In the newly edited book on populism, edited by Roger Kimball and called Vox Populi: The Perils and Promises of Populism, the opening essay is by George H. Nash and is worth the price of the volume for those who either need to comprehend what “conservative” means or who want a refresher.
Nash’s sketch provides also a template to measure how and if President Trump really is a conservative.
First, on what populism is/what it means, and I begin with Kimball’s introduction:
Still, I don’t suppose that there is any term that has instilled more In many ways, it is a word in search of a definition. For many people, “populism” is like the term “fascism” as George Orwell saw it: a handy negative epithet, a weapon, whose very lack of semantic precision is one of its chief attractions. Anything or anyone you don’t like can be effectively impugned if you manage deploy the F word and get it to stick. But what does it mean? Ninety-nine times out of a hundred it means little more than “I don’t like this person or this policy?
Here populism is equivalent to Hillary’s “deplorables.” Kimball himself thinks the term is about “who rules?” and a populist movement is driven by the issue of freedom. Populism needs a demagogue — someone who appeals to prejudice rather than reason — who appeals to the crowd and who forms a movement over against the elite. All the essayists in Vox Populi focus on these themes, with one (Scruton) seeing it as a dark movement: politicians who are demagogues who are agitators rather than democrats articulating sound policy (119).
Barry Strauss: “When an elite is corrupt, narrow-minded, and grudging; when it fails to recognize the legitimate claims of the people; when its injustice and misbehavior is not merely a rhetorical trope but a fact, then it is legitimate, indeed necessary, for the people to challenge it” (41). He also observes that the “problem of populism is the problem of elitism” (42).
Populism is behind anti Electoral College. From ancient Greece to America’s Founders (James Madison, Alexander Hamilton) a fear of majority rule (mob rule, tyranny of the majority) has been a major theme. But Andrew McCarthy observes, there is an irony in the populist Trump losing the majority vote.
Second, what is a conservative? Nash’s big idea is that conservativism after WW2 became a coalition of various political impulses, including these:
1. “classical liberals and libertarians, resisting the threat of the ever-expanding, collectivist State to individual liberty” (2). [Hayek, von Mises, Milton Friedman, Thomas Sowell]
2. Traditionalists: “Appalled by totalitarianism, total war, and the development of secular, rootless, mass society during the 1930s and 1940s, the traditionalists (as they came to be called) urged a return to traditional religious and ethical absolutes and rejection of the moral relativism that in their view had corroded Western civilization and produced an intolerable vacuum filled by demonic ideologies on the march” (3). [Robert Nisbet, Russell Kirk]
3. …” there appeared in the 1940s and 1950s, at the onset of the Cold War, a militant, evangelistic anticommunism, shaped by a number of ex-Communists and other ex-radicals of the 1930s, including the iconic Whittaker Chambers” (4).
These three are the original three political impulses, but tensions arose between the libertarians and the traditionalists. A fusionism arose in the 1960s: “the overriding purpose of government was to protect and promote individual liberty, but that the supreme purpose of the free individual should be to pursue a life of virtue, unfettered by and unaided by the State” (6).
4. Neoconservatavism: Irving Kristol’s definition conveys its original essence: “A neoconservative,” he said, “is a liberal who has been mugged by reality?” (7). [Think also Norman Podhoretz] “The stresses that produced this transition were many. In part, neoconservatism may be interpreted as the recognition by former liberals that good intentions alone do not guarantee good governmental policy and that the actual consequences of liberal social activism in the Sixties and Seventies, like the so-called War on Poverty, were often devastating” (7). This faction gave some intellectual credibility to conservatism. “By destroying the automatic equation of liberalism with intelligence, and of progressivism with progress, the neoconservative intellectuals brought new respectability to the Right and greatly altered the terms of public debate in the United States” (8).
5. Religious Right and social conservatives. There is here a kind of populism at work: “Initially the Religious Right was not primarily a movement of intellectuals at all. It was, rather, a groundswell of protest at the grassroots of America by “ordinary” citizens, many of them Protestant evangelicals, fundamentalists, and pentecostals, with some Roman Catholies and Orthodox Jews as well. While early Religious Right leaders generally shared the foreign policy and economic perspectives of other conservatives, their guiding preoccupations lay elsewhere, in what became known as the “social issues”: pornography, drug use, the vulgarization of mass entertainment, and more” (8). [First Things]
Nash thinks tensions came back through the perils of prosperity and the end of the Cold War (no common enemy). In this tension the paleoconservatives, think Patrick Buchanan, …
Fiercely and defiantly nationalist” (rather than “internationalist”), skeptical of “global democracy” and post-Cold War entanglements overseas, fearful of the impact of Third World immigration on America’s historically Europe-centered culture, and openly critical of the doctrine of global free trade, Buchananite paleoconservatism increasingly resembled much of the American Right before 194s—before, that is, the onset of the Cold War. When Buchanan himself campaigned for president in 1992 under the pre-World War II, isolationist banner of “America First,” the symbolism seemed deliberate and complete” (11).
He then turns to populism — “the revolt of ordinary people against overbearing and self-serving elites” (which is precisely what Hillary’s “deplorables” got her in so much trouble with them) of the Left and the Right:
Populism of the Left: Anti Big Money
Populism of the Right: Anti Big Government
One of Nash’s more penetrating statements: “Rightly or wrongly, conservatives of all persuasions increasingly believe that ours has become a government not of and by the people but only for the people: government by edict from above” (16). Thus, he observes, if the polls of 2016 were accurate, the people did not think the Affordable Care Act was by the people nor of the people but instead imposed from above.
He turns to Trumpism:
I believe we are witnessing in an inchoate form a phenomenon never before seen in this country: the emergence of an ideologically muddled, “nationalist-populist” major party combining both leftwing and rightwing elements. In its fundamental outlook and public policy concerns it seems akin to the National Front in France, the United Kingdom Independence Party in Great^Britain, the Alternative for German arty, and similar protest movements in Europe. Most of these insurgent parties are conventionally labeled rightwing, but some of them are noticeably statist and welfare-statist in their economics—as is Trumpism in certain respects. Nearly all of them are responding to persistent economic stagnation, massively disruptive global migration patterns, and terrorist fanatics with global designs and lethal capabilities” (18).
[And] Trumpism and its European analogues are also being driven by something else: a deepening conviction that the governing elites have neither the competence nor the will to make things better.
The rise of Trumpism in the past two years has laid bare a potentially dangerous chasm in American politics: not so much between the traditional Left and Right but rather (as someone has put it) between those above and those below on the socio-economic scale. In Donald Trump many of those “below” have found a voice for their despair and outrage at what they consider to be the cluelessness and condescension of their “betters” (19).
Is Trump conservative?
In short, as the Age of Trump begins, Trumpist populism is defiantly challenging the fundamental tenets and perspectives of every component of the post-i94S conservative coalition described in this essay. In its perspective on free trade, Trumpism deviates sharply from the limited-government, pro-free market philosophy of the libertarians and classical liberals. Despite some useful support for the right to life and religious freedom, Trumpism on the whole has shown relatively little interest in the religious, moral, and cultural concerns of the traditionalist and social conservatives. In foreign policy it has harshly criticized the conservative internationalism grounded in the Cold War, as well as (until recently) the post-Cold War “hard Wilsonianism” and distrust of Putinist Russia espoused by many national security hawks and neoconservatives.
What Trumpism has addressed, loudly and insistently, is the insecurity and disorientation—both economic and cultural—that large numbers of conservatives now feel about conditions at home and abroad. Whether this attentiveness to the travails of ordinary Americans will be enough to bridge the legislative and ideological gap between Trump and Congressional Republican leaders remains to be seen.
Populism, being reactive, will fade. Nash thinks conservativism, if it wants to rule, needs to step back to find itself again, and his proposal is three terms: freedom, virtue, and security.