Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Some Thoughts on Populism

Anyone trying to understand the popularity of Donald Trump among Republicans and Bernie Sanders among Democrats needs to understand the fact that both men are populists.

A populist is someone who appeals to the hopes and fears of the general population, generally against the ruling elite. That is the typical definition of populism, and it is certainly correct as far as it goes. But that does not explain why it is that populism only seems to arise at certain times and why it is that populists not only attack elites, but the weakest in society as well.

Populists are political opportunists. They seek to take over the elite, to become the alpha in society, and they seek to do so by creating a new coalition among a general population that for some reason feels itself under attack. I go into detail about social hierarchies here. Economic downturns are good times for populists because the general population feels itself slipping down the social hierarchy. Any movement toward becoming an omega is threatening, and it is natural for a social mammal such as humans to both lash out at those groups or individuals they consider to be omegas in society as well as at the elites they blame for creating the social conditions leading to their descent.

This is why both Trump and Sanders (and Ross Perot, in the 1990s) attack the elites as well as illegal immigrants and economic trade from developing countries. This remains the acceptable way to attack ethnic minorities, since outright in-nation racism is generally unacceptable.

My previous discussion of social hierarchies (linked above) also explains why it is that we have billionaires and elected elites emerging to attack the elites. This is a struggle for the alpha position (the Presidency) in American society, and because the presumed nominees seem to most people to be pre-selected (Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton), they are the "elite" alphas who the populists wish to overthrow. The populist manages to distinguish himself from the "true elites" by "telling it like it is," by saying things the way people say them in private. This is why they can say "outrageous" things. To the majority, such rhetoric is refreshing.

The populist plays toward the people's ignorance and prejudices, making virtues of their vices, claiming truth and goodness for them. Specifically, the populist plays toward people's evolved tendencies, which may not fit well in modern societies. Listen to a populist, and you will hear folk psychology, folk sociology, folk anthropology, folk economics, and degrees of tribalism. They thus tap into people's emotions in a way those who know, say, actual economics cannot.

Populism is thus neither a specifically right or left movement. Both the Tea Party and the Occupy movements are populist in nature. And I have already noted that Trump (Republican), Sanders (Socialist), and Perot (Independent)  are all populists. If you listen carefully, you will not hear much difference at all in either their rhetoric or their ideas. Any preference for Trump over Sanders, or vice versa, expresses nothing more nor less than the political party tribalism of their supporters.

It is important to note that "populism" comes from the Latin "populos," which is more equivalent to the "folk" (volk) of Germany. The populist party that came to power using the rhetoric of the folk was, of course, the National Socialists. I point this out not to engage in the logical fallacy of reductio ad Hitlerium, but to make a serious point about the nature of all populist movements.

In the U.S. it has not been uncommon for populist movements to be concerned with money and banking -- the Greenback Party in the late 1800s and the Occupy movement of today -- in much the same way that the Nazis came to power in the aftermath of the devastation of the hyperinflation of the Wiemar Republic and ongoing concerns about debt. While we are not facing hyperinflation, or even much inflation (because businesses are still holding cash rather than investing it as capital -- but when that changes . . .), there is increasing concern about debt. This is something Trump has brought up in recent days. The Occupy movement has focused mostly on the "unregulated" banks (they are "unregulated" because the banks and financial institutions are in fact the most regulated sector in the economy, and all of the problems that came to a head in 2008 are a consequence of that fact) and the wealthy, making them prime pickings for a populist politician. Sanders fits the bill for them. But, honestly, so does Trump. Both preach fascist policies.

Sander's socialism is nationalist in flavor. He favors trade restrictions, is generally anti-immigrant, and is an economic nationalist. This has been observed from both the left and the right. Economic patriotism, whether left or right, is necessarily nationalist in nature. It doesn't necessarily have to be outright socialist in nature, like Sanders'; no, it can also be highly interventionist in nature, like Trump's. But favorable to freedom it is not, no matter the degree of "socialist" you prefer.

The use of the term "fascism" has mostly become a slander leftists use against anyone with whom they disagree, but I am using it in the precise economic meaning of the term. As has been observed by others, whether he knows it or not, Trump is essentially a fascist. The Salon article, perhaps not surprisingly, ignores Sanders' similar positions.

That populism is fascist should not surprise anyone. Fascism taps into our most primitive, primeval propensities and drives. It is populism. Those on the right are accused of anti-intellectualism; those on the left are anti-elitists (while supporting bringing to power their own elites) -- but in fact, each is a variation of anti-elitism. And both promise the masses that they will gain power, that their lives will improve, and that the minorities who have been oppressing them all this time (the 1%, bankers, Jews, illegal immigrants, foreign workers, etc.) will receive their punishment. If you hear people attacking the elites while attacking some kind of minorities, you have a populist on your hands.

And that's the bottom line of populism. It is deeply, fundamentally anti-minority -- whatever that minority may be. The opposite of the populos, the masses, the folk is the minority group or groups within society. The easiest to attack are those from other countries -- that's why fascism is always nationalist socialism -- but eventually, those minorities are within the country, marginalized as not being true members of the nation, of the folk. This story has already been told in other countries. We came close with FDR's Japanese concentration camps. We don't need the full-blown American version.

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