I. Rush Limbaugh Takes Note of Washington’s Dirty Words
As he often does, Rush Limbaugh said something important on his January 21 show: he observed that nationalism and populism were overtaking conservatism, and that the conservative elite did not like that at all, not one little bit. As Limbaugh put it, “What’s happening here, nationalism, dirty word, ooh, people hate it, populism, even dirtier word. Nationalism and populism have overtaken conservatism in terms of appeal.
Then the radio host continued, offering an explanation as to why many elite conservatives feel threatened, stating, “And when this has happened … it exposes … all this money [that is, conservative fundraisers] asked people to send . . . and all these donations people have made.”
In other words, the rise of nationalism and populism exposes top conservatives as hollow; they’ve been collecting money from the faithful, and yet the the bulk of the flock has been drifting away from the Church of the Right Wing.
So let’s take a closer look at those two words, nationalism and populism, and explore what’s in them that leaders of the conservative movement dislike so much. And then, let’s look at how this loathing extends well beyond conservatives. Indeed, as we consider that haute conservatives and haute liberals share a common view on key ideas, we might then view that commonality as a window through which to see just how much the one-percenters in both parties have in common. Yes, the big boys are in it together—and how.
Let’s start with nationalism:
The most obvious point about nationalism is that it is another word for patriotism. And nations need patriotic glue to stick together—or else.
Just as the body needs both a skin and a skeleton, so the body politic needs both a defensible border and a stable structure of law.
Nationalism? Do I really mean to praise nationalism? Yes.
Of course, it’s easy to blame nationalism for any number of terrible wars—and yet the fact is, people were killing and enslaving each other long before there were nations.
So if nationalism is a killer, we must add prior people-killers to our list as well: banditry, religious zealotry, and general criminality.
And while most people, throughout history, have probably been peaceful enough, it takes only a few marauders to convince a people that they need a castle, or a wall around their city, or an army for their collective defense. Enter the nation state. Just about every country in the world has faced a mortal threat to its existence in every century of its existence—and for some unlucky places, such as Belgium or Poland, the mortal threats have come even more frequently. The old wisdom, “If you want peace, prepare for war,” has been proven and re-proven in the annals of human existence. And the best entity with which to prepare for war is the nation-state. And nation-states flourish only because of nationalism and patriotism; that is, if need be, the citizenry must stand ready to fight for their country.
So nationalism as an idea shouldn’t have to defend itself. And yet, as Limbaugh observed, nationalism is unloved by the elites.
Albert Einstein once declared, “Nationalism is the measles of mankind.” That is, it’s a disease, associated with immaturity, that hopefully we will one day grow out of—and never catch again.
Okay, that was Einstein’s opinion, but it’s interesting that Einstein made his comment when he was living in the United States, the country that gave him refuge from Nazi Germany; he applied for U.S. citizenship in 1936. It was a good thing for the great physicist that America was generous enough to give him harbor and strong enough to protect that harbor against Hitler.
Moreover, it’s also interesting that even as Einstein criticized nationalism, he practiced it. In 1939, while living in the U.S., Einstein was instrumental in guiding our nation to the building of the atomic bomb, the weapon that ultimately clinched victory in that great war. So Einstein might not have liked nationalism, but he was, when it really mattered, a great patriotic servant to the American people, his people. And as we have seen, nationalism and patriotism are the same thing.
Still, today’s elites noisily disdain nationalism and such gaucheries as “flag waving.” And this is observable not just on the left, where such multi-national institutions as the United Nations and European Union are so beloved, but also on the right.
Yes, nationalism is disdained by many “conservatives”; typically, by those on the urban, affluent wing.
Exhibit A is the The Wall Street Journal editorial page, the big intellectual gun of conservatism for decades, well into the first decade of this century. For years, the Journal editorialized in favor of a constitutional amendment that would abolish the U.S. border.
That’s right. That was their big idea: abolish the U.S. border, and let anyone come in, no questions asked.
On July 3, 1984, the Journal opined, “If Washington still wants to ‘do something’ about immigration, we propose a five-word constitutional amendment: There shall be open borders.” Two years later, Congress passed—and, to his belated regret, President Ronald Reagan signed—the Simpson-Mazzoli Immigration Act, which not only gave amnesty to millions of illegal aliens, but also, despite assurances to the contrary, left the border wide open. So score one for the Journal.
The Journal has grown a little more cautious in the wake of 9/11, but to this day, it staunchly supports “comprehensive immigration reform.”
Other groups, and candidates, too, stick with the open-borders faith. Perhaps the most egregious is the libertarian Cato Institute, which prides itself on its good working relationship with the left-wing American Civil Liberties Union, and yet fellow-travels with conservatives when it suits them; its executive vice president, David Boaz, was among the 22 “conservatives” denouncing Donald Trump in the most recent issue of National Review.
So why does the Elite Right support open borders? One reason is the warm, woozy, feeling of international brotherhood that it confers. In his decades in D,C., this author has met many Beltway intellectuals who openly proclaim that they feel closer to their fellow elitists in other countries—including countries such as China—than they do their fellow Americans.
The second reason the Elite Right supports open borders is that it is good economics for business profit. From low-end farm workers and domestics coming in illegally to relatively high-end IT workers coming in on H-1B visas, somebody is gaining financially from the deal. And those gainers are reliably extolled by the Elite Right.
And for many economists on the right—and virtually all Republican economists are, in fact, libertarians—open borders, and open everything else, has made for a kind of secular religion.
Typical of this species is John Stossel, a hardcore libertarian at the Fox Business Network, who in 2011 wrote an op-ed under the headline, “Why ‘Buy American’ Is a Dumb Idea.” As he put it, dismissing the jobs of some of his fellow citizens, “Interfering with peaceful exchange is never a good idea.”
That’s a statement worth pausing over because Stossel is saying “Buy American” is inherently a bad idea. And then, he added this little bit of economic poetry from the 19th century British free trader Richard Cobden: “Cobden was right when he praised free trade for ‘drawing men together, thrusting aside the antagonism of race, and creed, and language, and uniting us in the bonds of eternal peace.’”
Yes, Cobden really said “eternal peace” through free trade—got that? A look around the world today might make a mockery of such thoughts, but this quote shows us how libertarian economists think, then and now.
So we see the makings of a libertarian trilogy: the free movement of peoples, free trade, and, finally, the free movement of capital—this is how dogmatic free marketeers complete the circle of their felicities.
All business people naturally want the maximum number of buyers for what they sell, and if that means going overseas, then that’s where they will go. And as for what they buy, they naturally want the maximum of sellers willing to help them with what is known in business as “factors of production”—including, of course, labor.
We should say that there is nothing wrong with relentlessly pursuing once’s self-interest. However, if the relentless pursuit of private gain impinges on the well-being of others, especially one’s fellow citizens, then the public sector should step in to adjudicate the harm done.
And so here is where libertarian theory is so important for business profits: the likes of Forbes magazine can always be counted on to cheer for putting the government’s thumb down on the side of the rich. Indeed, now we can start to see how outfits such as the Cato Institute have grown so rich and powerful in recent decades.
But of course, no libertarian economist has ever made a thimbleful of the money made by businessmen who rely on those economists—and others, in an increasingly courtier-like press corps—to justify their every action.
To illustrate, we might consider the career of Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, who, after retiring, went on to write a best-selling book and is, to this day, a steady source of pro-corporate conventional wisdom.
But just how did Welch become a national hero? Why is he still always in the news as a respected sage? One thing’s for sure: he wasn’t nominated for the national pantheon by GE employees.
When Welch took the reins at GE in 1981, the stock price was around a dollar, and the company had about 400,000 employees. Yet, within five years, he had laid off more than a 100,000 of them. Embittered GE-ers called him “Neutron Jack,” after the neutron bomb: That is, it makes the people disappear, but the buildings remain standing. In other words, many GE employees were not Welch fans.
Yet GE shareholders sure loved their Jack. After all, during his 20 years as CEO, he multiplied the stock price by some 4,000 percent.
As a business strategist, Welch was undeniably good at what he did; when he retired in 2001, he took a severance payment of $417 million, then the largest such payment in history.
Today, GE has about 315,000 employees—worldwide. And you know what that means. Moreover, today, can you name a single one of the employees that Welch laid off? Probably nobody can, unless you were one of them. Their stories of broken careers and broken dreams might have been reported at the time, but not since.
Yes, the MSM has been completely complicit in Welch’s ride to the financial stratosphere—in part because GE bought NBC, including NBC News, in 1986, and soon created CNBC. Which is to say, Welch bought and hired his own media fan club. So that’s the way to do it: the Welch Way. And in today’s media environment, nobody will ask you about any corners you might have cut.
Welch is obviously a smart man. So it’s too bad that nobody ever posed this challenge to him: Make GE, and yourself, as wealthy as you can—but only in the context of doing right by your employees, all of them. Still, something tells me that even with those ground rules, GE would have done pretty well under Welch.
An early satiric, but knowing, peek into this world as it is, and into these worldviews, was seen in the 1976 movie Network. In that Oscar-winning film, the populist, and somewhat crazed, TV anchorman Howard Beale becomes a national sensation when he urges his viewers to open their windows and shout, at the top of their lungs, “I’m mad as hell and not going to take it anymore!” In the view of those standing on the commanding heights of the U.S. economy, this populist spiel was fine for a while, because Beale was pulling in strong ratings, and that was good for somebody’s bottom line. But after awhile, the suite view of Beale started to sour. And so we watch as he is called into a majestic corporate chamber and brought to heel. Indeed, an even more messianic corporate fatcat rocks Beale’s world with an ode to the post-nationalist world that capitalism is building. The oration begins:
You are an old man who thinks in terms of nations and peoples. There are no nations! There are no peoples! There are no Russians. There are no Arabs! There are no third worlds! There is no West! There is only one holistic system of systems, one vast and immanent, interwoven, interacting, multi-variate, multi-national dominion of dollars! petro-dollars, electro-dollars, multi-dollars!, Reichmarks, rubles, rin, pounds, and shekels!
Whereupon a humbled Beale recants, on the air.
Yet for all its money and all its hireling propagandists, the corporatist worldview has not swept away all rival views, including patriotism and nationalism. It’s still a rough and tough world out there, full of people who don’t wish to become corporate salarymen—or even shareholders.
Indeed, al-Qaeda, and now ISIS, can be seen as good indicators that many are not on board with the new “holistic system of systems.” And perhaps there’s a bit of appreciation for this challenging geopolitical reality on Park Avenue and Wall Street. In the years since 9-11, even soft-handed corporate execs and investment bankers have sometimes found themselves reliant on hard-handed cops, firemen, and soldiers. It’s a feeling, we might say, that helps explain the success of a film such as American Sniper, and yet it’s not a strong feeling in the upper precincts.
Meanwhile, the grand-globalist ideology continues to show resilience. We can see that in Europe, which has had a sort of anti-nationalist hangover because of Hitler—who was, incidentally, a charismatic con-man and evil criminal, not a true nationalist. And of course, the American elites tend to take their intellectual and cultural cues from Europe, as a way of showing their higher sophistication.
And so even after the shocking failure of the European Union to address the recent immigration crisis, a fresh headline from the Davos Conference, the annual gathering of the grand-globalist tribe, tells of the ever-greater determination of conferees to knit the EU even closer together. And that knitting, of course, comes at the expense of national identity and national sovereignty. the European-unification project, we might note, is an interesting ideological hybrid: The multicultural, post-nationalist left is on board, because, well, dissolving nation-states is what they like best, and yet it’s Corporate Europe, eager to build a continental trade zone—or even multi-continental, including parts of Africa and Asia—that is steadily driving the EU train.
Yet now comes an even greater force to submerge the nation-state—this one from the left: the Greens. Yes, the Greens have long dreamed of displacing mere governments with their environmental rules. And so, with the all-purpose cloak of “climate change,” they have found, they hope, the perfect issue to justify their takeover. Having done their best to terrorize naive populations with their pseudo-science, they convene august international conferences, seeking to impose their carbon dioxide regs on the world economy. Yes, flopping their rules down like a big wet blanket on jobs and job-creators—one big wet blanket for the whole world.
Still, for all their hard work, the globalists have really gained sway only in Europe and North America. Other big countries, including Russia, Japan, China, and India have made it clear to their capitalists that, rich as they are, they are still servants of the state. So yes, the Japanese, Chinese, and Indian moguls are free to get rich—and free to share that wealth with officials in their respective governments—but they are almost never free to run counter to their respective national interests. National interest: that’s a concept we’ll return to in the third part of this series.
As Rush Limbaugh said, if the elites disdain nationalism, to them, populism is an even dirtier word. Populism is hard to define, but it basically speaks to the idea that the majority should rule—a majority that is often angry, rightly or wrongly.
But whatever populism is, the elites don’t like it. Here’s a recent headline from the Financial Times: “Shadow of populism hangs over Davos.” Yes, the Davos Men, and the occasional Davos Women, gathering at the Swiss ski resort, feel threatened by the populism of the American Donald Trump, as well as various populist activists in Europe.
Here at home, without a doubt, populists have plenty to be “mad as hell” about. Here’s a good recent compendium: “Ten Reasons for Election 2016’s Unprecedented Populism.”
Yet even so, the Davosians shouldn’t be too worried about the populists. Why? Because populism, unlike nationalism, has been an effective force only rarely. Oh sure, populists can get good and riled up, but history tells us that they rarely display intellectual and political staying power. Also, the leader of the populists is usually easily co-opted—and sometimes, the populist leader is himself a false-flag operator.
These points are made not to minimize the pain and anger that populists often justifiably feel. Instead, I wish to point out what it is that works best in making change. If The People want real reform, they are better off waving the flag of the nation-state, expressing their demands in let’s-make-our-nation-better language, as opposed just to waving a banner proclaiming their throw-the-bums-out demands. As we have seen, the nation-state has real power—the power, even, to compel moguls and fat cats to do its bidding. And the mob, most of the time, has no such power.
So a big part of the reason that populism fails is that the elites are ready for it: politicians and philosophers have tended to agree with the the Roman historian Tacitus, who observed of the Roman plebeian class in the first century AD, “The rabble knows no mean, and inspires fear, unless they are afraid, though when they have once been overawed, they can be safely despised.” No wonder the Roman Empire devoted so much of its attention to keeping the plebs down.
Seventeen hundred years later, Voltaire, the great French philosophe, offered this supremely cynical take on the populist mentality: “He who dreams that he can lead a great crowd of fools without a great store of knavery is a fool himself.” And, he added, without an iota of optimism, “So long as it endures, the world will continue to be ruled by cajolery, by injustice, and by imposture.”
Yet the bleak and cynical views of Tacitus and Voltaire need not be the final word. A far more optimistic view came from Edmund Burke, the patron saint of traditional conservatism. Burke could see that under the right conditions, with the right leadership, the same people who could form a mob could also form a disciplined, even chivalrous, legion. Burke expounded on this better-angel nature in a 1793 speech to the House of Commons; in that address, he celebrated the best of the manly virtues:
That generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart … the unbought grace of life … the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise … that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honor, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil.
Burke knew what he was talking about. He had seen how, for the previous four years, the English had resisted the bloody populism of the French Revolution. So he knew that if he could articulate the typically unwritten precepts of the English way of life, he could help nurture and sustain them for the next generation. In other words, Burke was thinking, and acting, like a good conservative: he was willing patiently to make mild the people of England, who, not so long before, had been the savage Celts and Picts of Boadicea, the Warrior Queen.
Of course, the only thing better than an unwritten code of conduct is a written code of conduct—assuming that it is respected and enforced.
And that is the genius of the United States Constitution. Mobs that fight each other according to strict rules of engagement are oftentimes better known as “political parties.” Elections can be fiercely fought, but if they are conducted under the conciliatory eye of a guiding document that both sides feel bound to, then power will be handed over peacefully, and the losing side won’t be butchered.
This is the point that radio host and author Mark Levin was making on January 21 when he criticized “agrarian national populism.” Yes, majority rule is a good thing, but so are minority rights—not the spurious “right” to welfare or to be immunized from campus “micro-aggressions,” but the rights of men and women under Natural Law. As Levin said:
This is this populism thing. It’s not populism. It’s pandering. And let me tell you something else – if you believe in our constitutional system and people say they do, the Constitution is not about populism. It’s not about pluralism. It’s about liberty. You cannot have a majority of people voting whether or not you have unalienable rights. You have unalienable rights no matter what anybody says. They belong to you. They’re God-given natural rights and our Constitution recognizes that.
Throughout American history, U.S. populists have had a hard time channeling their anger through the carefully designed sluice box of the Constitution. To be effective in American governance, yes, it oftentimes takes some lawyering, and it certainly requires patience and precision—that’s the way that James Madison designed it.
Thus, fiery populists in our history, from William Jennings Bryan to Huey Long to Father Coughlin to George Wallace to Ross Perot, have burned bright in our national consciousness, but in terms of actually getting elected and getting results, they have typically not done well.
Part of their problem in politics is that, almost by definition, populists tend not to be well educated: when future Constitutional lawyers were in moot court, the populists were already in the streets. Yes, each venue provides its own kind of education, but one of them is more valuable in actual governance. It is our shared reliance on a written text that has kept us from going the way, for instance, of Juan and Evita Peron’s Argentina.
Still, it would be nice if the populists had better access to knowledge—to the tools, as it were, of the governing trade. And yet here is where we see the dead-handed influence of the Elite: There are any number of well-subsidized libertarian journals, and even more publications dedicated to such elite causes as environmentalism or gay rights, but today, it’s hard to think of a single major publication—except, of course, Breitbart—that makes any attempt to speak to working-and middle-class concerns and to bend its audience toward useful and achievable ends.
Yet we know from our history that if ordinary people are willing and able to get themselves educated and trained, they can reach the pinnacle of national life; three of our greatest presidents—Abraham Lincoln, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan—came from little and made much of themselves. But none of them could be called populists.
IV. Donald Trump, PINO
Earlier, I observed that one elite stratagem for foiling populist anger is co-optation. That is, the populist hero comes to power, and then becomes one of Them.
In the case of Donald Trump, he already is one of Them—he’s a billionaire.
No, love him or loathe him, Trump is no populist: anyone who has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the permanent Democratic power structure of New York City and New York State may be a practical Empire State businessman, but he is no populist. And he’s never voted in a Republican primary in his life.
In history, we can note, other plutocrats have pretended to be populists. In the case of the Roman Gracchi brothers, for example, the episode didn’t end well for anyone.
Yes, Trump is making a chump of the Establishment, and that’s fun for the populists, but it’s always a mistake to seek one’s raucous entertainment in national affairs; the management of the Republic—from the Latin res publica, the public thing, should be a serious business. And for those willing to submit to its rigors, there’s often a deep inspiration in all that drudgery.
Another national figure who seems never to have thought seriously about statecraft is Sarah Palin. And so, of course, it comes as no surprise that she has endorsed Trump.
David Frum, the moderate-conservative writer, describes Palin’s support of Trump as an “alliance of the aggrieved.” Well, not quite. Palin is aggrieved because her star has fallen. But Trump has nothing to be aggrieved about, except that he is not president yet. So “alliance of the ambitious” might be more accurate.
Trump is doing extraordinarily well in the polls, and it’s conceivable that he will win the nomination, perhaps even the general election. But if he does, he will break the hearts of his populist supporters because he is not one of them. And that will become clear about five minutes into his presidency.
President Trump will discover that the Republicans and Democrats who compose the Congress—some of whom are serious public servants—are not simply going to abandon their advise-and-consent role to do what the 45th president tells them. They never have done so, and, as a matter of institutional prerogative, they never will. As old Washington hands say, “The President proposes, and the Congress disposes.” And Trump, who is anything but dumb, will see that quickly enough. So he’ll start making deals—yes, deals with the Washington Cartel.
We can hope that a President Trump will be scrupulous and make deals only in accordance with the Constitution. But maybe not; maybe the temptation to get his way will get the best of him. Maybe he will become a Man on a White Horse. That’s a term, from the Book of Revelation, that has been applied to those who seize dictatorial power—often, of course, in the name of The People. Such a seizing of power has happened many times before, although thankfully, not in U.S. history.
Candidate Trump has struck gold, big-time, with his strong nationalist message. Having seen that yes, people do want America to Be Great Again—not just Goldman Sachs and the RNC—he has humiliated the grandees of both Wall Street and K Street. And so yes, he might well go all the way.
But whatever else a President Trump becomes—be it small “d” democrat or some new kind of reality TV-spawned autocrat—he will not be a populist. He is, truly, a Populist in Name Only.