Populism is not new to American life; in fact, it is as old as the republic itself. In its most basic, lowest denominator, populists are the “pure people” who set themselves against a “corrupt elite.” One might argue that this sentiment is at the beginning of, and is the heart, of the American experiment. Parallel to that sentiment is the desire to not be subservient to any other living human. Every man, as Huey Long said, should be a king. And this is an interesting thing; until Donald Trump arrived on the political scene, Huey Long was perhaps the most successful populist politician in the modern age, and though Huey wanted every man to be a king, he wanted to be, and tried very hard to become, the emperor who ruled over all the kings. The authoritarian government that Long set up in Louisiana was “…the closest thing to a dictatorship that America has ever known” (David Kennedy, Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War). One of the major problems with dictatorships is that the martinet seldom thinks about what his subjects need or want. Absolute monarchs only think about what they, themselves, want and will selfishly do whatever it takes to get it. Dictators are less statesmen and more Mafiosi.
It might be interesting to go on and further compare Huey Long with Donald Trump; both brash, both almost feral in their cunning ability to get what they want, their demagoguery, their flamboyance, their rejection of a globally unifying vision of the world, and their extremely thin-skinned intolerance of criticism and contradiction. But these similarities are not what interest me right now; I’m more interested in the message rather than the messenger, because this populist notion of being servile to nothing and no one except one’s own conscience is a malignant and pernicious idea. It’s malignant and pernicious in large part because there is no longer (and perhaps there never was) an agreement among the members of our society upon the very simple, manifestly evident proposition that we all do better when we try to ensure that we all do better. But dictators must do better than everyone else in order to have someone to rule, creating a climate of competition that forces competition one with another in order to curry favor with the powerful and wealthy, rather than cooperation. An autocrat creates largely artificial differences between genders and races, wars external as well as internal, and a constant state of chaos designed to keep others off balance and frightened enough for them to look to him to provide them with answers, stability, and leadership.
Populism insists upon the fantasy of not being subjugated or enslaved to anyone, and it is a fantasy which belies the reality of life, the hallmarks of which are the painful disparities and frustrating limitations of being a human being. But being human beings, we are geniuses at creating the comforting illusion and the frangible “reality” that convinces us that we are unrestrained free agents and can do as we please, especially if what we do pleases us. Populism seems to depend upon the human tendency to create comforting illusions of existential freedom and easy certainty while ignoring the utterly crushing weight of all that one doesn’t, and can’t, know or accomplish. These kinds of movements reject expertise and ridicule as naïve the idea that scientists, journalists, philosophers, educators, and others may actually be working in good faith, holding no agenda other than the desire to shed more light on the mystery of human existence and, as Aeschylus put it, “tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.” The task of living a human life is, in large part, the struggle to understand one’s internal and external limitations and constraints, and the fundamental problem to undertake when we encounter those limits, is one of consoling and encouraging ourselves and each other to be adaptable, resilient, and hopeful. But now in populist America there exists a rage, rage predicated upon a belief that one’s failure to achieve a satisfying life is the fault of someone else.
Why are so many of us willing, even eager, to believe the worst about other people, especially those people who have struggled to somehow cobble together an existence lived outside of “conventional” societal expectations? Are we such a fragile people that we must purge from our midst any ideas that emit the merest whiff of challenge or pose the slightest danger to a fatuous and puerile comfort—a form of comfort that, I can only conclude, many have proclaimed to be an unassailable, right? Are our identities and our beliefs so fragile that we can brook no criticism of any kind or calls for self-reflection whatever? Why do so many of our people and politicians want to hurt, actually want to harm and punish, people who, harming no one by their actions, dare to step outside of the influence of conventional social life and love, work, create, and simply live as some deep, impelling need commands them? Like a January nor’easter, there is a profound meanness and a chilling humorlessness blowing across the U.S., and if it doesn’t freeze you in your tracks it should at least give you pause, because no one, and I mean no one, is really safe in such an ungenerous world for very long. One’s successes are not owed to one’s special brilliance, or a shrewd manipulation of the constituent forces comprising life. Good luck is always the most influential factor. Fortuna’s wheel can turn very quickly and in so doing, unexpectedly crush one beneath it even though just a moment ago, one was thrilled to have been atop it. And—make no mistake—we must all, as Bob Dylan sang, serve somebody. In Melville’s Moby Dick, Ishmael articulated this fundamental truth saying, “Who ain’t a slave? Tell me that […] either in a physical or metaphysical point of view, that is; and so the universal thump is passed round, and all hands should rub each other’s shoulder-blades, and be content.” The populist vision sets no one free, it makes no person a king; in fact, it always does the opposite by enslaving one to a dollar, a demagogue, a desire, a nation, or a religion. How the enslavement happens varies, but it is a virtual certainty that one will be enslaved, at the very least, often to one’s own worst impulses.
So why, then, are people attracted to mass movements like populism? I think Eric Hoffer provides us with the answers in his 1951 book, The True Believer. Movements such as populism are especially appealing to those who long to be other than who or what they are; they want to be rid of an unwanted life, an irksome existence, a too weighty humanity; they have failed in terms of finding the ability to create the kind of life they think they should have been able to live, and they find no hope of life being different for them in the future. Mass movements appeal to those who feel cheated by life, that they have been prevented from succeeding by outside forces or some massive conspiracy instigated by minorities, a secret, wealthy cabal, or a “rigged system.” The fanatic, writes Hoffer, “…is usually an unattractive human type. He is ruthless, self-righteous, credulous, disputatious, petty and rude.” He is willing to “sacrifice much that is pleasant and precious in the autonomy of the individual […] The true believer is eternally incomplete, eternally insecure.” Fanaticism is the only way for some to quiet the inner voices of doubt and uncertainty, and by joining a mass movement they hope to lose their frustration and seem to give themselves a new self, a new identity, and a different, less problematic life.
Unfortunately, their new lives are empty of any individual uniqueness, critical thought, self-reflection, or free choice. They give themselves over to a demagogue who has convinced them that he is leading them away from their undesired, intolerable lives, and the kind or quality of ideas the movement espouses is of little significance to them. What is significant to them is “…the arrogant gesture, the complete disregard of the opinion of others, the single-handed defiance of the world” (Hoffer). The act of taking up fanatical points of view is tantamount to an admission of deep fear and uncertainty, a profound personal shame at the center of one’s being. And if he can convert others to the fanatical cause, he shores up his weak self-concept and feels more whole and complete. Curiously, a forced conversion of others through intimidation or other coercive means doesn’t seem to subdue his enthusiasm for, or cause him to question the moral, ethical strength of his belief.