness’. What it misses, perhaps, or neglects to mention, is that the social and economic pressures that cause immigrants to reject French ‘pieties’ are the same ones that lead other constituencies to embrace them, or the version of them offered by the far right. When Le Pen asserts that ‘the dividing line’ is now between ‘globalists and patriots’, as she did in 2015, in the wake of her defeat in the French regional elections, she is speaking directly to these constituencies.
At one point in What Is Populism?, Müller invokes Benjamin Arditi’s description of populism as like a drunken guest at a dinner party – rude and boorish and full of self-pity, ‘flirting with the wives of other guests’, but also, occasionally, blurting out the truth. But what is the truth we need to attend to? Not that this or that guest is a jerk; not that the host is a terrible cook, or that the decision to hire a food sculptor was, well, a shade pretentious; but that dinner parties tend to be events to which only certain people get invited. Notwithstanding the strain this puts on Arditi’s metaphor (why is the drunken guest at the party at all if he isn’t the kind that gets on the guest-list?), this seems to me to describe the relationship between the current wave of populist insurgencies and the kind of technocratic politics represented by, say, Hillary Clinton. Put simply: people feel left out, or left behind, by liberalism.
As The Donald was campaigning hard, a series of ‘Kool-Aid’ memes began to appear on social media. One showed a group of revellers raising their drinks in the air beneath the legend ‘Trump Followers, drinking the Kool-Aid’, another a brimming jug with a happy face and the words ‘Kool-Aid: the preferred drink of non-informed voters’. Well, okay: Kool-Aid seems like a fair analogy for whatever Trump is selling voters, or has succeeded in selling them. But those of us who want to see the back of Trump and his counterparts in Europe and elsewhere had better start by acknowledging that not everyone who bought his message is motivated by racism only, or impressed with his misogyny, or intellectually deficient in some way; no, many of them are turning their backs, and doing so in a reasoned way, on the Coke-or-Pepsi politics that has failed time and again to make their lives better. If politicians intend to win them over, or back, then they had better evolve a politics that speaks to their material and spiritual concerns, to their desire for a richer, more settled life. And they had better do it fast. God knows, the Angry Creamsicle is looking crazier by the day.
Michael D’Antonio, The Truth about Trump (St Martin’s, 2016)
Cas Mudde, ‘The Problem with Populism’, The Guardian (17 February, 2015)
Wolfgang Streeck, How Will Capitalism End? Essays on a Failing System (Verso, 2016)