Every time I listen to Sean Hannity or some other Trump-enthusiast stressing the “mission” for which our president was elected, I hear flattering references to “the people.” Mind you, I’m not against populist tropes being used to execute an end-run around the likes of Hillary Clinton or Nancy Pelosi. Moreover, I’ve never pretended to be a “Never-Trump” establishment Republican. My endorsement of Trump during last year’s presidential campaign is too much a matter of record to be credibly denied. But the endless appeals to “the people” have begun to wear on me.
Trump’s core constituency covers about 39 percent of prospective voters; and this raises certain questions about whether this percentage is coextensive with the entire “people.” Do the 4 out of 10 college students who would silence “hate speech” (that is speech from the Right) belong to “the people”? Do the 60 percent of those polled in a recent CNN survey who disapprove of Trump’s criticism of NFL players who took to their knees during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner, belong to this mystical whole known as “the people”? What about the more than 60 million individuals who gave their votes to Clinton in our most recent presidential election? Do these voters belong to “the people”? If not, why not?
I’m asking these questions because I’d like to know how 39 percent of the voting public can become all of “the people.” I asked myself a similar question as I read The Revolt of the Elites by Christopher Lasch—a work that tries to dissociate “the people” from the vile, transnational “overclass” that Lasch blames for the decline of the family and a traditional sense of community. Lasch studiously ignores a major reason that the entertainers, authors, and other celebrities whom he deprecates have done so remarkably well. It’s because “the people” adore them and their cultural products and have made them what they are. Without Lasch’s “people,” the overclass that he despises would not be prospering.
Non-leftist populists have certain groups in mind when they use their conjuring term, just as Democrats do when they refer to grievance-bearing lifestyle and racial minorities as “the people.” Lasch, a defender of settled communities, typically holds up as his paradigm a mid-twentieth century working-class family, featuring very traditional gender roles. Lasch’s ideal mommy packs a lunch pail for his ideal blue-collar dad, who goes off to work in a factory. This is also the image of the populist family that comes to mind when Pat Buchanan tells us about the declining rustbelt and about all of the jobs that have fled from our blue-collar communities to Third World countries. Unlike Buchanan—who is linked to the Old Right—Lasch was considered to be a part of the socialist Left during his lifetime. And yet, the two figures are rhetorically and often programmatically indistinguishable. Both would now exemplify a populism of the Right, combining demands for the protection of the indigenous workforce with fond images of a disappearing America. Since I can easily identify with these images, I am noting this regretfully.
By contrast, most of those who I hear celebrating Trumpian populism—like Sean Hannity and Newt Gingrich on Fox News—are not about to restore “the people” as they used to be, or at least how they were perceived to be. After all, cohesive societies with traditional gender and family roles that right-wing populists once took for granted are now much weaker than they once were. The last thing that our would-be populists would want to do is face the rage of LGBT and feminist activists on the social Left, and the unavoidable media outrage. Our self-advertised populists do not therefore attempt to take us back to mid-twentieth century communities, lest they be accused of praising the bad old times. In any case, Trumpian populists have different priorities. For example, Hannity and other pundits on Fox News want to mobilize their viewers against the Democrats and in favor of Republican political candidates. Although they occasionally criticize the GOP for not being up to speed, they then go on to hammer the Democrats for not caring about “the people.” We are urged to help “our president” fulfill the people’s will by voting for Republicans at every level.
Reading Breitbart, one gets the impression that their staff’s understanding of populism is simply to support Trump at every turn, except when Steve Bannon decides to break ranks (such as on DACA). Other Trumpian populist websites, such as American Greatness and a more recent arrival, American Affairs, often look like what one might expect to find on other websites bearing a conservative label. Both feature conventional neoconservative names on their mastheads, but they also showcase representatives of a West Coast movement descended derivatively from the German political theorist Leo Strauss.
These would-be populists were disciples of Strauss’s student, the late Harry Jaffa, or in some cases of Jaffa’s student Charles Kesler at Claremont University, and are promoting their trademark views about the United States as a propositional nation founded on natural rights theory. Jaffa combined his view of America’s founding with obligatory worship of certain democratic statesmen and heroes, including Lincoln, Churchill, and Martin Luther King Jr. For more than 50 years, “West Coast Straussians” have been feuding with more mainstream Straussians, who are centered mostly in Chicago or else on the East Coast. Not surprisingly, this second group of sectarians has come to be known as “East Coast Straussians.”
Since the latter are closely tied to Bill Kristol and became almost uniformly Never-Trumpers, their rivals predictably jumped onto the Trump-train. They thereupon set up websites that imbued populist rhetoric. This, of course, is something that neither Kristol nor his East Coast Straussian friends—who seem ecstatically happy with Washington and the Deep State—would ever attempt. To their credit, West Coast Straussian websites often post commentaries on legal and judicial matters that elicit my total agreement. I would be delighted if these websites simply stated some of their signature positions, such as criticizing judicial activism, without claiming to represent an entity called “the people.”
All that seems left of populism, a movement that arose in late 19th century America among rural and small-town populations, are a political style and distrust of elites. Unlike those who today appropriate this identity, American populists historically desired to return all domestic politics to the states and to create public utilities. Needless to say, I’m not hearing today’s so-called populists calling for either. It is entirely possible to criticize the centralized administrative state, crony capitalism, and the coercive imposition of Political Correctness without claiming (anachronistically) to be a populist. And one can and should engage in such criticism without pretending counterfactually to be speaking for “the people.”
Paul Gottfried is Raffensperger Professor of Humanities Emeritus at Elizabethtown College, where he taught for twenty-five years. He is a Guggenheim recipient and a Yale PhD. He writes for many websites and scholarly journals and is the author of thirteen books, most recently Fascism: Career of a Concept and Revisions and Dissents. His books have been translated into multiple languages and seem to enjoy special success in Eastern Europe.