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?

Is Evangelicalism Populist? Should it Be?

Noll Scandal

After I wrote my recent post on Chris Gehrz’s treatment of evangelical populism, I pulled Mark Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind off the shelf.  Some critics of Mark Galli’s Christianity Today editoral have suggested that evangelicalism has always been a populist movement.  Matthew Schmitz, for example, claims that evangelicals cease being evangelical when they break from its populist, anti-intellectual base.

Noll has some things to say about this premise.

For example, evangelicalism has a rich intellectual heritage:

p.4: Modern evangelicals are the spiritual descendants of leaders and movements distinguished by probing, creative, fruitful attention to the mind. Most of the original Protestant traditions (Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican) either developed a vigorous intellectual life or worked out theological principles that could (and often did) sustain penetrating, and penetratingly Christian, intellectual endeavor.  Closer to the American situation, the Puritans, the leaders of the eighteenth-century evangelical awakening like John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards, and a worthy line of North American stalwarts in the nineteenth century–like the Methodist Francis Asbury, the Presbyterian Charles Hodge, the Congregationalist Moses Stuart, and the Canadian Presbyterian George Monro Grant, to mention only a few–all held that diligent, rigorous mental activity was way to glorify God.  None of them believed that intellectual activity was the only way to glorify God, or even the highest way, but they all believed in the life of the mind, and they believed in it because they were evangelical Christians.

But the populism of the 19th and 20th-century have led to the “scandal of the evangelical mind”:

p.12: To put it simply, the evangelical ethos [at the time Noll wrote in 1994] is activist, populist, pragmatic, and utilitarian.  It allows little space for broader or deeper intellectual effort because it is dominated by the urgencies of the moment.”

p.23: For an entire Christian community to neglect, generation after generation, serious attention to the mind, nature, society, the arts–all spheres created by God and sustained for his own glory–may be, in fact, sinful.

p.24: Fundamentalism, dispensational premillennialism, the Higher Life movement, and Pentecostalism were all evangelical strategies of survival in response to the religious crises of the late nineteenth century.  In different ways each preserved something essential for Christian faith.  But together they were a disaster for the life of the mind.’

It is telling how many court evangelicals come from these traditions.

More from Noll on the scandal:

p.52: …Manicheans divided the world into two radically disjointed sections–the children of light and the children of darkness.  Evangelicals have often promoted a Manichen attitude by assuming that we, and only we, have the truth, while nonbelievers, or Christian believers who are not evangelicals, practice only error.

p.71: The long-term effects of evangelical republicanism in America was to short-circuit political analysis.  So deeply entwined were republican and Christian themes that there seemed to be no need for reexamining the nature of politics itself.  It could simply be assumed that the American way was the Christian way.

p,124: One of the additional consequences from the dogmatic kind of biblical literalism that gained increasing strength among evangelicals toward the end of the nineteenth century was reduced space for academic debate, intellectual experimentation, and nuanced discrimination between shades of opinion. 

p. 125: …the fundamentalist movement reinforced the dogmatic power of populist teachers.  With the universities and their formal learning suspect, the spokesperson who could step forth confidently on the basis of the Scriptures was welcomed as a convincing authority.

This quote sums up much of what we see today–25 years later–in American evangelicalism’s embrace of Donald Trump.

p.141: In general responses to crises, evangelicals in the late twentieth century still follow a pathway defined at the start of the twentieth century.  When faced with a crisis situation, we evangelicals usually do one of two things.  We either mount a public crusade, or we retreat into an inner pious sanctum.  That is, we are filled with righteous anger and attempt to recoup our public losses through political confrontation, or we eschew the world of mere material appearances and seek the timeless consolations of the Spirit.

And this:

p.173: Whatever happens in the practicalities of American political development, however, evangelicals will almost certainly continue to exhibit in one form or the other, the activism, biblicism, intuition, and populism that had defined evangelicals for more than two centuries.  If they repeat the imbalances of their history, evangelical political action may be destructive and other political reflection nonexistent.

I think Mark Galli is a champion of the evangelical mind who knows what happens when Christians stop thinking deeply about politics.  He is concerned about what happens to the church when anti-intellectual populism gets out of control.

Are Trump’s Evangelical Critics Elitist? The Pietist Schoolman Reflects on Evangelical Populism

2nd Great

After Mark Galli published a Christianity Today editorial calling for the removal of Donald Trump, several pundits accused Galli of betraying the populist roots of American evangelicalism.  Galli, in other words, is an out of touch elitist.

Read court evangelical Johnnie Moore’s recent piece at Religion News Service.

Read Carl Trueman’s recent piece at First Things. (I responded to it here).

Read Matthew Schmitz’s piece at The New York Post.  (I responded to it here).

It is worth noting that these articles have little to do with the merits of Trump’s impeachment.  Nor do they address any problems with Trump’s character that might lead evangelicals to reject the president.  Instead, these articles try to interpret the editorial, and Galli, through the lens of class.  Galli and Christianity Today do not represent ordinary evangelicals.  As a result, we can’t take the editorial seriously.

Chris Gehrz, the Bethel University history professor and author of the blog The Pietist Schoolman, has written a nice piece on evangelical populism that is worth your time. It engages with Moore and Schmitz.
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Here is a taste of “The Problems and Possibilities of Evangelical Populism“:

2. Which populace defines populism?

Donald Trump likes to present himself as a populist, but he has generally been one of the least popular first-term presidents in American history. Even after a recent bump, he’s still 10 points more unfavorable than favorable in Five Thirty Eight‘s composite poll. He’s particularly disliked by certain groups within American society, including women and persons of color.

If evangelical populism is meant to empower ordinary evangelicals, then it had better address the concerns of three of the most important, most often ignored groups within evangelicalism: women (55% of all evangelicals in America), persons of color (22% and growing fast), and non-American evangelicals (the lion’s share of the world total).

Rather than just reflecting the passions of the white men who compose Trump’s base of support, genuine evangelical populists would join CT president Tim Dalrymple in lamenting that evangelicals are “associated with President Trump’s rampant immorality, greed, and corruption; his divisiveness and race-baiting; his cruelty and hostility to immigrants and refugees; and more.” They would stop waving aside Trump’s misogyny and ask how much it taps into the sexism too often found within evangelical communities.

Finally, truly evangelical populists would look beyond the American nation to recognize that most evangelicals live elsewhere — often in places already being affected by the climate crisis that the Trump administration and its Christian enablers casually deny. “If we shift our gaze from the U.S. political right,” writes David Fitzpatrick, to look at evangelicals of color in this country and beyond it, “we can see an alternative tradition of evangelicalism that embraces social, economic, environmental and racial justice.”

Read the entire piece here.

Is Mark Galli an “Evangelical Elite?” Is He “Out of Touch?”

CT

Carl Trueman, a theologian who teaches at Grove City College in western Pennsylvania, thinks that Mark Galli, the editor of Christianity Today and the author of this editorial, is an “evangelical elite” who is “out of touch” with ordinary evangelicals.  Here is a taste of his piece at First Things:

Galli sees the situation as urgent: “If we don’t reverse course now, will anyone take anything we say about justice and righteousness with any seriousness for decades to come?” Yet, to ask the obvious question, what is the alternative? Now, that question can be used as a lazy, rhetorical way of justifying a vote for Trump—or for any status quo, however wicked. But I intend it as a serious inquiry: When someone calls for Trump to be thrown out of office by impeachment or the ballot box, it is reasonable to ask what the available alternatives are. As Mother Theresa is unavailable for the White House, we are really looking at Biden, Warren, or Sanders. I can’t speak to the personal moral qualities of these people, but would voting for them or their policies give Christians any more credibility? Given the role of abortion and LGBTQ rights in their respective campaigns, this is surely something any Christian has to address.

Trueman’s piece seems to suggest that the reduction of abortions in the United States will happen by electing the right POTUS. The implication is that Christians should tolerate Trump because he will appoint anti-Roe v. Wade justices.  I am not convinced that overturning Roe v. Wade will reduce abortion in America any faster than what is already happening.  I made this case in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

Trueman’s piece also suggests that LGBTQ people should not have rights. Is he implying that we should tolerate Trump because he will make sure they don’t get these rights? If so,  I disagree. This is why I, along with the CCCU and NAE,  support Fairness for All.

Trueman continues:

Indeed, he [Galli] goes so far as to say that he believes the removal of Trump “is not a matter of partisan loyalties but loyalty to the Creator of the Ten Commandments.” That is an astounding claim for the editor of Christianity Today to make, for it involves him accusing every Trump voter of heinous sin, however reluctant or conflicted he may be.

As noted above, Galli is not playing some sanctimonious Pharisee, standing in the Temple of Twitter, thanking God that he is not like other evangelicals—white supremacists, misogynists, or even this Trump supporter over here. But his editorial is symptomatic of the same underlying pathology. Evangelical elites are clearly as out of touch with the populist evangelical base as is the case in society in general. And lambasting populist evangelicals as hypocrites or dimwits will simply perpetuate the divide.

I don’t think Galli is calling anyone a hypocrite or a dimwit.  Nor is he accusing evangelicals of committing a “heinous sin” for supporting this president.  But I have witnessed a lot since Galli’s editorial appeared last night.  Today I saw Trump evangelicals on social media react positively, sometimes with great vigor, to Donald Trump’s Twitter attacks on CT.  I read CT editor Ted Olsen’s call for prayer in the wake of the hate mail and threats the magazine has received from pro-Trumpers.  I listened to Franklin Graham, a man with millions of followers in the evangelical community, claim that Galli’s piece does not contain even a kernel of truth.

All of this makes me wonder if it is Trueman who is out of touch. Earlier in his piece, Trueman says, “I live in the heart of Trump territory and know many who voted for the Donald, almost none of whom took any pleasure in doing so.” Yes, the folks he describes exist.  I have met many of them.  The 81% is a diverse group–men and women who pulled the Trump lever for a variety of reasons.  But Trueman fails to recognize, or at least underestimates, the millions of Trump evangelicals who go to MAGA rallies, think that the president is God’s anointed one, and believe that Trump’s policy on Israel will somehow hasten the return of Jesus.

Let’s not pretend that anti-intellectualism is not at work in the evangelical support for Donald Trump.  I have wrestled with the “evangelical elitism” critique for a long time.  As the product of a working-class family who pursued a Ph.D in American history and became part of the ivory tower, I bristle when people call me “elite.” All of my extended family are Trump supporters.  Like Trueman, I also live in the heart of Trump country.  I am forced to engage with pro-Trump neighbors in my largely lower-middle-class neighborhood and in my church.  As I wrote here yesterday, I have worked hard at being a translator.  I fail often.

But somewhere along the way we need to say, like Mark Galli did, that those who defend this president need to engage in a deeper level of Christian thinking. We need to acknowledge that there is a “scandal of the evangelical mind“and it helps explain why so many evangelicals voted for Donald Trump.  To quote Galli, we need to “call a spade a spade.”  And most importantly, we need to bring attention to the fact that the evangelical support of Donald Trump is hurting the witness of the Gospel.  After spending a year traveling with Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, I have collected enough stories to believe that this is true.

If “evangelical elitist” means that I want to think deeply as a Christian about public life and challenge others–perhaps those of another social class–to do the same, then I gladly accept the label. I am, after all, an educator.  Smart evangelicals challenged me to worship God with my mind when I was a young, working-class, new convert to evangelicalism.  I listened to them and it changed my life.  It made me a better Christian.  When we challenge our fellow evangelicals in this way we must always do so with empathy, compassion, and love, but there are other times when such challenges must come in a Mark Galli-like prophetic voice.

Read the Trueman’s entire piece here.

Donald Trump is Going to “Defeat Socialism and Put a Man on the Face of the Moon”

And the crowd goes wild:

A few comments:

  1. 12 men have already walked on the face of the moon.  Perhaps its time we put a woman on the face of the moon.  🙂
  2.  Perhaps someone can explain to me the relationship between “defeating socialism” and “putting a man on the face of the moon.”
  3. Notice the crowd.  They are cheering before Trump even says anything.  Frankly, it doesn’t matter what he says.  I am sure someone has studied this, but it seems that  Trump followers respond less to the ideological content of what he says than the pitch (is that the right word?) of his voice.  This seems to be a quality of anti-intellectual populism.

 

Deconstructing the “Paranoid Style in American Politics”

ParanoidIn the age of Trump, many are saying that we are witnessing a resurgence of a phenomenon that historian Richard Hofstadter once called “the paranoid style of American politics.” Over at The Baffler, UC-Davis historian Kathryn Olmsted traces the history of the “paranoid style” and how it may or may not be employed in today’s political climate.  Here is a taste of her piece:

Hofstadter also highlighted another common trope in right-wing rhetoric that’s relevant to today’s politics: the curious sense of loss among Americans on the right. Their anger, he argued, stemmed from their sense of dispossession, even though many of them were relatively well off. They believed, he said, that “America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion.”

Many scholars today have commented on this sense of dispossession among Trump supporters. Sociologist Arlie Hochschild captured this sentiment in the title of her book on the worldview of rural white voters, Strangers in Their Own Land. The rural white people who Hochschild interviewed felt angry at “line-cutters”: immigrants and people of color who, they believed, had jumped the queue in front of patient, hard-working white Americans like them, and were rewarded with welfare checks and affirmative action jobs. Hofstadter might call this fear that someone will take your place in line—i.e., push you out of your rightful spot in the social order—just another form of status anxiety.

Finally, even back in the 1960s, Hofstadter remarked on the skepticism of science and contempt for expertise among Americans on the right. The paranoid spokesman, he said, was not open to new ideas, scientific studies, or scholarly arguments. “He has all the evidence he needs; he is not a receiver, he is a transmitter.” This phrase could have been written about the most passionate Trump supporters during the 2016 presidential race. The Oxford Dictionaries picked “post-truth” as their word of the year for 2016, or the word “chosen to reflect the passing year in language,” and defined it as circumstances in which “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Trump was not embarrassed that his sources or his facts might be wrong; “All I know is what’s on the internet,” he said at one point during the campaign.

Read the entire piece here.

Richard Ojeda is Running for President in 2020

Ojeda

Who the heck is Richard Ojeda?

  • He is a Democratic candidate for President of the United States from West Virginia
  • He lost his election to West Virginia’s Senate in 2018, but made up a 36-point deficit from 2016, making his race the largest voter swing in the midterms.
  • He has 36 tattoos
  • He served 24-years in the U.S. Army as paratrooper and earned two Bronze Stars.
  • He supported Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primary.
  • He voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election.
  • He supports the legalization of marijuana.
  • He supported the 2017 West Virginia teachers strike.
  • His grandfather was an illegal immigrant from Mexico.
  • Trump once called him a “stone cold crazy wacko.”
  • He supports quadrupling funding for Planned Parenthood.
  • He supports coal and green energy.
  • He favors single-payer health care.
  • He supports firearm background checks and defends the use of AR-15s.
  • He thinks the NRA is “absolute garbage.”
  • He favors a strong military.
  • He favors a plan that would require the President, Vice-President and members of Congress to give all their net worth over a million dollars to charity.
  • Despite his 2016 vote, he has attacked Trump for his “faux regard” for the working class and his broken promises.
  • He plans to run in 2020 on a left-wing populism that includes support of the working poor,  unions and “anti-elitism.”
  • Unlike Bernie Sanders, he is not wealthy and does not own multiple homes.

Read more about him here.

Episode 41: Populism

PodcastWith the election of Donald Trump, the term populism has returned to the political lexicon. However, while many people may use the term, fewer people truly understand its meaning and history. On today’s episode, we try to unpack the idea of populism in the American context. John Fea discusses the history of his favorite populist, William Jennings Bryan. They are joined by the foremost historian on the subject, Michael Kazin (@mkazin).


Sponsored by the Lyndhurst Group (lyndhurstgroup.org) and Jennings College Consulting (drj4college.com).


Thomas Frank on the Other Populism

MounckWhat is populism?  Cultural critic Thomas Frank does not think Yascha Mounk, the author of The People vs. Democracy, really understands the roots of populism in American life.  Here is a taste of his review at The Guardian:

 

As for populism, historians typically trace the populist rhetorical tradition in America back to the time of Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. A radical leftwing political party that called itself “Populist” swept much of the country in the 1890s, and protest movements described as populist have come and gone. Populism’s evil rightwing doppelganger is usually dated to 1968, when George Wallace and Richard Nixon figured out how to turn the language of working-class majoritarianism against liberalism. Rightwing populists have been building movements and winning elections in the US ever since.

Mounk barely acknowledges any of this. Instead, he asserts a frightening new vision of populism without discussing the old one. “There can no longer be any doubt that we are going through a populist moment,” he writes at one point. “The question now is whether this populist moment will turn into a populist age – and cast the very survival of liberal democracy in doubt.”

Sounds bad, all right. Demonic, even. But the phrase “populist moment” rang a bell. I went to my bookshelf and pulled down my copy of – yes – The Populist Moment by the historian Lawrence Goodwyn, a celebrated study of Populism published in 1978. Here is how it starts: “This book is about the flowering of the largest democratic mass movement in American history. It is also necessarily a book about democracy itself.” What Goodwyn meant was that Populism in its 1890s permutation represented a vision of democratic participation that was actually more advanced than what we settle for today. Far from being a threat to democracy, Populism was democracy’s zenith.

To produce a whole book on populism while ignoring this completely opposite interpretation strikes me as a serious oversight. Yes, I think we need to understand why liberal democracy is crumbling around the world. But to describe this process with the unmodified “populism” is a mistake. It is, after all, an American word. And the history of American populism contradicts item after item in Mounk’s devil theory. Populism is simply not what he thinks it is.

Read the entire review here.