There is always an inherent danger in embracing a populist candidate for any office. Inclined to grandiose rhetoric and unfulfillable promises, populist candidates feed off the fears, hopes and frustrations of the general population. Calculating populist politicians can weave rhetoric that touches generally on topics and caters to the room that they are addressing, usually without saying anything that can pin their ears back at a later date. The danger in being mesmerized by the populist political creature is that, in the end, you find yourself among the many, stampeding over the lemming-cliff’s edge, wondering how this could have happened.
By definition, Populism is:
“…a doctrine that appeals to the interests and conceptions (such as hopes and fears) of the general population, especially when contrasting any new collective consciousness push against the prevailing status quo interests of any predominant political sector.”
Populist movements have taken root to become the prevailing political sentiment in Canada, Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Norway, among other nations, all of which lend themselves to a Liberal bent: large controlling government, high taxes, socialized medicine, etc. In the United States, there even existed a short-lived (1891-1908) political party, The People’s Party (a red-flag right there) that historians agree was “on the Left-wing of politics.” Interestingly, this period in American history coincides with the rise and reign of the first wave of Progressivism in Federal Government.
People who have been manipulated by the allure of Populism have also facilitated some horrific governments and historical events, including Nazism. According to Peter Fritzsche, professor of history at the University of Illinois and author of Life and Death in the Third Reich:
“The Nazis expressed the populist yearnings of middle-class constituents and at the same time advocated a strong and resolutely anti-Marxist mobilization…Against ‘unnaturally’ divisive parties and querulous organized interest groups, National Socialists cast themselves as representatives of the commonwealth, of an allegedly betrayed and neglected German public…Breaking social barriers of status and caste, and celebrating at least rhetorically the populist ideal of the people’s community…”
Populists who have become President of the United States include Woodrow Wilson, William Taft, Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson (although not actually elected), Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, all of them politicizing the hopes, fears, frustrations and dreams of an American electorate pining for reform of over-reaching government, societal inequity and economic malaise. Yet, under each of these presidents we witnessed massive expansion of government including the passage of the 16th (power to tax), 17th (direct election of Senators), and 18th (prohibition) Amendments.
Additionally, populist-candidates-turned-presidents enacted policies that facilitated massive land grabs and the creation of bureaucratic departments, agencies and entitlements, including the Department of Education (Carter); Social Security (Wilson), Welfare (FDR), Medicaid (Johnson), Medicare (Johnson) and now Obamacare (Obama).
In 2008, the vehicle of populism brought forth an historic event, the first African-American President of the United States. Barack Obama used the populist message of “hope and change” to catapult himself over Democrat sure-thing Hillary Clinton, through the “it’s my turn” Republican candidate John McCain, and into the White House. In true Progressive style, Mr. Obama preyed on the emotions of the American electorate promising a new day and a “fundamental change” to business as usual in Washington DC:
“Tonight, more Americans are out of work and more are working harder for less. More of you have lost your homes and more are watching your home values plummet. More of you have cars you can’t afford to drive, credit card bills you can’t afford to pay and tuition that is beyond your reach…
“…Democrats have a very different measure of what constitutes progress in this country. We measure progress by how many people can find a job that pays the mortgage; whether you can put away a little extra money at the end of each month so that you can someday watch your child receive her diploma…We measure the strength of our economy not by the number of billionaires we have or the profits of the Fortune 500, but by whether someone with a good idea can take a risk and start a business…
“Change means a tax code that doesn’t reward the lobbyists who wrote it, but the American workers and small businesses who deserve it… I will cut taxes for 95 percent of all working families. Because in an economy like this, the last thing we should do is raise taxes on the middle class…
“…[d]on’t tell me that Democrats won’t defend this country. Don’t tell me that Democrats won’t keep us safe…As commander in chief, I will never hesitate to defend this nation, but I will only send our troops into harm’s way with a clear mission and a sacred commitment to give them the equipment they need in battle and the care and benefits they deserve when they come home…
“And I will restore our moral standing so that America is once more the last, best hope for all who are called to the cause of freedom, who long for lives of peace, and who yearn for a better future.”
Well, today, after the rhetoric of populism delivered this man to the Oval Office for not one term, but two:
- Unemployment is high and the Labor Participation Rate is at a Depression Era low;
- Over the past 8 years insane numbers of people have lost their homes to foreclosure;
- The jobs that are created facilitate under-employment and a lesser standard of living;
- Tuitions are at an all-time high;
- Small businesses are not only harder to start but are preyed upon by bureaucratic Federal Government agencies;
- The one-percenters have gotten richer while the Middle Class is disappearing;
- The cost of living is high;
- Tax reform (as well as all entitlement reforms) has again fallen by the wayside;
- Obamacare, deemed a tax by the US Supreme Court, was levied against the populace;
- Race relations are at the lowest point since the Civil Rights Movement;
- Our military is understaffed, underfunded, under-appreciated by our government and stretched thin;
- The Veterans Administration is failing our warriors;
- And, our leadership on the world stage is non-existent.
Today, the byproduct of the American electorate embracing a populist candidate to affect a “historic presidency”; of choosing a purveyor of grandiose rhetoric and unbelievable promises under the guise of “hope and change,” finds us worse off in every way for having done so. We suffer this reality for not having the strength of conviction to dig deep, through the rhetoric and ginned-up emotion – through the “big mo” political wave, to truly examine politics, policy, agenda, ideology and persona.
And yet, a large portion of our electorate stands ready to repeat the same mistake, existing mesmerized by the rhetorical magic of populism’s flavor of the decade:
“Sadly the American dream is dead. But if I get elected president, I will bring it back bigger and better and stronger than ever before, and we will make America great again.”
They embrace the rhetoric that at the same time demonizes the Washington establishment and commits to compromising with them:
“You know what? There’s a point at which: Let’s get to be a little establishment…We’ve got to get things done folks, okay? Believe me, don’t worry. We’re going to make such great deals.”
They defend and promote a man who in his own book, Trump: The Art of the Deal, admits to manipulating people to get what he wants:
“The final key to the way I promote is bravado. I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts.”
Honestly, I am surprised it took as long as it did for the stiff-necked editors at National Review to take a stand on this. To their credit, they did force “The Donald” to admit he is not a Conservative candidate but a Populist candidate. It’s rare to see Trump tricked into the outside turn.
And I say this knowing that the “Trumpettes” will foam at the mouth with the veracity of a scorned Ron Paul supporter circa 2008, but populist candidates – we have established – have always under-delivered on their grandiose promises, facilitated an expansion of the federal government, and otherwise turned out to be less of what they promised and more of what we voted against.
I don’t want to hear that Mr. Trump is going to “make such great deals,” I want to know what the deals are going to be and exactly how he is going to go about achieving them. Generalizations – as we have established – both in stump rhetoric and policy (and his policy papers have so many generalizations in them one would have thought Reid and Pelosi crafted them) – should send up a red-flag for everyone.
Yet I continue to read comments like this: “I could not care less about any title or moniker given…No other candidate has the Ability and Will to carry out what must be done to save America. The attempt to smear Trump only strengthens my resolve.”
And we sang, “…We won’t get fooled again…” Look! Squirrel!!