Where National Populism Came From
Was Donald Trump’s election an aberration? If the fervor of NeverTrumpers and neoliberal Democrats this election season is any indication, many on both the Right and Left are determined to make it so. The president’s often-erratic behavior is certainly a departure from precedent. But the vitriol with which Trump’s establishment critics treat both the man and his movement suggests the divide is deeper than outrage over imprudent outbursts and strange capitalization on Twitter. There really is a growing, fundamental divide on a set of core issues between global elites and the people in the places they’ve left behind—one that transcends Trump himself. And it’s doubtful that divide is going away, regardless of which septuagenarian wins in November.
At least, that’s how Ryan Girdusky and Harlan Hill tell it. For them, Trump is no aberration—he’s but one example of a global backlash against the neoliberalism that has dominated Western politics in recent decades. The two up-and-coming writers’ debut book, They’re Not Listening: How the Elites Created the Nationalist Populist Revolution, is a sweeping, ambitious work, touching on everything from Brexit, Chilean immigration policy, the Swedish Democrats party, Benghazi, and more. In doing so, Girdusky and Hill make a convincing case that the governance of global elites has become increasingly divorced from the nations and peoples they purportedly serve. Their book is an important contribution to the search for a new politics that looks beyond the lockstep neoliberalism and neoconservatism that have proven so disastrous across the globe.
The issues driving national populism are familiar to long-time readers of this magazine: trade, immigration, and foreign policy. Girdusky and Hill don’t hold back in their critique of the American foreign policy establishment, castigating America’s regime change wars and the entrenched interests that perpetuated them. It’s here that the populist narrative is strongest: “After nearly a quarter century of the American people electing presidents who campaigned against nation-building and war,” they write, “the United States had commitments to defend more than sixty countries in case of an invasion and had hundreds of military bases around the globe.” America’s decades-long crusade to remake the world in its image can hardly be called the will of the people.
Elites have shown a similar disregard for voters on economics. While the ruling class across the political spectrum embraced globalism, free trade, and laissez-faire economics, national populists found themselves more concerned with creating an economy that supported work, family, and country. As a result, they’re “supportive of protecting industries like manufacturing,…support a welfare state that helps young families and seniors, and are skeptical of free trade and globalism.” Renewed opposition to NAFTA and to China’s admittance into the WTO proves populist forebears like Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader prescient.
Almost half of They’re Not Listening is devoted to one issue: immigration. This is no accident; as Girdusky and Hill write, “immigration is the single biggest motivating factor leading to the nationalist populist revolution across the world.” Importantly, anxiety over mass immigration—both legal and illegal—is not limited to Western Europe and the United States. Girdusky and Hill present powerful case studies of successful immigration law from around the globe, “From the Congolese living illegally in Angola, to the Bangladeshis living without documents in India, to the Mexican population in the United States.” Clearly, the immigration-restriction-as-racism trope of the progressive Left is rooted in naivety at best, bad faith at worst.
Immigration has become the most salient political issue in the 21st century because it speaks to human realities that neoliberalism woefully neglects. Hill and Girdusky cite Robert Cardinal Sarah, the Guinean prelate of the Catholic Church, who has argued that the borders of homelands and cultures are natural and must be protected. Man is not an interchangeable economic cog, but rather exists within specific social and cultural conditions that provide him with dignity and meaning. This recognition of the social nature of man, and the need to reaffirm it through the political regime, echoes the unease with which some in the nascent conservative intellectual movement treated Enlightenment contract theory and rights-based liberalism in decades past.
So is national populism a conservative program? And is it the future of the Right? One of the more interesting insights of They’re Not Listening is Girdusky and Hill’s claim that the national populist agenda is neither traditionally right-wing nor left-wing. In one sense, this is obviously true: it similarly chafes at the economic commitments of the libertarian Right and the social commitments of the progressive Left. That it is lazily derided as “far-right” by mainstream media is in itself a validation of the national populist thesis; the elites who dominate media are, well, not listening to the content of the national populist revolt.
But there’s another sense in which national populism is an insufficiently conservative program. For all that national populism gets right in moving politics away from the idealistic utopianism of neoliberalism, its imperfections linger.
A clear example of the populist-conservative split lies in Girdusky and Hill’s lament over the lack of the working class in elite politics and media. “[The working class] make up roughly the same percentage of the population as women,” they write, “Yet when it comes to politics, the working class is even more underrepresented than all religious, race, or gender groups who get national attention.” A prior generation of conservatives would find this to be a self-evident, innocuous observation: of course the working class is not represented in the political class. They serve different roles within the same polity.
On a deeper level, though, the narrative implies the same prior assumption that guides progressives’ poisonous identity politics: one’s immutable characteristics, whether race, gender, age, or class, are determinant of one’s values, interests, and thought. Joe Biden was rightly ridiculed for pledging to choose a “woman of color” as his running mate; the assumption that a demographic’s interests (insofar as they’re monolithic, which, of course, they’re not) could only be represented by one of its own is as absurd as it is offensive. But populism too often commits the same fallacy, abjuring the possibility that those from “elite” backgrounds could adequately protect and pursue the interests of the working class. Instead of seeking to rekindle a healthy sense of aristocratic duty towards fellow countrymen among those in power, it fans the flames of class resentment.
Similarly, the “nationalist” component of national populism presents challenges for the American conservative. Interestingly, Girdusky and Hill criticize “politicians in Brussels [who] hoped to transform the EU into something that resembled the United States, where a central state with a large bureaucracy would govern across all formally independent nations.” Surely, Girdusky and Hill do not intend to imply that the federal government in Washington is the same as the supranational government in Brussels. And there are certainly important cultural and historical differences between the nations of Europe and the former British colonies in North America. But the comparison begs the question of where one’s political loyalties should lie: the grandiose abstraction of the (supra?)nation, or the concrete experience of the familial, familiar, and local? It’s an especially uncomfortable question in the American context.
Conservative unease with nationalism and populism is nothing new. Russell Kirk, ever the critic of populism, was resolute in his defense of class divisions in politics. “Leadership by men of ability, birth, and wealth is one of the most natural, and most beneficial aspects of civilized life,” he wrote in The Conservative Mind. But, importantly, Kirk also stressed the correspondent duties of those men of ability: “One of the duties of a statesman is to employ the abilities of the natural aristocracy in the service of the commonwealth” (emphasis added). Our contemporary globalist aristocracy seems utterly uninterested in that latter part. Maybe that’s why Kirk would hold sympathy towards nearly all of the national populist positions laid out by Girdusky and Hill.
Perhaps, then, the answer lies further back in classical thought, with Aristotle: virtue lies in the mean. Not a mean between the Girdusky-Hill critique and its object; the neoliberal project has been thoroughly repudiated. It is failing, whether its devotees realize it or not.
Instead, national populism needs to be tempered by the best of the classical, conservative, and Christian tradition. The national populist revolution represents a necessary and overdue corrective to the decades of globalist neoliberalism that have plagued Western politics. It moves the political paradigm back towards the realm of limits, solidarity, community, and place. But without the tempering forces of virtue, it may over-swing into the more troubling territory of naked tribalism. In other words, the national populists need the social conservatives.
Girdusky and Hill, two political consultants, conclude They’re Not Listening on a strikingly apolitical note, echoing shades of Rod Dreher’s “apolitical politics” in The Benedict Option: “If national populists really believe that nations are families rather than the neoliberal premise that they’re marketplaces, then they’re going to have to start acting like it,” they write, “They’re going to have to create physical communities centered around local institutions, faith-based organizations and small businesses.” There’s an irony here: Physical communities are necessarily rooted in a specific, local place, and organizations and businesses develop inherent hierarchies—or, one might say, aristocracies. So perhaps herein lies the synthesis: a national populism, lived out with a healthy respect for the local and the aristocratic.