Remember the people Hillary Clinton dubbed “deplorables”? Those were the Americans who didn’t buy into her globalist embrace of open borders, who couldn’t abide her enthusiasm for trade policies that sapped America’s industrial strength, who believed in old-fashioned American patriotism, and who didn’t understand how “nationalism” had become a dirty word.
Noah Rothman, associate editor of Commentary, doesn’t use any such pejorative to describe the people denigrated by Clinton. He merely calls them “a dire threat to prosperity and liberty.” He says the level of danger they pose to Western civilization is comparable to that posed by the Soviets during the Cold War.
Rothman issued his fretful warning in a Commentary piece entitled “An Unpopular Approach to the Populism Problem.” The problem he’s talking about seems to be that of people in America—voters!—who don’t see the world as Noah Rothman does. The question he seeks to answer is: what’s to be done with them?
In pursuit of his answer, he brushes aside a New York Times commentary by Harvard lecturer Yascha Mounk, author of a new book whose title hints at his own elitist view of those voters, The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It. In his Times piece, Mounk suggests that “nationalism” could be “rehabilitated” (Rothman’s word) by yanking the term away from people of bigotry and jingoism and rebranding it into a concept that encompasses a multi-ethnic, center-left internationalism. In other words, for Mounk the question is who gets to own the term “nationalism.” He thinks, without any hint of irony, that the term should belong to internationalists.
Rothman, on the other hand, views this approach as “unequal to the scale of the challenge before us.” He faults Mounk for suggesting Americans are intrinsically less inclined towards “blood and soil” nationalism than their European counterparts, who traditionally have had a more “monoethnic” identity and have tended toward a more coherent sense of nationhood. No, says Rothman, European nationalism “is no less susceptible to hijacking by populist ideologues than its American counterpart.”
But Mounk is correct, says Rothman, in identifying the root of the problem, which Rothman describes as “the unintended consequences of a globalized economy and mass migration from the developing world into the developed.” He adds that these “relatively new realities are destabilizing traditional democracies and rendering them vulnerable to the sway of what [Mounk] called ‘authoritarian populists.’” These are people, says Rothman, who display “economic and political chauvinism backed by popular demand.”
In other words, they’re angry at their lot in a world created by globalists such as Mounk and Rothman. They are responding to “the zero-sum nature of the anarchic international environment: a permanent state of competition that fosters tribal solidarity.”
In Rothman’s view, the antidote to all this, in terms of civic competition, is classical liberalism, which has absorbed nationalism and patriotism for centuries but has always feared populism. “Classical liberals,” writes Rothman, “don’t just have an aversion to populism; they think it’s dangerous.”
But take heart, he adds, because “populists are outnumbered.” Global free trade and liberal democracy don’t benefit everyone equally, and they create far more winners than losers. The problem is that the political classes are paying too much attention to these inconsequential but highly vocal losers. The West’s political leaders have become enervated by a perception that they no longer have an enemy approaching the danger of the expansionist Soviet empire. But they do: it’s anti-globalist populism. The elites thus need to regain their “skill at championing a model of social organization unapologetically, without fear or favor.”
Rothman sums up: “If populist nationalism is to be contained, it cannot be subsumed into greater liberalism and its malcontents mollified by social welfare programs. The very idea of populist nationalism will have to be overwhelmed. As soon as advocates of unfettered freedom and commerce come to that conclusion, that necessary work can begin.”
The audacity here is breathtaking. This is the kind of talk that leaves one wondering whether the looming civic battle over the definition of America—the globalist vision versus the nationalist one—can be adjudicated through peaceful democratic means. Rothman’s “unfinished work” emanates from a perception that populist nationalism cannot be accommodated; it will have to be eradicated. And those poor folk who have been disadvantaged by the globalist onslaught, as Rothman acknowledges they have been, will just have to be marginalized until they no longer have a voice in civic affairs. This may be unfortunate, but it’s necessitated by the globalist vision of welcoming to America ever more foreigners to displace those benighted populists whose civic influence will have to be curtailed.
Unbeknownst to Rothman, however, populism is part and parcel of any democratic regime. It remains largely quiescent when times are good and civic waters are calm. It raises its head in times of turbulence or difficulty, when major economic dislocations hit large segments of the populace and lay them low. It emerges when significant numbers of citizens see the elites remaking their society without so much as a by-your-leave from the people and while displaying unconcealed contempt.
Rothman doesn’t want to accept that there is a legitimate debate about all this in America today. Instead he conjures up the specter of a mortal threat to the republic from people who are every bit as much a part of the American tradition as he is.
Indeed, in projecting his abstractionist view of America, Rothman distorts the picture. He suggests that the open-borders sensibility he reveres has been an integral part of the American experience from the beginning. This is false. Throughout its history, the United States has calibrated immigration policies based on the realities of the time. The last time America reached a proportion of foreign-born residents close to the current percentage, a political reaction set in and major curtailments were instituted. As recently as the 1970s, that number was half what it is today.
Rothman touts “the liberal capitalist order hammered out after the Second World War” as some kind of civic nirvana. It was in fact the right outcome to emerge after the profound global havoc wreaked by war and depression during the period of 1914 to 1945 and in the face of the Soviet threat to the West. But that doesn’t mean the FDR era necessarily should extend into the future forever. It’s now approaching its 75th year, and dissolving under the strain of profound change.
Further, it is simply historical sophistry to suggest that lopsided economic relationships with predatory trading partners represent the essence of America’s economic identity. Rothman needs to read up on the persistent tension between free trade sentiments and protectionist sensibilities seen in various degrees of intensity throughout the American experience, including as recently as the 1980s when “free trader” Ronald Reagan imposed 100 percent tariffs on Japanese electronics and lesser duties on Japanese motorcycles and Canadian lumber and cedar shingles. He also imposed import quotas on numerous products from numerous nations and drove hard bargains against U.S. trading partners to protect America’s economic interests.
Rothman gives the game away in discussing the forces that have riled up those nettlesome populists. He calls them “relatively new realities.” Just so. And these new realities are changing the face of America, culturally, politically, demographically, economically. We should have a debate about this—whether these changes are good for the country or not. These are definitional and hence emotional issues, and so the debate inevitably will be emotion-laden, even raucous. But it can be respectful, consonant with the Founders’ vision of a country setting its azimuth through the give and take of civic discourse.
Noah Rothman’s aim is to delegitimatize his political adversaries and thus marginalize them. It won’t work. Nothing stirs up the opposition forces quite like the kind of disdainful elitism seen in Rothman’s haughty musings on the “populism problem.” And those populists could turn out to be far more formidable than the losers of Rothman’s self-serving imagination.
Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, D.C. journalist and publishing executive, is editor of The American Conservative. His latest book, President McKinley: Architect of the American Century, was released in September.