The Washington Post


A populist case against America's latest demagogue.

When I was a teacher, I taught at an alternative school that served students with behavior issues and lives that were hard enough to seriously affect their performance.  The school had a strong minority ethnic identity. As a white teacher, I often found myself excusing my students’ rule-breaking and violations of uniform policy. It was my principal, a strong man with the same ethnic makeup as most of my students, who called me on it. He consistently reminded me that my students’ disadvantages did not excuse them from exercising their human capacity to reason and they needed to be held accountable for their decisions. For him, all students were capable of reason and intelligence. To operate as though they were not was to abdicate from the mission of the school and my duty as a teacher. Mercy was second chances, not unaddressed problems.

I have thought of this experience many times while regarding Donald Trump’s rise to power in the Republican Party. The man is almost certainly going to be the GOP nominee. If you’re not a conservative, then you probably are laughing at all of this (and I wouldn’t blame you.) But if you are then you are probably pretty depressed by the news cycle. Conservatism is against Trump, but this is a teaching moment, and here I want to set down some thoughts on what the right lessons are.

If you read any conservative publications that are anti-Trump, a common narrative emerges. Trump is an airheaded ghoul deserving of ridicule. But his supporters are honest, downtrodden people worthy of sympathy. The career politicians and “establishments” of both parties have turned their back on them. They are economically disadvantaged in a rapidly transforming economy, immigrants are taking their jobs, they are told that they are privileged and not to assert any sort of group or religious solidarity. Because of these factors, the claim is made that, fraud though he is, Donald Trump’s supporters have nobody to turn to but Donald Trump. I find this an incredible story, as disrespectful of people’s intelligence as my own tendency to excuse lapses in my student’s judgment. The people that are supporting this demagogue ought to at least be held responsible for their decision just as my students needed to be held responsible for their decisions.

Fishtown Revisited

I ought to be clear, I think the analysis that explains the rise of Donald Trump as the backlash to the fecklessness, condescension, and insularity of the Republican party leadership is broadly convincing. I just don’t think it lets his voters off the hook for supporting an awful, dangerous demagogue. These critics of the Republican Party want a new kind of conservative movement, one that takes the concerns and culture of Fishtown more seriously than the easy company of Belmont. I get it. I hope for this also. But I wish there was a countervailing respect for their intellect, and a reticence to propose to sate their every desire.

I’m not one of those people who thinks Charles Murray is a eugenicist. I think Coming Apart might be the most important work of cultural criticism in the last ten years. He does not think people who lack the benefits of intelligence are subhuman, but I do think taking his analysis into the realm of soothsaying punditry leads to a kind of enlightened pessimism toward the capabilities of the masses. That Murray accurately describes the cultural conditions of Trumpian populism is clear. It’s when we take it to mean that they can do nothing else but support a man like Donald Trump that we start to get into a defeatist state of mind in which the principles of conservatism have no purchase.

I grew up in Fishtown. Celeste Texas (pop. 827) is a good seventy miles from the city of Dallas and off the radar by any definition. It used to be a railroad stop boom town, but has since fallen on hard times since the soil had dried up. My friends back home are supposed to be Trump’s demographic. But none of them so far as I know have bowed to the demagogue, and I was heartened to see that he had been whipped handily in the Lone Star State. Again, my mind returns to my school days. Sitting in class with the next generation of the “poor white working class” the pundits like to call them, I remember having some of the most intellectually invigorating discussions of my life surrounding a reading of The Grapes of Wrath. That my fellow students had come from broken marriages and were, if not abjectly poor, then definitely on the low end of economic spectrum, did not matter. We had gathered to read a book and, under the guidance of our teacher, got to the bottom of it. To suggest that cognition has up and left Fishtown for Belmont is wrong. I can’t think of anyone I know back home who has not the ability to divine that Donald Trump is a valueless clown.

Emotion in Politics

Then what is going on in Fishtown, USA? What, if not the vacation of the cognitive elite to the superzips of Belmont, explains the rise of a man not so far off from President Camacho?

The most fruitful thing to come out of Trump’s candidacy (besides igniting rightful ridicule of pronouncing “huge” as “yuje”) is a reminder to the country of how potent the power of emotion can be in politics. We are used to thinking of emotional appeals as garnishing, exaggerating, or enhancing a candidate’s stated position. The appeal may be purposefully duplicitous and disingenuous but it at least points to a rational stance on a given issue. In Obama’s case, characterizing Mitt Romney’s moderate position on abortion and insured contraception as a “War on Women” in 2012 was laughable slander that nonetheless successfully served to punctuate his permissive stance on abortion and support for subsidized contraception. But Trump uses emotion so that he does not have to declare himself on any position at all. Trump is not, as some have put it, a master communicator or debater. He is not even very witty (unless one regards the sorts of retorts that eight-year-olds devise when they snap back at their parents as clever.) But he is a master at whipping up and channeling emotion.

The moment I realized this was when Trump backed out of the FOX News debate in Iowa. This was regarded by political commentators as a bad move, but far from hurting his chances, I think it bolstered his performance in successive states. That he held a fundraiser across the street for veterans was not particularly smart, (that was surely the suggestion of a junior campaign staffer) it was what he said when he walked out on stage. He did not do the expected thing: putting on a tough front and saying “ah to hell with those guys, let’s party!” Instead he said (paraphrasing) “I really did not want to be here tonight. I wish I could be across the street right now in the debate. But they have not been nice to me and sometimes you need to stand up for yourself.” Instead of conveying strength or even playing the good host at his event, Trump chose to sulk. Petulance is really just a particularly unpleasant form of tenderness, and this has made Trump appealing to his supporters, who imagine themselves too as an unfairly treated class. Trump brings the feels.

And so, in a way, the anti-Trump conservatives at The Federalist, National Review, and The Week are actually touching on something very true when they talk of Trump’s followers as delicate flowers, offended and ridiculed by the “establishments” in both parties. That is precisely how the Trump campaign has treated them, and their leader, far from a “deal maker” or a “strong man” is the tenderest of them all. The Trump machine runs on resentment, and pity only adds fuel to the fire.

There is good political precedent for this. It’s not too far off from Maximilien Robespierre’s mastery of the National Assembly in the French Revolution. The man’s denunciations whipped crowds of people into a froth that had them cheering the hundreds of executions a day. The Terror in the French Revolution is shallowly thought of as a people’s revenge on those better off than they. But the weird thing is that several of the politicians executed were ardent supporters of everything the people wanted: redistribution of grain, price-fixing on bread, the overthrow of nobility and rule by the people. This did not cause the people to scream any less shrilly for their heads. This is because men like Robespierre could sense emotional currents and inflame them through speeches. It would be odd to compare Trump’s blathering diction with a Robespierre’s legendary pen, but in a way, their speech fit their peoples’ mood like a glove.

What I object to most about Trump’s emotional appeal is that it does not ask anybody to improve themselves or inspire them make use of their own powers. It approves of the big box semi-rural ghettoes and trailer parks they inhabit as normal and everyone else as “stupid.” Nobody needs to think that the plight of the white working class was self-created to see that validating the cultural desiccation that comes from life in poverty doesn’t help anybody one bit. Back home, it was very difficult for small businesses to start because an attitude prevailed among certain sour members of the community that did not want to see the town improve. They did not want to see any new infrastructure or community spirit, or local jobs created for their children if it meant they would have to pay higher taxes. I think Trump’s coalition is probably full of this section of a million communities around the nation. The message that you’re fine and everyone else is the problem appeals to these sorts of folks, because it justifies bitterness, says you don’t need to get your act together or cut your floor length mustache, that you don’t need to look your kid in the eye and think about their future and what you’re going to do to make it better. Instead, Trump says, you can indulge in your fury and imagine that you are a movement.

Populism vs. Trumpism

Populism is given a bad name by Trump’s shenanigans. We’re back to seeing the word used completely pejoratively. But populism does not have to be stupid. Border security, the decline of the manufacturing jobs, who loses in the trade war, these are all important concerns that need new light shed on them from a blue-collar perspective. But being stupid about them only serves to make them even more marginal. Charles Postel’s book The Populist Vision about the agrarian populists of the late 19th Century (also a time riven by technological and social change) describes a movement, not of backward benighted hicks, but people willing to think differently and creatively, willing to organize and seek out modern solutions to modern problems. The idea that populism always represents anti-intellectualism is wrong. With the internet, it is all the easier to be connected to perspectives of enlightened populism. Here is a short list of books that should be the source texts for a better populism than Trumpism.

  • Coming Apart by Charles Murray
  • The Revolt of the Elites by Christopher Lasch
  • The Coming Draft by Philip Gold
  • Grand New Party by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam

Constitution and Constitutionalism

A Kenyan writer whom I had the good fortune to meet told me a very interesting thing: “In Africa, we have constitutions, but we do not have constitutionalism.” He meant that any people can draw up a constitution, but people have to agree to respect it. America’s success in maintaining ordered liberty and a fruitful democracy has not been its constitution, but its wellspring of constitutionalism: the reverence and respect for our constitution and our desire to live by it and uphold it. In Africa, as my Kenyan friend pointed out, constitutions exist, but strong men will not let go of power and all too often, people are willing to let them keep it so long as things are going well. I remember well when I was living in Malawi during college, Barack Obama was elected president of the United States. While my friends and neighbors were rightfully happy to see a black man elected to the highest office in the West, the thing I heard most chatter about that day was John McCain’s gracious acceptance speech. For them, a powerful man letting go of power was more commendable than an underdog gaining it.

I bring this up to point out the contingency of American respect for our founding document. Constitutionalism is a mood, not something you can vote for and sign into law. Popular emotion can either enhance or destroy constitutionalism, and the storm whipped up by Trump’s campaign threatens to take it apart. Not that the Democrats have not done their fair share of that–Obama’s executive orders come to mind as a fitting precedent to a man who thinks that becoming President entitles to wave his hand and call whatever he wants into being–but Trump’s unseriousness, his irreverence, and above all that his power has been won by personality, not learning, experience, or hard lessons, pose a greater threat to our constitutional order than another eight years of Democratic rule.

Upholding constitutionalism is conservatism’s essence and its own worst enemy. It is one thing to believe in constitutional authority, it is another to make it your message, because that message always requires a certain measure of restraint. It ends up telling people that, in order to be free, they can rely on no one but themselves and their local community’s ability to set up the institutions of governance and welfare needed to live a good and ordered life. It tells them that if things are bad, they need to improve themselves first, and then worry about whether the deck is stacked against them. This will always be a hard message because it requires that people do hard things and take responsibility.

As an aside, I find it more than a little unsettling that conservatives are more often willing to preach this message to inner city minority communities than to their own people when they have moved in large numbers to uplift a man at least as unqualified for high office as Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson. The message that you ought to put your energy into mediating institutions like churches, families, small businesses, and local politics is hollow unless you can tell it to your own, and right now, I don’t see enough Republicans willing to say that to the poor working class whites that are supporting Trump. I’m glad to see that Ben Sasse is willing to, I’m glad to see Ben Domenech is willing to. I know my friends back home would be too.

I tend to vote for the candidate and party that I believe will slow down the (rather inevitable) entropy of constitutionalism in our country the most. For that reason, I was quite looking forward to voting against Clinton in this election. But now I will not get to. I am planning to vote for a third party candidate. Unless of course the general election appears to be a dead heat and then I will have to hold my nose and vote for She-Who-Is-Not-Trump in order to help defeat him. At the end of the day, I lay this travesty at no one else’s door but the people voting for Trump. They are capable of knowing better. They ought to know better. I still hold out hope that they will know better. Like my students, we can’t give up on them. We can’t treat them like they can’t be expected to know any better. Letting them get away with it is pandering, and it doesn’t do anybody a lick of good. I want better for my people.

Friends and neighbors, hoist your hashtags.


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