According to the press in 2016, a populist wave spread through the world and led to a dramatic year in which Britain voted for Brexit and Donald Trump was elected across the pond. Some wondered whether this was just the beginning, and others sang dirges for the ostensibly upended liberal democratic order. The pundits were partially right as more followed, but it wasn’t entirely a chain reaction.
Between then and now, Marine Le Pen advanced to the runoff in the French presidential election, a far-right party entered the German Bundestag for the first time since 1945, the Five Star Movement became the largest political party in Italy, and Les Gilets Jaunes have gained prominence in France. Sure, we could do a whole new version of ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ on it, but let’s leave that to the lyricists.
Whatever the definition may be, populism is entwined with politics, as history has shown us. It involves a disrelish for the ruling class, with the objective of ‘taking back control’ from the elite. The classical world had its fair share of ‘populists’ like Julius Caesar or Tiberius. Meanwhile, there’s no shortage of self-proclaimed populists in the modern world.
Columnists have drawn comparisons between political vicissitudes in Europe and America. Both sides of the Atlantic have witnessed increasing polarization and a souring of public discourse. The transatlantic populists employ a similar, pugnacious rhetoric to shore up support. The demagoguery ranges from a hatred for the status quo to the decadence of a once great nation. Some kind of opposition to immigration is seemingly a trademark of this movement. With that, similarities are sure to reverberate. Yet, equating the two brands is an egregious mistake, as they are fundamentally different.
Despite Monsieur Macron’s bromidic placations, European populism is convoluted with romantic nationalism, a nation for le citoyen or die volk, which is in sync with various political revolutions peculiar to the continent. Although there’s some opposition to high taxes on the middle class, European populists oppose the growth of businesses and champion a stentorian role for the welfare state, not to mention a fixation with ‘free’ healthcare.
On the other hand, the fons et origo of American populism is in the ideals of the American Revolution itself, rooted in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Thus, American populism is nothing more than a campaign for liberty. This is albescent through the calls for limited government and an endorsement for pro-growth economic policies paired with lower taxes.
Nationalism is another conspicuous feature of contemporary populism. While ‘America first’ and European nationalism are habitually synonymized by the press, the contrast between the two is substantial. On immigration, extreme hard-line positions which are only on the fringes in the American populist movement are much more mainstream in its European compeer. The nationalism of the European populists is reminiscent of ‘blood and soil’ chauvinism. American nationalism is alternatively inclusive in nature, based on the sole doctrine that “All men are created equal.” Not all Americans or all citizens, but all men.
American populism is also inextricably linked to conservatism. Edmund Burke—whose defence of America and vociferous critique of France gave birth to conservatism as a political philosophy—spoke about the importance of preserving the property-owning classes who would act as a bulwark against tyranny of the state and Jacobin-style popular revolt. William F. Buckley Jr., the doyen of the modern conservative movement in America, has often been quoted as saying that he’d “rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than by the 2,000 people on the faculty of Harvard University.” These expressions resonate with the ideological foundation of American populism.
Many conservatives are displeased with the current state of populism in America, as its current poster boy is none other than President Trump. Coupled with the machinations of the mainstream media, American populism has really become all about Trump. Conservatives should thus respond to this challenge by openly embracing populism and reform it, rather than disassociating with the cognomen by reminding the populist movement of its fountainhead, which lies in the case for limited government. This approach is far better than letting the populist ideology become corrupted and fall prey to the insurrection-style instincts which have plagued the movement in Europe.
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.