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Populism

The dangers of insularity

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

President Trump ran on a platform of nationalism, protectionism, and isolationism from both economic and social standpoints; his anti-immigration stances and his proposed pro-tariff policies are salient examples of Mr. Trump’s embodiment of the populist ideals that seem to have taken hold of the U.S. voting constituency. As citizens, it is of great difficulty to look outwards amidst a tumultuous political climate, where unexpected and unforeseen legislation and initiatives are gaining momentum with each day, prompting even the most well-versed and politically literate individuals to find themselves outpaced by rapid developments in their own nation. This propensity to become detached from the ongoing affairs of the world around us is heightened by the tone being set by one’s own national government, devaluing the significance of international relations and interactions between different states, causing individuals to feel that there is a diminished importance of being aware of what is occurring in foreign lands. The disengagement with the international system on both an individual, institutional, and governmental level is worrisome, as we become less attuned to trends that are affecting nations indiscriminately. Populism had begun to create ripples throughout the world in the years leading up to the past U.S. election; this is just one example of how sweeping movements can be traced and predicted, perhaps even staved off and prevented altogether, if we only open our eyes.

Now, populism is not intrinsically bad. Definitionally, populism describes a movement in which individuals collectively band together against a government or institution made of elites. This sounds rather familiar to the spark that can ignite meaningful and successful revolutions, if we contextualize a chain of events as such within the American Revolution, for one. However, what is concerning about populism is the effects it can bring with it, notably a diminishing of domestic institutions that traditionally check the power of executive branches of power and government, particularly those which promote democratic ideals and prevent a consolidation of power within an all-powerful leader. As we have seen in many European nations throughout history, the rise of populism has been accompanied by a weakening of individual liberties, rights, and freedoms. We are now seeing a growing influence of right-wing movements and parties in nations that have long been heralded as beacons of liberal democracy: Britain, Germany, France, and most recently the Netherlands. This development has a few important implications for us as conscious and engaged citizens. We first ought to concern ourselves with the wellbeing of individuals throughout the world, irrespective of the nature of their regime or the state of populism in their respective nations; however, if we are able to recognize what many experts now consider to be an evident trend of populism, we ought to educate ourselves and understand how to reform our political systems or our international order to ensure that the deleterious impacts of populism can be prevented from striking. In addition, we need to ensure that as a constituency, we are pressuring our government to remain engaged in the international system and abreast of the dynamic relationships between and within states that will inevitably impact the future of our world. Not only is this necessary to prevent conflict and promote peace, but such cooperation and collaboration between nations is also the only way in which ongoing and potential global crises, such as global warming and nuclear armament, can be combatted most effectively.

In the wake of Mr. Trump’s inauguration and initial actions in office, we have seen marches, walkouts, and protests on issues ranging from immigration to women’s rights. It has been both heartening and inspiring to take part in these movements and to witness my friends, peers, former teachers, relatives, and mentors engage in an impactful way to make a statement. I want to urge each of us, however, to engage with issues that may seem like they are striking less close to home, and remain observant and aware of what is occurring in nations near and far. It is harder to notice a detachment from the arena of international politics when so much is going wrong at home, but the threat of a disruption to the fabric of our international order can have potentially devastating consequences, the ramifications of which may be near impossible to alleviate upon being actualized. What is happening here with respect to a surge of populism is also happening in other countries; our institutions have so far served our democracy steadfastly, maintaining checks and balances and preventing an overreach of executive power when conflicting with constitutional values. This may not be the case for other democracies and nations in which institutions and governing bodies may fall prey to populism’s diminutive effects, à la Hungary.  Now is not the time to turn a blind eye to international affairs, nor is it the time to isolate ourselves from other nations and their affairs. We have a responsibility to hold our government accountable, not just on issues of domestic significance, but on the matters that impact the world around us.

Decision between Trump and Bernie not so easy

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

“I like Bernie, but I like Trump too,” the woman says, with more than a little irritation, before slamming her phone down on the receiver. (Ah, the lost joys of landlines.) She is the twentieth, or the twenty-first, or the twenty-second (?) Iowan I have called in the last hour. I am “phone banking” for Bernie Sanders, which is a polite way of saying “political telemarketing.” Like all telemarketers, I am greeted with a well-deserved contempt; most people hang up on me before I can finish my first sentence. This particular woman was in fact abnormally courteous. She at least said something to me before terminating the conversation. A rather paradoxical something.

How can my Iowan interlocutor be torn between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump? The two men could not, at first glance, be less alike. Donald Trump is a rapacious, Muslim-baiting, immigrant-hating, boisterous, billionaire vulgarian with a bad haircut; Bernie Sanders is a somewhat awkward, “This Land is Your Land”-singing,  (imperfectly) anti-racist, Jewish Vermonter socialist with a bad haircut. Donald Trump’s earliest encounter with the press is a 1973 New York Times article discussing allegations that he refused to rent apartments to African Americans; Bernie Sanders’ first foray into political activism was organizing civil rights sit-ins at the University of Chicago. These are men whose personal, political, and moral histories have almost nothing in common. Yet this woman’s indecision remains. Is she just an outlier, too politically uninformed to distinguish between the rhetoric of these two old, angry white men? Was she just trying to confuse a stranger so rude as to call her at dinner time? Or is there something deeper at work here, something worth investigating in her divided loyalties?

Sanders and Trump both belong to the tradition of American populism. As populists, they both tap into a powerful and perilous source of energy: popular resentment and anxiety. For the better part of a decade, the American political system has suffered from a crisis of legitimacy. Americans of all persuasions have become convinced that something is rotten in the District of Columbia. What that something is, of course, is a matter of considerable contention; talk to ten Americans and you’ll hear twenty explanations for this rot – rising inequality? government overreach? militarized racism? ISIS terrorism? big money in politics? Barack Obama’s birth certificate? Large parts of the nation have been worked into a near-revolutionary fervor, while lacking anything resembling a revolutionary program. Enter the populists, stage right. Their role is to shape the resentment and anxiety, giving it definitive form. They not only tell the public the nature of the problems facing the nation; more crucially, they tell the public who is at fault. Most dangerous of all, they convince the public that their explanation is simply common sense, that the public really had the answer all along.

Trump’s racist and misogynistic rhetoric has earned him comparisons to the fascist leaders of the 20th century. This comparison is not entirely apt. Trump’s brand of thuggish conservatism lacks the ideological and political apparatuses that made 20th century fascism viable. He cannot appeal to a respected racial science to justify his bigotry, nor does he have anything like a paramilitary force at his disposal. At best, we can call his politics a form of postmodern fascism. Postmodern fascism is fascism that cannot fully assert itself as fascism. It thrives on plausible deniability. When Hitler talked about Jews, he knew them to be the enemy of Germany. There was no equivocation; they were a parasite that had to be excised mercilessly. Trump, when he attacks Hispanics, Muslims, and African Americans, does not allow himself that level of confidence. Recall how he phrased his proposal to ban Muslims from the country: they had to be kept out until we can figure out “what the hell is going on.” He does not purport to have all the answers, nor does he purport to know anything about what Muslims are essentially. Indeed, he insists that Muslims, African Americans, and Hispanics love him. In one of the most bizarre examples of tokenism on record, Trump insists that his supposed Muslim friends (perhaps he is referring to Mike Tyson, convicted rapist and known ear-biter?) approve of his plan to surveil, register, and ban their communities from participation in American life. In a bizarre inversion of the fascist leader principle, Trump rarely takes full responsibility for what he says. Everyone was saying it, he’ll often claim. He didn’t want to take a particular action, but his hand was forced because people were telling him to do it.

In attributing the origin of his thoughts and deeds to the masses, Trump—Wharton-educated, real-estate Mogul, reality TV star Donald J. Trump—becomes the average American. He may insist on his own genius, but admiration of his genius is not what draws his followers to him. Rather, it is his willingness to say what the average American supposedly wants to say but can’t; he says the nasty, the obscene, the un-PC. He is the blowhard that they all wish they could be, the straight-talking, no-nonsense asshole. He is not merely the average man; he is the perfect average American. Never mind, of course, that the Trump’s average American persona is of his own making. That the thoughts he pretends everyone is thinking are really his own. He is a master manipulator, able to shape popular resentment according to his will. He is to be feared and despised.

Like Trump, Sanders appeals to popular resentment. But his is a tempered, class-based resentment. Instead of blaming minorities for the decline of American greatness (and make no mistake, Sanders is nostalgic for an American greatness that never truly existed), he focuses on the greed of the so-called billionaire class: Wall Street bankers, corporate CEOs, real estate moguls with bad haircuts, etc. This populist emphasis on the moral failings of the haute bourgeoisie undercuts his socialist credentials; in his rhetoric, he sometimes seems to attribute the ills of American capitalism merely to individual wrongdoing, ignoring the incentives of the system itself. In making his moral argument against the billionaire class, Sanders adopts a straight-talking, average American persona. But Sanders’ average American has little in common with Trump’s. Trump is the drunk uncle who won’t shut up at Thanksgiving dinner; Sanders is the older Jewish man at a New York delicatessen who has had enough bullshit for the day and just wants his goddamn potato salad. Sanders thrives on humility; notice his campaign’s embrace of his unassuming first name: “Bernie.”

But the biggest difference between Trump and Sanders isn’t to be found in their temperaments. Trump’s populism is ultimately nihilistic; it accrues more and more forms of resentments, names more and more enemies. It cannot afford to attempt to address the national malaise; if it could solve anything, it would be immediately robbed of its power. Sanders, on the other hand, offers a positive, redemptive vision for the future of the country, one in which the economic and political power of the common citizen is restored. Regardless of the practical merits of Sanders’ individual proposals, the man actually believes in something.

Let no one underestimate the danger of populism. It relies on irrationalism, making an appeal to our troubled hearts, not our skeptical brains. But at times of crisis, when the popular legitimacy of the government is disintegrating, we can’t live without it. If the Left wants to credibly challenge the Right for the hearts and minds of the country, it cannot rely on the old, stodgy formulas of liberal politics. It needs to be willing to use the power of populism.  But it needs to be in awe of that power; it needs to be guided by a leader who will use that power with moderation and responsibility. That leader is Bernie Sanders.

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