Writing in the Sunday Times (of London) today, Thatcherite professor and Mitt Romney backer Niall Ferguson has claimed that the populism of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump needs to be “stamped” on.
Prof. Ferguson, who is married to the anti-Islam campaigner Ayaan Hirsi Ali, uses his column in the paper today to reject his colleagues’ comparisons of Mr. Trump to Adolf Hitler, likening him instead to populist former Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, and even Venezuela’s late Hugo Chavez.
Prof. Ferguson writes:
Panic is setting in. “Watching Donald Trump’s rise, I now understand . . . exactly how Hitler could have come to power in Germany.” Thus my Harvard colleague, the political theorist Danielle Allen.
“[Trump’s] remedy is 1930s to the core: nationalism, crude bombast, mytho-history and sloganeering.” Thus Victor Davis Hanson, also a colleague at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.
Welcome to Weimar America.
I respect these writers, but I’m afraid I don’t buy their analogy.
He notes that economics conditions today are less like 1930s Germany, and more like the late 1800s, when Mr. Jennings Bryan was a member of Congress before going on to be Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson. Mr. Jennings Bryan resigned over his pacifism after President Wilson marched America into war.
Prof. Ferguson draws parallels between this rejection of war from Mr. Jennings Bryan, and the populism of Mr. Trump – though the latter has been very clear that he wants to intervene in Syria to “knock out” Islamic State.
Prof Ferguson writes:
In the 1880s, as today, the result of stagnation was not fascism, but populism. Fascism was all about violence: marching men in uniforms, battered opponents, re-armament, war. The violence of populism is mostly verbal. Populist leaders are demagogues in suits, not jackboots. They insult their opponents, they don’t break their legs. They tend to be against overseas wars. This is not to say that Donald Trump is identical to William Jennings Bryan, the bombastic populist orator of the late 19th century, only that he is much closer to Bryan than to Hitler.
As in Bryan’s day, the populist backlash is directed against a) financial elites and their political cronies, b) free trade, c) immigration and d) racial integration (though this last is not explicit today). Populists base their appeal at least partly on xenophobia. Today Trump complains about Chinese, Mexicans and Muslims; in the 1880s populists were more likely to be anti-semites or segregationists. Yet populism is about more than bigotry; its core economic argument has some substance. “My fellow white Americans,” Trump is essentially saying, “I know you feel less good today than you expected to feel. I know you feel America is no longer great. The people you should blame are people like my opponents [professional politicians with ties to the banks], the Chinese [shorthand for globalisation] and Mexicans [immigration].”
I think this is mostly wrong. But Trump is winning because no other candidate has a more convincing explanation of why so many Republican voters genuinely are worse off today than in 2000. And the key to his success is that he blames both George W Bush and Barack Obama — both Republican and Democratic party establishments.
Looking for ways to stomp Mr. Trump, Prof. Ferguson laments that America does not have a political system that allows for left and right parties to merge against populists, a tactic we have seen recently in the United Kingdom, where Labour and Conservative candidates worked together to block UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage being elected to the House of Commons. It has also been the case in France, recently, where centre-right and centre-left parties worked together to frustrate Marine Le Pen’s Front National.
Prof. Ferguson writes:
What, if anything, can be done? The German answer is the “grand coalition” of moderate right and moderate left. That at least keeps the populists out of power. We saw a version of that coalition decide the Scottish referendum in 2014. David Cameron will be hoping that joining forces with Labour will work for him again in June. But America doesn’t seem to have this option. So long as there is more than one other contender for the Republican nomination, Trump wins. Meanwhile, he knows that Bernie is knocking chunks out of Hillary Clinton. She will probably still win the nomination, thanks to the rigged system of “superdelegates” at the Democratic convention. But no one can rule out Democratic defections to Trump when it comes to the crunch on November 8.
The irony is that populism so clearly doesn’t work. In the part of the world where constitutions have repeatedly failed to keep populists out — Latin America — it has been tried again and again, by the right and the left. Bankers get arrested. Tariffs get imposed. Border fences get built and sometimes fought over. The result? Visit Venezuela.