Will the GOP abandon populism?

Michael Gerson, the evangelical columnist at The Washington Post, hopes so. Here is a taste of his most recent column:

In the United States, our core political commitment is to a system of self-government based on the rule of law and the protection of the rights of political minorities. This is a different view of politics than many Americans now hold. They think the main purpose of politics is to vanquish some grave evil or defeat ruthless enemies. This is a temptation on left and right, but it has metastasized on the right. Many right-wing populists believe that they are fighting conspiratorial globalists, or child molesters, or oppressive secularists, or “woke” elitists, or the “deep state.” If this is their defining purpose, then constitutional processes are actually obstacles to effective action. A strongman would be more efficient.

This conception of politics is badly and dangerously mistaken. The primary purpose of the American form of government is not to defeat evil; it is to allow people of diverse views and backgrounds to live in peace with one another and find common purpose. That practical arrangement is also a moral commitment. We have a patriotic passion for constitutional procedure — to honor the principle of equal rights and to prevent the exercise of abusive power.

Too many political leaders — most notably in the Republican Party — have allowed these ideals to rust and rot. They have accommodated illiberalism out of selfish interest or abject fear. And this failure has associated people and causes they care about with some of the worst human beings in America. The refusal to defend procedural democracy has put economic conservatives in the same political movement as neo-Confederate thugs. It has placed pro-life Catholics and evangelicals under the same political banner as QAnon and the Proud Boys. Can traditional conservatives not see the massive reputational damage to their deepest beliefs?

For the sake of their party, their ideology and their country, it is essential for elected Republicans to publicly and dramatically distance themselves from authoritarian populism. This means repudiating the lie of a stolen election. This means supporting the Senate conviction of a justly impeached president and ensuring he can never run for office again. This means giving our new president room to govern in the midst of a deadly health crisis.

Read the entire piece here.

Will a third political party emerge?

Some are suggesting that the Republican Party could split into principled conservatives and Trump populists. The next four years will also reveal the depth of the divisions within the Democratic Party. How hard will the progressives in the party challenge Joe Biden and the moderates? Or maybe we will see a unification of Republican moderates and Democratic moderates.

Whatever the case, I found Sriram Laksham’s interview with presidential historian Jeffrey Engel to be informative. Engel directs the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

Here is a taste of the interview, published at The Hindu:

Laksham: If appears that people in the Republican party are torn between sticking with Trump or standing for the “real” Republican party. Do you think that there’s going to be a third major political party forming in the near term?

Engle: I’m glad you asked that. That’s what history suggests. Remember that one way to understand the entire Trump presidency and candidacy is as a civil war within the Republican party. That Donald Trump ran against the Democratic party, but also ran against traditional Republicans — the George W. Bush-Mitt Romney wings of the Republican party. Obviously he was successful in controlling the party and then ultimately winning the presidency, but those people haven’t gone away. And I think that what we’re seeing is quite likely a moment where the Republican party, I think, as a brand is going to continue moving forward.

That doesn’t mean everybody who’s in the Republican party is going to continue under that brand, which suggests — especially given that the people who are most antagonistic towards Trump are by and large towards the centre of the political spectrum and there is of course a centre wing of the democratic party as well — that there is a ripe moment here for a coalescing of these two into a new political party.

Now, before Democrats get very excited about that, I should point out that every previous time in American history we’ve seen one party collapse, it takes the other party down with it over the course of the next several election cycles, just because it completely realigns the interest groups and the coalitions and the alliances within the broad electorate. So I think that there’s a good chance of the Republican party is in its death throes. As we currently see it, I think Republicans will continue. I don’t necessarily know that their party is going to continue as is currently formed.

Read the entire interview here.

What Nebraska novelist Willa Cather can teach us about the age of Trump

Below is a piece by Mark Schwehn, Professor of Humanities in Christ College, the Honors College of Valparaiso University. Schwehn is perhaps best known as the founder of the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts at Valparaiso and the author of Exiles from Eden: Religion and the Academic Vocation (Oxford, 1993), Everyone a Teacher (Notre Dame, 2000) and with Dorothy C. Bass Leading Lives That Matter (Eerdmans, 2005, 2020). Enjoy!

All of us have spent and will spend countless hours attempting to comprehend Trump and Trumpism. As we do this, we should bear in mind that our novelists are far more instructive than our psychologists, economists, sociologists, and political pundits.  Consider, for example, a short passage from Willa Cather’s first novel O Pioneers! (1913).  

The novel’s protagonist, Alexandra Bergson, is a self-assured, determined, shrewd, and courageous young Swede who saves her family of four after her father’s early death. They and their neighbors suffered tremendous hardships and losses during the years of perilous drought and famine on the Divide in south-central Nebraska during the last years of the nineteenth century.  Yet while other families moved away, Alexandra had the foresight and acumen to borrow money to buy large sections of abandoned rich soil on the tableland, a move that secured her and her brothers’ future for years afterwards.  

Two of her brothers, Lou and Oscar, gratefully received their own portions of the large family homestead Alexandra had prodigiously expanded. But year by year, as they married and had their own children, they became more and more selfish, coming to believe that their own earlier hard work and deprivations entitled them to lay claim eventually to Alexandra’s land as part of their own inheritance. Gratitude became grudging admiration, which in turn became resentment, which finally became anxiety over the prospect of Alexandra’s marriage prospects that could imperil their own eventual wealth.

Alexandra’s favorite and beloved brother, Emil, is the youngest member of the family who shares with Cather herself a love for the land and its people combined with a desire to move beyond it. He is the only one of the four siblings to go to college, the same place where Cather herself went to college, at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.  And he aspires to become a lawyer in distant Michigan. As he is packing his books to move on first to Omaha and then to the University of Michigan, Alexandra thinks about the relationships among her brothers as follows:

She knew that Emil was ashamed of Lou and Oscar, because they were bigoted and self-satisfied. He never said much about them, but she could feel his disgust. His brothers had shown their disapproval of him ever since he first went away to school. The only thing that would have satisfied them would have been his failure at the University.  As it was, they resented every change in his speech, in his dress, in his point of view; though the latter they had to conjecture, for Emil avoided talking to them about any but family matters.  All his interests they treated as affectations.

So there, over a century ago, in the heart of what we today would call the Red States of the Great Plains, a family divided. The ethnic diversity they knew consisted only of Swedes, Norwegians, Frenchmen, and Bohemians. No person of color appeared in Cather’s account of the Nebraska Divide of the early twentieth century. The two most violent men in that world savored the rancorous vein of Populism in the 1890’s. Two of the white men in the Bergson family drew more and more insular and resentful; the third one broadened out and nursed a larger vision.

Two were proto-Trumpians.  One was a proto-Biden voter. This is just about the exact ratio of white male Trumpians to white male Democrats in Nebraska today.  As in so much else, Cather had things exactly right.

She had published her first major work of fiction, a collection of short stories, in 1905. Donald Trump’s father Fred was born in the same year.

Missouri Senator Josh Hawley says Biden is “in thrall” to “the Marxist left” and a “corporate liberal.” Can he be both?

Not really.

Jonathan Chait writes, “Hawley is working so hard at populism. But he cannot suppress his urge to condescend.”

Here is a taste of Chait’s piece at New York Magazine:

As a prep school kid with degrees from Stanford and Yale, he still craves the respect of elites, and wishes to be seen as a serious intellectual, rather than just a crafty huckster with a nose for hot-button slogans that play on Fox News.

Over the summer, Hawley warned Tucker Carlson that Joe Biden and his entire party are “in thrall” to “the Marxist left.” Monday afternoon he criticized Biden’s nomination of Janet Yellen on the grounds that “the people who he wants to be in his cabinet are all a bunch of corporate liberals and warmongers.”

The Bulwark’s Tim Miller pointed out the undeniable contradiction. Hawley could have ignored the criticism — after all, it’s not like his target audience is going to complain that he attacked the Democrats in two mutually exclusive ways. But Hawley felt compelled to show that he is not just a glib demagogue mouthing slogans, that his talking points have actual meaning:

I am struggling to make sense of what Hawley is trying to say in this tweet.

Read Chait’s entire piece here.

Donald Trump is a rainmaker

From Springsteen’s album, Letter to You:

Rainmaker: “person who produces or attempts to produce rain by artificial means.”

The Rainmaker (1954 play): “Set in a drought-ridden rural town in the West in Depression-era America, the play tells the story of a pivotal hot summer day in the life of spinsterish Lizzie Curry. Lizzie keeps house for her father and two brothers on the family cattle ranch. She has just returned from a trip to visit pseudo-cousins (all male), which was undertaken with the failed expectation that she would find a husband. As their farm languishes under the devastating drought, Lizzie’s family worries about her marriage prospects more than about their dying cattle. A charming confidence trickster named Starbuck arrives and promises to bring rain in exchange for $100. His arrival sets off a series of events that enable Lizzie to see herself in a new light.”

Here are the lyrics to Springsteen’s “Rainmaker”:

Parched crops dying ‘neath a dead sun
We’ve been praying but no good comes
The dog’s howling, home’s stripped bare
We’ve been worried but now we’re scared

People come for comfort or just to come
Taste the dark sticky potion or hear the drums
Hands raised to Yahweh to bring the rain down
He comes crawling ‘cross the dry fields like a dark shroud

Rainmaker, a little faith for hire
Rainmaker, the house is on fire
Rainmaker, take everything you have
Sometimes folks need to believe in something so bad, so bad, so bad
They’ll hire a rainmaker
(Rainmaker)

Rainmaker says white’s black and black’s white
Says night’s day and day’s night
Says close your eyes and go to sleep now
I’m in a burning field unloading buckshot into low clouds

Rainmaker, a little faith for hire
Rainmaker, the house is on fire
Rainmaker, take everything you have
Sometimes folks need to believe in something so bad, so bad, so bad
They’ll hire a rainmaker
(Rainmaker)

Slow moving wagon drawing through a dry town
Painted rainbow, crescent moon and dark clouds
Brother patriot come forth and lay it down
Your blood brother for king and crown
For your rainmaker

They come for the smile, the firm handshake
They come for the raw chance of a fair shake
Some come to make damn sure, my friend
This mean season’s got nothing to do with them

They come ’cause they can’t stand the pain
Of another long hot day of no rain
‘Cause they don’t care or understand
What it really takes for the sky to open up the land

Rainmaker, a little faith for hire
Rainmaker, the house is on fire
Rainmaker, take everything you have
Sometimes folks need to believe in something so bad, so bad, so bad
They’ll hire a rainmaker
Rainmaker
Rainmaker
Rainmaker

The takeaway:

  1. Ordinary Americans were hurting economically. They were “scared.”
  2. Trump came along as a figurative rainmaker. He would save them. He promised “comfort” with his “dark sticky potions.” He said that he came in the name of “Yahweh” as he crawled “across the dry fields like a dark shroud.” The evangelicals believed in him. He was God’s anointed one.
  3. People flocked to the rainmaker. They believed he was the answer to their prayers. He made promises to those who needed “to believe in something so bad.”
  4. The rainmaker is a liar. He says “white’s black and black’s white.” He says “night’s day and day’s night.” Trump tells them not to believe in what they can see. He tells them to distrust science and facts.
  5. The rainmaker is a reality television star. People come to see him smile, to shake his hand, to have their sense of victimhood affirmed. But in the end they don’t understand “what it really takes for the sky to open up the land.”

UPDATE: I failed to mention that Springsteen actually wrote this song a few years before Trump became president.

Sean Wilentz on Richard Hoftstadter

hofstadter

Richard Hofstadter

In the Sean Wilentz interview I posted about yesterday, the Princeton historian told Bill Kristol that mid-20th-century historian Richard Hofstadter may have been one of the few Americans who understood the populism, paranoia, and anti-intellectualism that we see today on both the Left and Right.

Today I found another interview with Wilentz at the blog of the Journal of the History of Ideas in which he talks with Daniel Wortel-London about Hofstadter and his legacy. Wilentz is the editor of a recent Library of America collection on Hofstadter that includes Anti-Intellectualism in American LifeThe Paranoid Style in American Politics, and some essays he wrote between 1956 and 1965.

 

Here is a taste of the interview:

DWL: Hofstadter argues that anti-intellectualism is partly the product of “benevolent impulses” towards equality and egalitarianism. Expertise, for example, can be equated with hierarchy, pursuit of nuance can appear synonymous with political inaction, and personal experience can be seen as more “honest” than abstract facts. As a result, he argues that anti-intellectualism can only be contained and checked “by constant and delicate acts of intellectual surgery which spare these impulses themselves” (Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, p. 23). How can this surgery best take place today, particularly regarding those whose “benevolent impulses” might lead them to join progressive or radical social movements that seek to challenge several additional (and in my view, far more powerful) factors Hofstadter identified as threats to intellectual life: the influence of powerful business groups wary of criticism and an unimaginative and complacent political class?

SW: In his early writing, Hofstadter seemed more sympathetic to agitators than political leaders. The one figure in The American Political Tradition who broke with the dominant democracy of cupidity is Wendell Phillips, the “golden trumpet” of abolitionism and later a supporter of the labor movement. At one level, that portrayal allowed for a consistent radicalism in American politics but also sketched the limits of its power. Long before a younger generation of scholars began dog-earing copies of Antonio Gramsci, Hofstadter laid out what he saw as a kind of liberal capitalist hegemony in American politics. And in that respect, his work has sometimes ended up encouraging a cynical view of American mainstream politics, in which social movements do all the good, only to be coopted and ultimately defeated by more progressive liberal elements of the ruling class. Hofstadter never subscribed to that view: he still found Jefferson, Lincoln, and the others honorable and valuable. But the distinction between movement politics and party politics was certainly implied in his early work.

The McCarthyite experience helped shift that. Whereas he had previously criticized Popular Front myths by debunking their sentimentalized depictions of Jefferson, or Jackson, or Lincoln as champions of the people, he later came to criticize the sentimentalized view of popular movements themselves, above all the Populists. Along the way, he began having more sympathy for mainstream reformers. Compare, for example, how The American Political Tradition (1948) handles FDR with how The Age of Reform (1955) does. Hofstadter was still working out his critique of social movement politics in Anti-Intellectualism (1963) and The Paranoid Style(1964).

I think that toward the end of his life, he was trying to find a way to handle the kind of surgery you talk about. You see hints of that in The Idea of a Party System (1969), where professional party politics becomes more than an anti-intellectual engine of greed. You see other hints in America at 1750 (1973), a stark portrayal of the suffering among slaves and indentured servants that lay behind what he saw as an essentially middle-class society. I imagine that he intended the multi-volume history of the United States on which he had embarked at his death in part to explore when those acts of intellectual surgery in politics you’re referring to succeeded and when they failed.

Read the entire interview here.

What I wrote about Trump and Andrew Jackson in *Believe Me*

Trump Jackson

I am not an Andrew Jackson scholar, but I have taught him for more than two decades. In the U.S. survey I usually frame my treatment of Jackson in terms of the tensions between what historian Harry Watson calls “Liberty and Power.” I discuss with my students how different groups in America understood the nullification crisis, Indian removal, and the debate over the National Bank. Some viewed Jackson as a defender of “liberty,” while others interpreted these events in terms of Jackson’s tyranny and unbridled use of presidential “power.”

In Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, I wrote about Trump’s relationship with Jackson. Here is a taste:

Donald Trump did not find Andrew Jackson; Andrew Jackson found him. When historians and pundits began to compare Trump the populist with Jackson the populist, the candidate took notice. Moreover, Jackson is a favorite of Steve Bannon, Trump’s former political adviser and campaign manager. [And Dan Feller has recently taught us that much of Bannon’s understanding of Jackson is filtered through conservative commentator Walter Russell Mead].  By the time Trump entered the White House in late January 2017, an 1835 Ralph E.W. Earle portrait of Andrew Jackson was hanging in the Oval Office. In March 2017, Trump visited Jackson’s home in Nashville and laid a wreath on his tomb to commemorate the seventh president’s 250th birthday. There was also, of course, Trump’s misinformed claim about Jackson and the Civil War:

“I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War, he said, “There is no reason for this.” People don’t realize, you know the Civil War, if you think about it, why? People don’t ask that question, but why was there a Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?”

Historians were quick to jump on the president’s comments by pointing out that the overwhelming consensus is that the Civil War was fought over slavery. Andrew Jackson owned a hundred slaves and had always been a strong advocate for the spread of the institution into the West of this country. Jackson died in 1845; the Civil War began in 1861. And if Jackson had been around to do something about the tensions between North and South, he would have probably sympathized with the Confederacy,

Andrew Jackson was the president of the United States during what historians call the “Age of Democracy.” Universal manhood suffrage (the right for white men to vote regardless of how much property they owned), the rise of something akin to the modern political parties, and the influx of millions of new immigrants, changed American politics forever. Democracy in that era empowered white men. While nothing close to social equality emerged then, political participation did reach an all-time high. Jackson’s life story, which was characterized by a rise from poverty and hardship, made him the ideal man to lead the country in this new democratic age. His popularity among ordinary voters was unprecedented. By the time he entered office in 1829, Jackson had risen above the hardships of his past, had a national reputation as  an Indian fighter and slaveowner, and was well known as the hero of the Battle of New Orleans, the last battle of the War of 1812. Jackson was a man of passion who often let his temper get the best of him. His lack of self-control prompted the elderly Thomas Jefferson to wonder whether Jackson’s emotional volatility might disqualify him from the presidency.

Jackson won 56 percent of the vote in the 1828 presidential election and, as a result, believed that he had a mandate to serve the people who cast ballots on his behalf. Jackson viewed himself as a savior of the ordinary farmers and workers who voted form him by the millions, and his commitment to these men shaped his policy decisions, especially when he dealt with the elites who controlled American financial institutions such as the National Bank. Jackson was a strong nationalist: during the nullification crisis, he turned against South Carolina, a state filled with fellow slaveholders, because he did not believe that a state had the right to reject any law (in the case of South Carolina it was a tariff law) over the sovereign will of the American people as represented in the Union. When the passion-filled Jackson asked Congress to pass a “force bill” enabling him to use the army to crush dissent in the Palmetto state, talk of civil war was in the air. In the end cooler heads prevailed and Congress reached a compromise to avoid secession and military conflict. Jackson’s show of force further solidified his support among the nation’s working people.

During his speech at Jackson’s tomb, Donald Trump described the former president as a “product of his times.” This was especially true when it came to race, slavery, and Jackson’s policy toward Native Americans. Much of Jackson’s Southern constituency relied on the president to defend slavery and white supremacy, and the president was more than happy to oblige. As we saw in chapter 3, many of these slaveholders lived in fear of insurrections. Poor whites who did not own slaves worried about what might happen to them if slaves were set free and forced to integrate into white society. For example, in 1835, during his second term as president, Jackson, in a blatant attempt to limit free speech, tries to stop the United States Post Office from delivering abolitionist literature into the South. “Democracy” was white.

When it came to Native Americans, Jackson believed that they were racially inferior and an impediment to the advancement of white settlement across the continent. He eventually developed what he described as a “just, humane, liberal policy toward the Indian” that would remove them from their lands to unoccupied territory west of the Mississippi. He believed that he was a great father to the Indians. He explained his decision to oust them from their ancestral lands by claiming that he was protecting them from a possible race war with white drunk on Manifest Destiny. Drunk or not, the white men who voted for him in 1828 and 1832 simply wanted Indians out of the way. Jackson, as a steward of the people who supported him in a democratic election, needed to act in response to their will. During the 1830s, Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole Indians from Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida, escorted by the United States Army, embarked on what has been described as the “Trail of Tears.” Thousands of natives made the 800-mile trek to Jackson’s new “Indian Territory,” located in what is Oklahoma today.

It is fair to call Andrew Jackson a populist president. By the time he took office, he was a wealthy man, but he always presented himself as one of the people, a defender of the “humble members of society–the farmers, mechanics, and laborers.” Yes, as we have seen, Jackson’s nationalism, populism, and commitment to democracy was deeply charged with racial hatred and the defense of white supremacy. Is this the era of American history that Donald Trump has in mind when he says he wants to make America great again?

Tuesday night court evangelical roundup

COurt Evangelicals

What have Trump’s evangelicals been saying since yesterday’s update?

Franklin Graham is on the stump for Trump. This is from his Facebook page :

In the last presidential election in 2016, I reminded people across the country that the election was not about Donald Trump’s previous lifestyle or Hillary Clinton’s lost emails, but it was about the courts—Who do you trust to appoint conservative judges to the courts? Donald J. Trump won the election, and in the next few days he will be making his 200th judicial appointment. That’s more than any president in the last four decades during the same time frame. Thank you Mr. President! This will be a legacy that truly will keep on giving—in the lives of our children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren.

And Twitter:

Al Mohler is questioning science and COVID-19 experts and promoting a Trumpian populism:

Charlie Kirk is running a “Students for Trump” convention in Arizona featuring Donald Trump.

A few observations:

  • In the opening prayer of this convention, the minister thanked God that “All Lives Matter.” The prayer was filled with Christian nationalism, law and order, and Trump talking points. The crowd cheered during the prayer at the appropriate points.
  • Ryan Fournier, the founder of Students for Trump, calls the event “the most aggressive political outreach movement in political presidential campaign history.” Wow!  That’s specific.
  • Florida Matt Gaetz spoke. So did Donald Trump Jr.
  • Trump said nothing new to the 2000 students who showed-up. It was just another campaign rally.

Eric Metaxas interviews one of his “mentors in terms of thinking of race in America,” conservative talk show host Larry Elder. Elder talks about his new documentary film “Uncle Tom.” Elder makes the common claim that the Democrats opposed the 13th Amendment (ending slavery), 14th Amendment (equal protection under the law for African.Americans), and 15th Amendment (African American right to vote). This is largely true, but he fails to consider that the Democratic Party of the 1860s and 1870s is not the Democratic Party of today. See Princeton historian Kevin Kruse’s debate (if you can all it that) with conservative pundit Dinesh D’Souza. This entire argument ignores a fundamental element of historical thinking: change over time. Metaxas totally endorses Elder’s approach, claiming that Americans “don’t know the facts.” Elder and Metaxas are peddling some really bad history here.

Elder claims that racism “is no longer a problem” in American life. This reminds me of a family member who recently told me that I was “living in the past” by suggesting that the history of racial discrimination in America might have something to do with race in America today.

In his second hour, Metaxas and his crew argue that the division in the country is the work of Satan, “the accuser.” Metaxas has the audacity to say that Satan “takes things that are true and twists them into a lie.” Wait, I thought Metaxas supported Trump! 🙂

Metaxas wants a view of history that celebrates all that is good in America. He extols all the Bible-believing Christians who were abolitionists. Yes, this is true. There were many good Christians who fought against slavery. But the present always shapes how we think about the past. As the country is trying to come to grips with racism–both individual acts of racism and the deeper problem of systemic racism–now is the time to take a deep, hard look at how we got here. That will mean taking a hard look at the dark moments of the white evangelical past. This is not the time to get defensive and engage in whataboutism. (Hey, what about Harriet Beecher Stowe!).

Metaxas then interviews Jenna Ellis of the Liberty University Falkirk Center.  In this interview, Metaxas says that “the only reason we abolished slavery is because of the Bible.” This is not entirely true, as I argued in Believe Me.  Slaveholding southerners actually used the Bible to justify slavery and accused northern abolitionists of not being biblical enough. As multiple historians have shown, the Bible was used to fortify racial discrimination to a much greater extent than the Bible was used to end slavery or advance racial justice in America. But Metaxas doesn’t care about that. He needs a usable past. Everything else can be conveniently ignored.

Speaking of the Falkirk Center at Liberty University:

And Lance Wallnau brings the fearmongering:

Until next time.

The Anti-Populists

 

Take_your_choice

Thomas Frank‘s recent piece at Harper’s, an excerpt from his forthcoming book, argues that we do not understand the meaning of populism in the age of Trump. The president is not a populist–at least in the historic sense of the word. As has been the case with much of Frank’s work, he wants to reclaim the 1890’s understanding of populism as a movement of economic reform.

I am reminded here of my recent conversation with Eric Miller in Episode 65 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

Here is a taste of Frank’s piece.

…The English language provides a great many solid choices for someone wishing to describe a leader who plays on mob psychology or racial intolerance. “Demagogue” is an obvious one, but there are others—“nationalist,” “nativist,” “racist,” or “fascist,” to name a few. They are serviceable words, all of them. In the feverish climate of the Democracy Scare, however, none of those will work: “populist” is the word we are instructed to use. “Populists” are the ones we must suppress.

Let’s find out why.

Drive the highway between Kansas City and Topeka and you will pass through a landscape of peaceful, rolling hills (and occasional scenes of violent tornado damage). In the fertile valley of the Kansas River, the farms are raising corn and soybeans; through the fields run the tracks of the old Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway.

It was somewhere in this bucolic setting that the controversial word “populist” was invented. There are no historical markers to indicate exactly where the blessed event took place, but nevertheless it happened—in this stretch of green countryside, on a train traveling from K.C. to Topeka—one day in May 1891.

Could they have peeked into the future, that group of Topeka-bound passengers would have been astonished by the international reach and malign interpretations of their deed. That they were inventing a noun signifying “mob-minded hater of all things decent” would have come as a complete surprise to them. By coining the word “populist,” they intended to christen a movement that was brave and noble and fair—that would stand up to the narrow-minded and the intolerant.

And this:

From the very beginning, then, “populism” had two meanings. There was Populism as its proponents understood it: a movement in which ordinary working people demanded democratic economic reforms. And there was Populism as its enemies characterized it: a dangerous movement of groundless resentment in which demagogues led the disreputable.

The specific reforms for which the People’s Party campaigned are largely forgotten today, but the insults and accusations with which Populism was received in 1891 are alive and well. You can read them in best-selling books, watch them flashed on PowerPoints at prestigious foundation conferences, hear the long-ago denunciations of the Kansas City Star and the Topeka Daily Capital echoed by people who have never heard of Topeka: Populist movements, they will tell you, are mob actions; reformers are bigots; their leaders are blatherskites; their followers are mentally ill, or ignorant, or uncouth at the very least. They are cranks; they are troublemakers; they are deplorables. And, yes, they still have hayseed in their hair.

The name I give to this disdainful reaction is “anti-populism,” and when you investigate its history, you find its adherents using the same rhetoric over and over again. Whether defending the gold standard in 1896 or NAFTA in 2016, anti-populism mobilizes the same sentiments and draws on the same stereotypes; it sometimes even speaks to us from the same prestigious institutions. Its most toxic ingredient—a highbrow contempt for ordinary Americans—is as virulent today as it was in the Victorian era.

Read the entire piece here.

How Many Have Died Because of These Voices?

This reminds me of Kara Swisher’s recent piece.

And it doesn’t stop.  Here is Laura Ingraham, TODAY:

This is anti-intellectual populism 101. It is also very dangerous and utterly irresponsible. Please listen to public health experts.

By the way, here is Naval War College professor Tom Nichols. I recommend his important book:

 

Trump’s Tony Fauci Problem

“Tony Fauci has one of the hardest jobs in America right now”–CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta

I have copied part of the transcript of yesterday’s press conference below. “John” is Fox News White correspondent John Roberts. “Peter” is NBC White House correspondent Peter Alexander.

John: (42:19)

To Dr. Fauci, if I could? Dr. Fauci, as was explained yesterday, there has been some promise with hydroxychloroquine as potential therapy for people who are infected with coronavirus. Is there any evidence to suggest that, as with malaria, it might be used as a prophylaxis against COVID-19?

Anthony Fauci: (42:36)
No. The answer is no. The evidence that you’re talking about, [John 00:17:40], is anecdotal evidence. As the commissioner of FDA and the president mentioned yesterday, we’re trying to strike a balance between making something with a potential of an effect to the American people available at the same time that we do it under the auspices of a protocol that would give us information to determine if it’s truly safe and truly effective. But, the information that you’re referring to specifically is anecdotal. It was not done in a controlled clinical trial, so you really can’t make any definitive statement about it.

Speaker 4: (43:11)
Mr. President?

Speaker 5: (43:11)
Mr. President, on that thought …

Speaker 6: (43:11)
Mr. President?

Speaker 7: (43:13)
Mr. President?

Speaker 5: (43:15)
On those therapies-

Donald Trump: (43:18)
I think, without seeing too much, I’m probably more of a fan of that, maybe, than anybody. I’m a big fan, and we’ll see what happens. We all understand what the doctor said is 100% correct. It’s early, but I’ve seen things that are impressive. We’ll see. We’re going to know soon. We’re going to know soon. Including safety. When you get that safety, this has been prescribed for many years for people to combat malaria, which was a big problem, and it’s very effective. It’s a strong drug.

John: (43:55)
It was also apparently effective against SARS.

Donald Trump: (43:56)
It was, as I understand that … Is that a correct statement? It was fairly effective on SARS?

Anthony Fauci: (44:02)
John, you’ve got to be careful when you say “fairly effective”. It was never done in a clinical trial, they compared it to anything. It was given to individuals, and felt that maybe it worked.

John: (44:11)
Was there anything to compare it to?

Anthony Fauci: (44:13)
That’s the point. Whenever you do a clinical trial, you do standard of care versus standard of care plus the agent you’re evaluating. That’s the reason why we showed, back in Ebola, why particular interventions worked.

Speaker 5: (44:28)
Sir, on that topic-

Peter: (44:28)
Mr. President?

Speaker 8: (44:28)
Sir, on masks-

Peter: (44:31)
About the possible therapies, yesterday, Mr. President, you said that they were for “immediate delivery”. Immediate. We heard from-

Donald Trump: (44:37)
We were ordering … Yes, we have millions of units ordered. Bayer is one of the companies, as you know, big company, very big, very great company. Millions of units are ordered. We’re going to see what happens.

Donald Trump: (44:51)
We’re going to be talking to the governors about it, and the FDA is working on it right now. The advantage is that it has been prescribed for a totally different problem, but it has been described for many years. Everybody knows the levels of the negatives and the positives. But, I will say that I am a man that comes from a very positive school when it comes to, in particular, one of these drugs.

Donald Trump: (45:17)
We’ll see how it works out, [Peter 00:00:45:18]. I’m not saying it will, but I think that people may be surprised. By the way, that would be a game changer. We’re going to know very soon. We have ordered millions of units. It’s being ordered from Bayer, and there is another couple of companies also that do it.

Peter: (45:35)
For clarity, Dr. Fauci said there is no magic drug for coronavirus right now, which you would agree. I guess on this issue [crosstalk 00:45:41]-

Donald Trump: (45:42)
I think we only disagree a little bit.

Peter: (45:44)
Sorry.

Donald Trump: (45:44)
I disagree. Maybe and maybe not. Maybe there is, maybe there isn’t. We have to see. We’re going to known soon.

Peter: (45:52)
Is it possible that your impulse to put a positive spin on things may be giving Americans a false sense of hope and misrepresenting our preparedness right now?

Donald Trump: (45:57)
No, I don’t think so. I think got-

Peter: (46:01)
[crosstalk 00:46:01] the not-yet-approved drug-

Donald Trump: (46:05)
Such a lovely question. Look, it may work, and it may not work. I agree with the doctor, what he said. May work, may not work. I feel good about it. That’s all it is. Just a feeling. I’m a smart guy. I feel good about it. We’re going to see.

Donald Trump: (46:21)
You’re going to see soon enough. We have certainly some very big samples of people. If you look at the people, you have a lot of people that are in big trouble. This is not a drug that, obviously, I think I can speak from a lot of experience, because it’s been out there for over 20 years. It’s not a drug that you have a huge amount of danger with. It’s not a brand-new drug that’s been just created, that may have an unbelievable monumental effect like kill you. We’re going to know very soon.

Donald Trump: (46:51)
I can tell you, the FDA’s working very hard to get it out. Right now, in terms of malaria, if you want it, you can have a prescription. You get a prescription. By the way, and it’s very effective. It works.

Donald Trump: (47:03)
I have a feeling you may … I’m not being overly optimistic or pessimistic. I sure as hell think we ought to give it a try. There’s been some interesting things happened, and some very good things. Let’s see what happens. We have nothing to lose. You know the expression? What the hell do you have to lose?

Peter: (47:22)
What do you say to [crosstalk 00:47:22]-

Donald Trump: (47:26)
John, go ahead.

Peter: (47:26)
What do you say to Americans who are scared, though? Nearly 200 dead. 14,000 who are sick. Millions, as you witness, who are scared right now. What do you say to Americans who are watching you right now who are scared?

Donald Trump: (47:38)
I say that you’re a terrible reporter. That’s what I say. I think it’s a very nasty question, and I think it’s a very bad signal that you’re putting out to the American people. The American people are looking for answers and they’re looking for hope, and you’re doing sensationalism. The same with NBC and Comcast. I don’t call it Comcast, I called Concast, for who you work.

Donald Trump: (48:01)
Let me just tell you something. That’s really bad reporting, and you ought to get back to reporting instead of sensationalism. Let’s see if it works. It might and it might not. I happen to feel good about it, but who knows? I’ve been right a lot. Let’s see what happens.

Donald Trump: (48:18)
John?

John: (48:19)
Want to get back to the science and the logistics here-

Donald Trump: (48:21)
You ought to be ashamed of yourself.

John: (48:21)
The units that were ordered, are they for clinical trials? Are they for distribution to the general patient population?

Speaker 7: (48:27)
As I understand it, we are going to be taking samples in New York. Governor Cuomo very much is interested in this drug, and they are going to work on it also after they get a certain approval. We’re waiting for one final approval from the FDA. We’ll see what happens, but we’ll use it on people that are not doing great or even at the beginning of not feeling well.

John: (48:49)
This would fall under the modified hospice-

Speaker 7: (48:50)
John, what do we have to lose?

Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), represents science and facts. This makes him an immediate threat to Donald Trump, a president who peddles in propaganda, lies, and other assorted mistruths.  Fauci’s words are based on evidence and expertise. Trump’s words are based on a feeling. Perhaps this is the kind of feeling that the former casino owner gets when he makes a business deal or invests in a stock. Consider Trump’s words again:

Look, it may work, and it may not work. I agree with the doctor, what he said. May work, may not work. I feel good about it. That’s all it is. Just a feeling. I’m a smart guy. I feel good about it. We’re going to see.

Trump has a Tony Fauci problem. The good doctor is a rock star because he knows things. And because he knows things he has more authority with the American people than the president. This might cause a narcissistic populist to lose sleep at night.

It’s Time for Bernie to Drop Out

bernie-sanders-portrait-01

Bernie Sanders made a nice run. He has secured his place in American history for the way he has pushed the Democratic Party to the left. I fully expect many of his policy ideas will one day become a reality, not unlike how the views of the late 19th-century populist movement found their way into the political mainstream or how the conservative ideals of Barry Goldwater influenced the Republican Party. (See Michael Kazin on these historical developments).

Last night Joe Biden scored overwhelming victories in Florida, Illinois, and Arizona. He has an almost insurmountable delegate lead.  There are now three main reasons why Sanders must drop out.

  1. He has very little chance of winning in the nomination.
  2. If the primary race ends here, the Democratic Party can unify early and thus more effectively prepare for November.
  3. States can cancel or postpone primaries and thus follow the advice we are getting from the health care community about social distancing.

Episode 65: “What Would Lasch Say?”

Podcast

The American historian and cultural critic Christopher Lasch (1932-1994) had a powerful influence on the world of ideas. What would the author of the best-selling Culture of Narcissism (1979) have to say about Donald Trump and his particular brand of populism? In this episode we talk about Lasch, Trump, populism, progress, and “evangelical elitism” with intellectual historian Eric Miller, author of the award-winning Hope in a Scattering Time: A Life of Christopher Lasch (2010).

https://playlist.megaphone.fm?e=ADL1257192517

When a Populist President Can’t Offer the People “an honest basis for hope.”

Trump iN Dallas

What happens when a president with a strong base among white working class people is incapable of cultivating empathy and hope in a time of crisis?  Here is Juliette Kayyem at The Atlantic:

In a crisis as severe as the coronavirus pandemic, government officials owe the general public two things: reliable numbers and an honest basis for hope. That’s what citizens get if politicians step aside from the microphone and let experts speak. When Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, testified before a House committee yesterday, he warned that COVID-19 has a death rate 10 times that of the seasonal flu; that the worst is yet to come; and that, without more aggressive containment measures, “many, many millions” of Americans could become infected. This was a sobering message, but his audience could at least take comfort in knowing where things stand.

That has not been true of President Donald Trump, who has pooh-poohed the danger of the new disease, played down case counts, and insisted that the new disease will soon taper off. In a televised address last night, he was visibly uncomfortable and talked about the pandemic not as a deadly health problem but as a venue for global competition. His portrayal of the new pathogen as a “foreign virus” and his boast that the United States had the “best response” to the virus did nothing to alleviate fears Americans might have about their health and the massive disruptions now occurring in society. His showiest move—his announcement of a ban on travel from Europe—showed little regard for the fact that COVID-19 is already spreading in the United States.

For some time, Trump and his White House have acted as if they only have a public-relations problem to contend with. When Trump designated Mike Pence as leader of the administration’s coronavirus task force, the vice president promptly moved to tighten messaging and take control of public appearances by government experts. Reuters reported yesterday that the White House is insisting that top-level coronavirus meetings be treated as classified—a designation that inhibits scientific transparency and excludes important experts without security clearances.

But a lack of message discipline is not what caused the stock-market crash this week. Investors see all too clearly that the federal response to the coronavirus has been disjointed, lagging in even providing the basic test kits to determine the magnitude of the threat.

And this:

As for giving hope, that job can’t be delegated. Trump—who went golfing both days last weekend—appears simply incapable of grasping the magnitude of the situation before us. Calm and cool have their benefits in stressful times, and making sure that the public does not overreact is an important job for elected leaders. But Trump’s efforts to minimize the disease look delusional against everything we know about it. The United States is just entering the mitigation stage of this crisis, during which cities and states will severely curb movement and social interactions to slow the spread of the disease and relieve burdens on our health-care system. For weeks to come, Americans will become accustomed to this jarring sense that time and basic social norms are suspended.

After falsely saying the coronavirus is essentially contained, then not seeming to show much interest until the stock market took notice, Trump has shown no empathy for what the nation is now suffering. By all evidence, he is deeply concerned with how the pandemic will make him look. But as Craig Fugate, the former head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, used to tell his teams, the best way to get good press is to do a good job.

Americans need to brace for impact. Trump’s standard tactics—blaming immigrants and outsiders, promising fantastical walls, wearing red hats with slogans—are powerless against a global pandemic. While the coronavirus is by far the most dangerous crisis that the United States has faced since Trump took office, he has not participated in its resolution in any meaningful way.\

But a president isn’t allowed to be irrelevant at a moment of national crisis. Or, to put it another way, an irrelevant president is a harmful one. Last night Trump felt obliged to intervene more strongly—just not with the kind of information and leadership that will prepare Americans for a disturbing new reality.

Read the entire piece here.

Peggy Noonan: “Trump Isn’t Easing Coronavirus Forebodings”

Corona

In the last few minutes, The Washington Post reported a second coronavirus case of unknown origins. CNN just identified a third case of unknown origins. There are now sixty-four entire cases in the United States.

Trump’s recent press conference the other day was a disaster.  It was filled with inaccurate and misleading information.

Earlier today, we learned that the Trump administration will not permit Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of  the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, to appear on five Sunday morning news shows.

Conservative media is doing its best to shape the political narrative.  Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity of Fox News are claiming that the Democrats are trying to weaponize the coronavirus in an election year.  Radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh is telling his audience that the coronavirus is “the common cold.”

Medical and scientific experts are needed to diagnose, stop the spread, and find a vaccine for the coronavirus. But populists do not trust experts or intellectuals. Populism is Trump’s political brand. This is a problem.

Not all conservatives run with the Fox News/Rush Limbaugh crowd. Wall Street Journal columnist and former Ronald Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan writes in her recent column: “If coronavirus becomes a formally recognized world-wide pandemic, and if it hits America hard, it is going to change a lot—the national mood, our cultural habits, the economy.”  Here is another taste:

In a public-health crisis the role of government is key. The question will be—the question is—are the president and his administration up to it?

Our scientists and health professionals are. (I think people see Tony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health as the de facto president on this.) Is Donald Trump? Or has he finally met a problem he can’t talk his way out of? I have written in the past questioning whether he can lead and reassure the nation in a time of crisis. We are about to find out.

Leaders in crises function as many things. They are primary givers of information, so they have to know the facts. They have to be serious: They must master the data. Are they managerially competent? Most of all, are they trustworthy and credible?

Or do people get the sense they’re spinning, finagling, covering up failures and shading the facts?

It is in crisis that you see the difference between showmanship and leadership.

Early signs are not encouraging. The messaging early this week was childish—everything’s under control, everything’s fine. The president’s news conference Wednesday night was not reassuring. Stock market down? “I think the financial markets are very upset when they look at the Democratic candidates standing on that stage making fools out of themselves.” “The risk to the American people remains very low.” “Whatever happens we’re totally prepared.” “There’s no reason to panic, because we have done so good.”

It was inadequate to the task.

Read the entire piece here.

Some Context for Adam Schiff’s Hamilton Quote

Hamilton

Adam Schiff opened the first day of arguments in the Trump impeachment trial with a quote from an enclosure in an August 18, 1792 letter from Alexander Hamilton to George Washington.  His choice of texts is getting a lot of attention today.

Hamilton’s enclosure was part of his reply to a July 29, 1792 letter from Washington.
While the president was home at Mount Vernon he heard from fellow Virginians (probably George Mason and Thomas Jefferson) who were critical of the way the Federalist administration was conducting policy and interpreting the Constitution.  Washington asked Hamilton to respond to twenty-one popular criticisms of the Federalist-controlled government.

Washington’s criticism No. 14 read: “That the ultimate object of all this is to prepare the way for a change, from the present republican form of Government, to that of a monarchy; of which the British Constitution is to be the model.”

This was a pretty common Anti-Federalist critique.  It was also common among the members of the Jeffersonian opposition to the Federalist administration after ratification in 1789.  These men believed that the Constitution gave too much power to the national government and relied too heavily upon British political customs.  They feared that Washington, Adams (VP), Hamilton (Secretary of the Treasury), and the members of the Federalist-controlled Congress would replace the President of the United States with some form of monarchy.

These Jeffersonian fears are understandable.  Washington often acted like a king.  And everyone knew that Hamilton was an Anglophile.  During the Constitution Convention Hamilton argued that the newly created executive should have a life term.  This, he believed, was the only way of maintaining order and preventing the people from having too much power.  James Madison, who summarized Hamilton’s six-hour speech at the Constitutional Convention, wrote:

As to the Executive, it seemed to be admitted that no good one could be established on Republican principles.  Was not this giving up the merits on this subject.  The Hereditary interest of the King was so interwoven with that of the Nation, and his personal emoluments so great, that he was placed above the danger of being corrupted from abroad–and at the same time was both sufficiently independence at home, one of the weak sides of Republicans was their being liable to foreign influence & corruption.  Men of little character, acquiring great power become easily the tools of intemedling Neibours, Sweden was a striking instance.  The French & English had each their parties during the late Revolution which was effected by the predominant influence of the former.  What is the inference from all these observations?  That we ought to go as far in order to attain stability and permanency, as republican principles will admit.  Let one branch of the Legislature hold their places for life or at least during good behaviour.  Let the executive also be for life.

Of course Hamilton’s ideas were not adopted. The framers decided that the executive would serve a four-year term. But some thought Hamilton had not fully abandoned his earlier commitment to an executive for life.

Below is an excerpt from Hamilton’s response to George Washington  Hamilton argues that Jeffersonian worries about the Federalists turning the presidency into a monarchy are absurd. The real threat of tyranny is not the current administration and its policies, but the possibility that a leader might emerge who would tap into the passions of the people.  I have highlighted the passage used by Adam Schiff this afternoon.

The idea of introducing a monarchy or aristocracy into this Country, by employing the influence and force of a Government continually changing hands, towards it, is one of those visionary things, that none but madmen could meditate and that no wise men will believe.

If it could be done at all, which is utterly incredible, it would require a long series of time, certainly beyond the life of any individual to effect it. Who then would enter into such plot? For what purpose of interest or ambition?

To hope that the people may be cajoled into giving their sanctions to such institutions is still more chimerical. A people so enlightened and so diversified as the people of this Country can surely never be brought to it, but from convulsions and disorders, in consequence of the acts of popular demagogues.

The truth unquestionably is, that the only path to a subversion of the republican system of the Country is, by flattering the prejudices of the people, and exciting their jealousies and apprehensions, to throw affairs into confusion, and bring on civil commotion. Tired at length of anarchy, or want of government, they may take shelter in the arms of monarchy for repose and security.

Those then, who resist a confirmation of public order, are the true Artificers of monarchy—not that this is the intention of the generality of them. Yet it would not be difficult to lay the finger upon some of their party who may justly be suspected. When a man unprincipled in private life desperate in his fortune, bold in his temper, possessed of considerable talents, having the advantage of military habits—despotic in his ordinary demeanour—known to have scoffed in private at the principles of liberty—when such a man is seen to mount the hobby horse of popularity—to join in the cry of danger to liberty—to take every opportunity of embarrassing the General Government & bringing it under suspicion—to flatter and fall in with all the non sense of the zealots of the day—It may justly be suspected that his object is to throw things into confusion that he may “ride the storm and direct the whirlwind…”

The truth unquestionably is, that the only path to a subversion of the republican system of the Country is, by flattering the prejudices of the people, and exciting their jealousies and apprehensions, to throw affairs into confusion, and bring on civil commotion. Tired at length of anarchy, or want of government, they may take shelter in the arms of monarchy for repose and security.

Hamilton is saying that the real threat to republicanism is a populist demagogue.  You can see why Schiff thought this passage was appropriate for an impeachment trial.

What is Populism?

lasch millerI have been writing about populism in light of the recent Christianity Today editorial calling for the removal of Donald Trump.  You can read my posts here and here and here and here.

What is populism?  How should we think historically about this term?  I would encourage you to listen to Episode 41 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  In this episode we talk with Georgetown University historian Michael Kazin, the author of several books on populism.  Listen here.

I was also thinking about Eric Miller‘s biography of intellectual historian Christopher Lasch, Hope in a Scattering Time:  A Life of Christopher LaschLasch was attracted to a particular version of populism.  Here is Miller:

The regnant American belief in “progress,” Lasch contended, far from being a misty vesitge of an older, mythical, millenarian worldview that saw history moving in an upward direction, was instead mainly the mental effect of so many decades of unending improvements in the “quality of life.”  True, these improvements  were only material in nature–which had once upon a time troubled the likes of Nathaniel Hawthorne.  But the apologists for the new order had emerged quickly, having “mastered the tone and bluff of jocular dismissal, the unapologetically pristine defense of everyday comforts,” and such worries were allayed with impressive dispatch.  “No one could argue very long against abundance,” Lasch acidly noted.  Progress, “this tawdry dream of success,” was here to stay.  Lasch’s entirely unsparing depiction to the merest pleasures cast the reign of industrial capitalism not as the triumph of an ideal but as the effecting of a seduction, and the seduced were now sleeping to the steady rhythms of The Economy, shamelessly content, degradingly weak, confident in progress and lost in nostalgia, burning up the world to maintain their tenuous state of warmth.

Between these polar tendencies, “progressivism” and “conservatism,” lay the radical option.  Recognizing humans’ perennial need for the renewal of life, radicals did not give in to the life-denying forms of political and intellectual dependence–whether “traditional” or “progressive”–that characterized both right and left.  Rather, radicals sought through particular practices to cultivate an independence of mind and spirit that, structured within and by the community, could give a person the keenness to detect and strength to resist the political and economic powers that sought always to enthrone themselves as the necessary ends of human life.  In short, while conservatives defaulted wearily to “tradition” and liberals ran after “progress,” radicals pursued virtue–and so justice, Lasch pointed out, if at times only as a hope against hope.

In the nineteenth century this radical political sensibility came to be most fully embodies by populism, Lasch argued, but its antecedents included, along with the Puritans (and other Christian streams), the republicans of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and even some species of liberal thinkers, such as Thomas Paine, who saw in incipient industrial capitalism a threat to the communal world of craftsmen and farmers they thought more desirable.  In the nineteenth century these varying populist trajectories had in the crucible of the industrial economy melded oddly but powerfully to yield a “producer ethic” that was “anticapitalist but not socialist or social democratic, at once radical, even revolutionary, and deeply conservative”; it was preserved most fully in the lives of the petty- bourgeoisie–the lower middle class.  Poised between the “fatuous optimism” of the scientific progressives and the “debilitating nostalgia” of Burkean conservatives, the populist sensibility held firmly to a way of life that is understood to be the foundation of the nation’s promise–the old understanding of the American dream.  “A whole way of life was at stake in the struggle against industrialism,” Lasch concluded, following with special appreciation the argument of populist scholar Lawrence Goodwyn.  “Producerism; a defense of endangered crafts (including the craft of farming); opposition to the new class of public creditors and to the whole machinery of modern finance; opposition to wage labor”: all of these were the battlefronts of the great populist attempt to keep alive another America, another meaning of citizenship.  But at that moment of direct confrontation at the end of the nineteenth century they had lost, steamrolled by progress–by progressives.

The victors had been led by H.L. Mencken’s “civilized minority,” and they became the new ruling class.  Their sociologists lost themselves in fruitless attempts to understand “gemeinschaft” and “gesellschaft” dynamics, typologies that only quickened their sense of disconnection from the past.  Their historians (most eminently, Hofstadter) told self-congratulating tales of their own righteous ascent, stories that only increased their distant from the “uneducated” masses.  Blinded by their confidence in their own progressive march, they misunderstood the past and misread its inhabitants, veering sharply between sentimentality on the one hand and contempt on the other, remaining convinced all the while that, whatever its pitfalls, “modernity” made possibly an undeniably superior way of life….

Some More Thoughts on the Populist Critique of “Elite Evangelicals”

Trump iN Dallas

For most evangelical Christians, the message of the Gospel transcends the identity categories we place on human beings.  All men and women are sinners in need of redemption.  Citizenship in the Kingdom of God, made possible by Jesus’s death and resurrection, is available to all human beings regardless of their race, class, or gender.

I also think that most evangelicals believe that good Christians strive to live Holy Spirit-filled lives that conform to the moral teachings of the Bible. In other words, evangelical Christians follow the 10 Commandments, Jesus’s teachings in  the Gospels (including the Sermon on the Mount), and the ethical demands of the New Testament epistles.

Since Mark Galli wrote his Christianity Today editorial calling for the removal of Donald Trump, the evangelical defenders of the POTUS have been playing the populist card. Let’s remember that the populist card is an identity politics card.

The opponents of Christianity Today have tried to paint Galli and other evangelical anti-Trumpers as “elites” who look down their noses at uneducated or working class evangelicals.  In their minds, Galli and his ilk are guilty of the same kind of supposed moral preening as university professors, Barack Obama, and the progressive legislators known as “The Squad.”  They view these educated evangelicals–some of whom they might worship with on Sunday mornings–through the lens of class-based politics rather than as fellow believers in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

This populist argument has come from a variety of sectors, including First Things magazine (here and here), the court evangelicals (here), and Calvinist Front Porcher and American religious historian Darryl Hart (here).

So I ask: Has Trump’s class-based identity politics co-opted Christian ethics?

Trump has openly lied or misrepresented the truth. He has engaged in speech that is misogynistic, nativist, and racist. He has advanced policies that have separated children from their parents.  He regularly demonizes and degrades his political enemies.  It seems like these things, on the basis of biblical morality, are always wrong, regardless of whether an educated person or an uneducated person brings them to our attention.  Last time I checked, the minor prophets and John the Baptist did not have Ph.Ds.

Mark Galli of Christianity Today has offered a stinging moral criticism of Trump.  We can debate whether Trump’s actions in Ukraine are impeachable, but Galli is on solid ground when he says the president is “grossly immoral.”

Is it right to say that a Christian is “out of touch” when he calls out such immoral behavior?  (Or maybe one might take evangelical theologian Wayne Grudem’s approach and try to make a case that Trump’s indiscretions are few and inconsequential).

Would a non-college educated factory worker in the Midwest who claims the name of Jesus Christ think that racism, misogyny, nativism, the degradation of one’s enemies, and lying are moral problems?  Wouldn’t any Christian, formed by the teachings of a local church and the spiritual disciplines (as opposed to the daily barrage of Fox News), see the need to condemn such behavior?  What does social class have to do with it?  Shouldn’t one’s identity in the Gospel and its moral implications for living transcend class identity?

For those who are lamenting disunion in the church, I have another question:  Shouldn’t the church be an otherworldly, counter-cultural institution that finds some unity in the condemnation of immoral behavior in the corridors of national power?  Or should we take our marching orders from the divisive, class-based identity politics of Donald Trump?