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May 25th 2016 print

Peter Murphy

Populism Rising

Everything is up for grabs. No one can predict the outcome of the Republicans’ unplanned and uncontrolled stab at an on-the-run renaissance. Whatever happens, it is almost certain to affect Republicans and the American centre-Right for a generation

trumpOne of John Howard’s many virtues was his ability to stamp on populist political movements. He dispatched the “Joh for PM” circus in 1987 and asphyxiated Pauline Hanson’s One Nation in the late 1990s. Howard was a master of judicious centre-Right liberal-conservatism.[1] He had no toleration for the capricious and illiberal character of populist politics. Bjelke-Petersen’s and Hanson’s movements both originated in Queensland. Ditto, the Palmer United Party, the political vehicle of a blustering self-proclaimed billionaire with a penchant for crony capitalism and state largesse. Like modern clothing labels, populism is emblazoned with its creator’s name: Pauline Hanson’s United Australia Party; the Palmer United Party.

By its nature populism is anti-institutional. It downplays party and parliamentary organisation. It favours leaders who have strong media personalities and communicate directly with the general population. The first of these historically was William Jennings Bryan. A magnetic and obsessive public speaker, Bryan captured the US Democratic Party presidential ticket a remarkable three times, in 1896, 1900 and 1908, despite never winning the presidency. Populist politics have been common in Latin America since the 1930s and emerged in Europe after 1945. Populism today is on the rise internationally. In recent elections in Europe the Danish People’s Party won 25 per cent of the vote, the UK Independence Party 12 per cent, Austria’s Freedom Party 20 per cent, France’s National Front 17 per cent, and Norway’s Progress Party 16 per cent. In the wake of Angela Merkel’s open-borders policy folly, the neophyte Alternative for Germany Party received between 12 and 24 per cent in the 2016 state elections. Although these figures fall well short of governing majorities, they indicate populism’s capacity to mobilise votes.

What’s the source of attraction? Almost all discussions of successful populist parties describe their leaders as “charismatic”. Charisma is a hard word to nail down. It suggests an aura around these party leaders but doesn’t explain what produces it. This is not religious charisma. All the same it has a mystery character. It is enigmatic. The enigma lies in the way populists defy the standard polarities of democratic politics: socialist v liberal, liberal v conservative, labour v conservative; in short left v right. Populism plays havoc with these orthodox dichotomies.

Populists don’t fit the pattern. Unsurprisingly then they invariably describe themselves as anti-establishment—that is, as standing outside regular politics. The Left-Right paradigm doesn’t explain them. We see some of this in the first prominent populist, Bryan. He was a theologically fundamentalist Presbyterian elder whose main political effect was to destroy the power of the free-market Bourbon Democrats and rally opposition to US intervention abroad. Populists are often depicted as being on the “hard”, “radical” or “far” Right. In reality they cross over between the boisterous Left and Right or (less commonly) between classic liberalism and national conservatism. They are politically perplexing as a result. Because they are anti-institutional, populist parties necessarily rely on charismatic leadership. Populist leaders appeal over the head of institutions directly to electorates through the media. Populism cannot succeed unless it can focus media attention on the personality of the leader. National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen first achieved a significant vote in the 1984 French elections only after François Mitterrand lifted the ban on Le Pen’s appearance on state television.

The contradictoriness of populism is a key to its success. Its incongruities, some quite unusual, give its most gifted leaders an aura of fascination. They blend positions that in regular politics are antitheses. This provides them with a refractory appeal. In Europe today the key platform plank of populist parties is to restrict immigration. These parties are Euro-sceptical, nationalist, critical of Islam, and against multiculturalism. At the same time most of them support a strong welfare state. A handful, like Nigel Farage’s UKIP, blend nationalism with classic liberalism.

France’s National Front has done both in its time.[2] In the 1980s it mixed market liberalism and Euro-cultural nationalism. Today it blends economic protectionism, big-government social-welfarism, and French nativist nationalism. The constant through its history though has been the primacy of the leader: first, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and then his daughter Marine Le Pen, and more recently her niece, the party’s rising star, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen. The three generations encompass an anti-Semitic anti-homosexual Pétainist Algerian War veteran, a disco-dancing partnered but unmarried Jewish-sympathising homosexual-employing assimilated-Arab-friendly secularist who backs economic patriotism and low taxes, and a Catholic anti-gay-marriage, articulate photogenic “It Girl” who advocates social conservatism, business nationalism, strong-state finance regulation and free markets. This is hardly a conventional party of the far Right. In fact, the conventional terms Left and Right, regular and radical, are difficult to apply to it. The National Front today gets 13 per cent of the Jewish vote and 26 per cent of the homosexual vote, and has supporters who gleefully declare, “I’m Arab, a Muslim, and I vote Marine Le Pen”.

Politics is the art of putting together odd bedfellows. Populism magnifies and exaggerates this. It makes a virtue of vertiginous equivocality and high-wire ambiguity. Successful populist leaders walk what (by conventional standards) seems to be an impossible tightrope. That is the essence of their appeal. Their inscrutability charms. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán is a good example. His Fidesz party runs on a kaleidoscope of policies crossing the spectrum from Left to Right. He mixes economic statism (price controls, partial nationalisation), social conservatism (tax policies geared to families), ethno-nationalism (irredentist citizenship, border closures) and tax liberalism (a flat tax in place of progressive taxation). He pairs anti-liberal stands (increased state ownership) with liberal justifications (it reduces indebtedness). He is against the welfare state but desires economic protection for weak and vulnerable families, and splits the difference with “workfare” (work-for-welfare). This kind of gymnastic coupling of contraries is central to populism. Its political success relies on voters who have an appetite for policies that traverse standard political cleavages. Fidesz received 44 per cent of the votes in Hungary’s 2014 elections, making it the most electorally successful populist political party since Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia received 29 per cent of the Italian national vote in 2001.

 

The Trump Show

The protean political personality is the beguiling chemical-like force that bonds Left and Right, nation and class, electoral democracy and radical politics in populism. It is a force of fascination. Edgy ambivalence fuels this fascination. Supporters of populism are often depicted as “authoritarian voters”. Left-liberal academics love this idea. In their 2009 book Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler characterise Republican populists as traditionalists who loathe change and have a low tolerance for ambiguity. These voters supposedly see the world in black-and-white terms. For them “change” (meaning Left-liberal change like same-sex marriage) threatens a time-tested social order. They want a higher authority to intervene and restore the lapsed order.

Yet in reality populism does not reduce political ambiguity. It heightens it. Nor is its preferred social order doggedly “traditional”. Populism judges things in terms of a specific axiological distinction. What matters is not right v wrong or good v evil. Populists don’t emphasise truth above falsity or tradition in place of modernity. First and foremost they judge things in terms of the common people v the elite. They see the world through the lens of us v them and the outsider v the insider. A social order is best then if it favours the forgotten middle class as opposed to the cosseted big banks, corporations, trusts, cartels, and global organisations that the elites run. Elites mislead, con, cheat, dupe and delude “we, the people”.

Far from cherishing established things, populists rail against establishments. They want to tear them down. There is a big streak of romanticism in populist politics. Populism combines anti-institutionalism with electoral romanticism. It is not despotic. But it is authoritarian. Political romanticism obliges populists to rule by executive authority in order to override institutions and secure “real change”. Populism is the harbinger of authoritarian democracy. Its romantic impulse is seasoned with defensiveness and suspicion. The suspicion is that elites rig the game, swindle the small guy, fix the rules and betray the ordinary citizen. Suspiciousness sometimes bleeds over into a kind of paranoia that breeds conspiracy theories, anti-Semitism (the big banks are code for Jewish financiers), and scapegoating. Extremists (the white nationalist types) are attracted to populist movements for this reason.

In a more general sense, the spirit of populism is defensive. It lacks a sunny optimism. It wants to protect, defend, shield and fortify. Depending on circumstances it can find existential comfort in nativism, xenophobia, anti-imperialism, isolationism, segregation, protectionism, non-alignment and separatism. None of these define populism. Rather they are consequences of its underlying pessimism about the world.

In Europe and Latin America, populism is readily recognisable as an “ism” that is a person. This is true of Peronism, Berlusconism, and the “Le-Penization” of the French mind. In the United States populism takes the form of the party campaign that in reality is one person. George Wallace campaigned on the American Independent Party ticket in 1968 after failing twice to get Democratic Party nomination. Ross Perot stumped for his own Reform Party in 1996. In his earlier eccentric 1992 campaign Perot ignored all of his advisers and paid for his campaign out of his own deep pockets. The names of Wallace and Perot entered the lexicon of American politics. No one remembers their parties. The Democratic Party survived Bryan, although it only captured the White House once between 1896 and 1932, and that was when Teddy Roosevelt split the Republican vote with his own populist-style insurgent campaign in 1912.

Populism’s electoral success is a function of voter anxiety. It appeals to stressed, dissatisfied and angry voters who have lost confidence in the political system. These alienated voters reach the conclusion that no conventional party or candidate is responsive to their problems. So they turn elsewhere. Bryan rode a wave of agrarian disenchantment. Agriculture was declining. Americans were headed in vast numbers to the cities. Seventy years later Wallace pitched to a white working class, whose own long-term decline had begun. Manufacturing displaced agriculture as the primary employer of middle-class Americans, only to find that it in turn was being displaced. The northern rust-belt towns had started to appear. The southerner Wallace offered foreign policy isolation and race segregation as panaceas. Bryan earlier had his own cure-all: silver currency in place of the sound-money gold standard. Gold, he argued, was “un-American”, “anti-American” and (worst of all) a “British” policy. Bryan and Wallace both campaigned against big banks. Wallace pledged to increase spending on Social Security and Medicare, cut foreign aid, withdraw from Vietnam, and have American allies pay more for their own defence.

Pat Buchanan tried twice unsuccessfully for Republican Party presidential nomination in 1992 and 1996. He ran on a platform of social conservatism, cutting immigration, rescinding free-trade agreements and generally being an outsider. “They’re all in on it,” he pronounced, “the insider game, the establishment game—this is what we’re running against.” The appeal was to the anxious white working class. His 1998 book The Great Betrayal made the case for applying stiff tariffs to the foreign imports that allegedly were destroying American industry. In 2000 he ran on the Reform Party ticket and received a minuscule 0.4 per cent of the popular vote. Buchanan was an able publicist (and former Nixon White House communications director). Yet he lacked the protean charismatic appeal necessary for a barnstorming solo campaign.

The same could not be said for Donald Trump. The “Trump phenomenon” as it became in the 2016 Republican primary race, surprised everyone. No one—no consultant, commentator, or politician—predicted that Trump would snare a third of the Republican base. From February through late March 2016 a divided field of opponents, including an impressive number of talented conservative hopefuls, allowed Trump to parlay 30 per cent primary voter support into 47 per cent of national convention delegates. Along the way his mercurial campaign fractured the Republican Party and split its intelligentsia. National Review and Weekly Standard columnists overwhelmingly opposed him. The Ann Coulter–Matt Drudge–Sean Hannity–Breitbart media commentariat lined up behind Trump. In his insightful short book Too Dumb to Fail, Matt Lewis shows how for years a throng of Republican media personalities had gradually turned themselves into table-thumping pundits delivering a charged mishmash of anti-establishment rhetoric and anger-baiting identity politics. This was Trump before Trump.

Two months of intense battles in early 2016 massively reduced the original seventeen-strong Republican primary field. Of the three candidates left in the race at the time of writing, the populist Trump led, the conservative Ted Cruz was in hot pursuit, and the centrist institutional Republican John Kasich trailed a distant third. The party that had wavered uneasily for decades between institutionalists and conservatives had morphed into a triptych of populists, conservatives and institutionalists. Even then wheels moved within wheels. While Kasich, the seasoned congressional and gubernatorial officeholder, ran a shoestring operation, Cruz, the self-declared conservative outsider, commanded a highly organised campaign. Trump on the other hand, in classic populist style, functioned as a one-man-band, with a handful of staff. Bryan did the same in 1896 and Teddy Roosevelt in 1912. Both lost.

Instead of organisation, candidates like these rely on media exposure. In the first month of the Republican primary campaign Trump generated $2 billion worth of free media coverage, spent a miniscule $10 million on ads and accumulated eighty-two convention delegates. His rival Jeb Bush spent $82 million on advertising, got $214 million worth of free media coverage and secured four delegates. The populist reliance on media though has its down sides. The 2016 Republican primary season is likely to end in a contested convention. There votes matter less than delegates and party rules. Mastery of procedural minutiae and securing the loyalty of delegates require extensive organisation. Media coverage in contrast is earned by controversy.

Controversy, in Trump’s case, is a function of wildly erratic policies presented in a pugilistic manner without apology. He is a Proteus of electoral politics. Like the ancient elusive god of the endlessly changing sea, Trump is a master of mutability, taking on multiple shapes and forms. He surprises with a mercurial mix of left-wing and right-wing postures that he conjures up in a volatile, unpredictable, impulsive flow-of-consciousness. His opponents’ repetitious and highly disciplined talking points often seem stilted and boring in contrast.

Trump is an isolationist who wants to make the US military strong. He equates strength with war crimes. He makes inflammatory attention-seeking statements about US troops committing acts of torture in defiance of the Geneva Convention and deliberately killing the non-combatant families of terrorists. He proposes withdrawing America from Nato yet bombing Islamic State and intervening in the South China Sea. His isolationism is not animated by a Jefferson-style desire to keep the affairs of other countries at a distance. Rather it looks and feels like the resurrection of archaic tributary politics. He wants Japan and South Korea to pay for their nuclear defence and Mexico to pay for the border wall with its American neighbour. These echo the tributary demands that major pre-modern powers imposed on less powerful states. Trump is a protectionist and economic nationalist who outsources his own manufacturing to China. He complains about the trillions of dollars of US debt yet opposes debt-reducing entitlement reform and thinks that education and health are key functions of the US federal government. He is a secular, thrice-married presidential aspirant with a candid womanising past who appeals to evangelical voters. He says he is “neutral” between Israel and the Palestinians yet insists that there is “no moral equivalency” between the two. As for the hot-button abortion issue, he variously wants to ban abortion and punish any woman who obtains one; leave the matter to the states; ban abortion and punish any doctor who performs one; keep Roe v Wade unchanged; overturn Roe v Wade; and continue public funding of the abortion provider Planned Parenthood.

Politics is full of surprises. Trump emerged as a front-runner with a plurality of support in the primary contest of a political party that in recent decades has been committed to free markets, entitlement reform, reducing the size of government, international security, limits on abortion, and unequivocal support for Israel. The inscrutable Left-Right political hermaphroditism of Trump perplexed his opponents and mesmerised a third of the Republican base. He became a spanner in the works of normal politics because he is so difficult to classify. He is a party-shopping Progressive Democrat who as a late-arriving Republican adopted a series of policies that caricature the views of the American centre-Right. These parodic positions are what left-wingers think right-wingers believe. They include the mass deportation of eleven million illegal immigrants from America and a blanket ban on Muslims migrating to the United States. The Proteus that he is, Trump makes hyperbolic statements and then backtracks from them. He trades in shock-value rather than truth-value. He would let the “good” illegal migrants back into the United States and “temporarily” ban on Muslim migration from “some” rather than all countries.

It may change, but as of early April such slippery stances had only reinforced his core support. The contradictions of Donald Trump go far beyond the normal level of candidate inconstancy, hypocrisy, duplicity and double-standards. Rather than weaken him in the eyes of his staple voters, they strengthen him. Exit polling shows that Trump supporters share a handful of unorthodox characteristics. His strongest support is from white lower-income males who don’t have a college degree, though he also has plenty of supporters among degree holders and those on higher incomes. He is distinctly less popular with women and millennial voters, an Achilles heel. Yet his backing is also unconventional. Twenty-seven per cent of Republican Latino voters opted for him in the Florida primary, surprisingly high against Marco Rubio’s less than triumphal forty-five per cent. Through the first half of the primary season Trump’s support was shared pretty evenly between religious and non-religious voters, Protestants and Catholics, evangelicals and non-evangelicals, registered Republicans and independents, and also between very conservative, conservative and moderate republicans.

What principally distinguished the Trump voters is that they were either dissatisfied or angry with government. His support among this category of voters was overwhelming. These are the “mad as hell” voters. Notably, it is does not matter to them if their candidate shares their values. They don’t expect Trump to share their values. Indeed his eclectic and protean views make it impossible for him to do so. So voters who support the deportation of illegal immigrants and those who support amnesty both support him. What he says or believes doesn’t matter to them, at least in a conventional sense. That’s a major bonus for a candidate.

Many of Trump’s core supporters treat his campaign shtick as an act. They either simply don’t believe that he will do what says but are still pleased he says it, or else they think he exaggerates for effect. He won’t deport eleven million illegals, just the criminals amongst them. These voters are angry at having been “sold out” by previous Republican incumbents and yet they expect Trump will reverse his opinions in office. So in these voters’ minds it seems that there is bad perfidy and good perfidy. They don’t necessarily agree with Trump’s more inflammatory positions yet find them good media fodder. Many of his supporters think of his candidature as a performance. He’s putting on a show. Accordingly, they suspend their judgment. They lean back to enjoy the act. Trump’s routine is that of an accomplished insult comedian. It is no coincidence that both he and the inventor of insult comedy, Don Rickles, were born in Queens. Trump’s strategy is to insult his opponents ad hominem all the way to the White House. Yet personal abuse seems an unlikely way to win over the majority of women who now make up 54 per cent of the American general electorate.

Mind you, Trump the reality television star knows that there is an audience for insult and rudeness. It has become a thread in the culture, just like the view that everyone lies, everyone deceives. Voters have watched innumerable television programs like House of Cards, Game of Thrones and Damages. These are populated entirely by stage Machiavellians, characters for whom betrayal and deceit are second nature. Some Trump supporters look on him as a character, like these, who is beyond good and evil. The devotees of his abusive media theatre have drawn deeply if unconsciously from the well of cultural postmodernism. They no longer think that there is such a thing as truth.[3] The culture has told them otherwise for decades. They now think there are only good or bad lies, or if not lies then melodramatic exaggerations that are neither truths nor untruths. In a postmodern culture, hyperbole replaces truth.

What exit polls indicate is that Trump partisans support him because he “he tells it like it is” and he “can bring change”. Trump’s hyperbolic “telling it like it is” is a defence mechanism for a stressed electorate. The voters want to feel secure in an insecure world. They are anxious about jobs, the economy and terrorist threats. Trump personifies many of the most primitive defences against anxiety. He insults, abuses, name-calls, brags and boasts. He wildly exaggerates his achievements, baits his opponents, and hints at violence against them. Many anxious voters find this barrage of slurs, self-aggrandisement, swagger and big talk comforting. Protectionism and isolationism are the policy equivalents of the electorate’s psychological defence mechanisms. Voter concerns are not unwarranted. The American economy’s capacity to produce jobs and growth has declined. Home-grown Islamic terrorist scheming has increased. Hyperbolic nationalism appeals in these circumstances. It feels good. Whether it works is another question.

 

The Centre-Right Response to Barn-Burning Populism

The need to “defend American manufacturing” is a well-worn populist theme. It goes like this: China (that is, globalisation) has taken American jobs and caused American factories to close. American manufacturing jobs fell by five million between 2000 and 2010. But a trade war with China will fix things. This means raising US tariffs to match tit-for-tat Chinese tariffs. Not free trade but “fair trade” is required. Yet America runs a trade surplus with its free-trade agreement partners. In fact, despite global competition, America today is the number two manufacturer in the world, with China just ahead. Manufacturing’s long-term output share of US real GDP has remained constant from 1960 to today. In short, manufacturing’s contribution to wealth creation over time has stayed the same but its contribution to employment has declined dramatically. This is not because of China or globalisation. It is because of machines.

As with agriculture in the nineteenth century, machines have replaced labour. This is not a function of bad nations. Rather it is the essence of industrialism. America produces almost as much manufactured output as China does with a workforce that is only 10 per cent the size of China’s. A net replacement of jobs by machines has been going on in American manufacturing since the 1960s. There is no political fix for this. It is the nature of industrialism. Industrial economies grow wealth by increasing productivity by reducing jobs and replacing them with machines. We see this not just in agriculture and manufacturing but also increasingly today in office and service work. The “post-industrial” economy is now being automated. Since 1990 every US recession has had a jobless recovery. Many of the jobs lost during the months of cyclical recession never return. They are replaced by machines. It is hardly a surprise then that the Trump campaign has lots of white-collar as well as blue-collar supporters.

The panic in rural America after the 1893 depression sparked a wave of agrarian populism. The long stagnation after 2008 triggered its own populist reaction. China and Mexico today stand in for the demonised Jewish global financers, cartels, trusts, and the pro-gold-standard anti-fiat currency “financial establishment” of the 1890s. Or for that matter the bad Japanese corporations in the 1980s who “dumped” their electronic goods cheaply in the US market. Remember the members of Congress smashing Japanese televisions in front of the US Capitol building in 1987? The irony is that those same cheap goods became the salvation of the American working class as its long-term real wages stagnated.

Hyperbolic gestures sooth anxieties but they have little practical effect. Take the similarly heated matter of illegal immigration. It is troublesome for many reasons. It encourages lawlessness and places a lot of strain on the public purse and the social fabric. That does not mean that illegal migration also causes unemployment. The mass deportations of Mexicans from the US in the 1930s had no appreciable impact on rates of unemployment. Jobless levels today are not discernibly different between those US states with large and small illegal populations. This is unsurprising. Local-born Americans and illegal migrant workers are employed in different job types so mostly they do not compete with each other for work.

Yet simply to say that hyperbolic nationalism is not practical is not sufficient. One also has to say what works and this has caused Republican Party moderates and conservatives a great deal of difficulty. They reiterate a formula that has existed since the glory days of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. It says that free markets, tax cuts, deregulation and reducing the size of government will produce economic growth that will create jobs. But what if this is no longer true? What if advanced economies are increasingly jobless?[4] What if they create greater wealth with fewer jobs and replace higher-paying with lower-paying jobs? What if we are seeing not just factory workforces shrink but also office workforces? Adding inexpensive vocational education to the Reagan-era list, as Marco Rubio and Rick Santorum did in the 2016 Republican primaries, misses the point that “skilled” jobs and “knowledge” jobs are caught in a relentless long-term decline. Education won’t bring them back. Nothing will; which leads to the question: if not jobs, then what?

What now offers optimism without false promise? A third of Republican voters no longer believe the claims of centre-right moderates and conservatives that they can “fix the economy”. These voters feel “betrayed”. They have concluded that what they have been routinely promised does not work. The Republican Party consequently has fractured three ways between conservatives, moderates and populists. This fracturing will not change for the better unless conservatives and moderates are able to offer a convincing economic vision rooted in reality. One of the few Republicans who seems to understand this problem is Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse. He has intelligent things to say about the “new normal” of the rapid changing of jobs, the dis-intermediation of business, and the general intensification of economic disruption.[5] To grasp that there is a “new normal” is essential if the parroting of false promises is to be avoided.

Sasse has called for a ceasefire in the conflict between economic and social conservatives. This makes sense in a world where the nature of work is shifting. In the twentieth century, to have an occupation meant “going to work” at an office, transport depot, retail counter or factory. In the age of driverless vehicles, automated factories, online purchases and algorithmic office processes, having an occupation increasingly relies on yeoman and family enterprise, desktop industrialisation, independent contracting, and household-based self-employment. The social shift implied by this is huge, not least of all psychologically. This then requires courage on the part of the political class not just to “tell it like it is” but also to “accept it as it is”. This means accepting the reality that not just manufacturing jobs but post-industrial employment is shrinking irreversibly. Marco Rubio’s rhetoric soared beautifully in the 2016 primaries but at the end of the day there was not much that was “new” in his talk of a “new American century”. The slogan was right but the “new normal” was missing from his campaign.

This also makes one think whether there is a “new normal” required for combatting terrorism and dealing with illegal immigration? Australia’s centre-Right governments under John Howard and Tony Abbott denied oxygen to populist movements by decisively putting a stop to illegal boat people-trafficking in 2002 and 2013. This traffic mostly originated in strife-torn Islamic nations. It began in 1998. Fifteen years later it was shut down. Contrast that to US Republican legislators who promised and then turned a blind eye to the enforcement of border laws for thirty years. This eventually shattered the trust of their electorate. Even when Eric Cantor, the prominent former Republican House Majority Leader, lost his seat to an unknown outsider in 2014, the dangers of the Republican political class saying one thing and doing another did not really sink in. Denial continues even today.

The terrorist acts in Boston in 2013 and San Bernardino in 2015 perpetrated by Islamist migrants to the US raised the stakes further. The conjunction of terrorism and immigration once again forced to the surface serious existential questions that have been debated since the American founding. Is America better off isolated from the dangers of the world or engaged in defeating them? The populist response has been to seek to ban, temporarily or otherwise, Muslim migration to the US. It makes no sense to give citizenship to a person who hates your culture and society. Yet does that extend to a whole religion? If that religion is the civilisational negation of your own, then possibly yes. The distinction between Islamic militants and Islam is difficult to maintain. Islam is a political religion. Historically it cycles between political quiescence and political militancy. The West in contrast separates church and state. Consequently Islam, whether quiescent or militant, fits uneasily into Western societies. Europe today demonstrates just how uneasily. America and Australia have been more successful to date at integrating Muslim immigrants. They have avoided the pitfalls of no-go sharia-dominated “Muslim only” neighbourhoods and big inward-looking concentrations of migrants from one country or region. Nonetheless the considerable number of foiled domestic Islamist terror attempts in both countries since 9/11 indicates the limits of assimilation.

Navigating between these countervailing factors is necessary but difficult. It requires a style of politics that can honestly “tell it like it is” but without over-stating the case. Populists exaggerate and caricature. Ideally conservatives respond firmly and clearly but also prudentially. They carefully weigh the competing value-ideas of freedom, security and prosperity. They find ways of accommodating each of these truths. They give life, liberty and happiness each its proper due. It is no use protecting an economy only to destroy its prosperity. If a liberty has to be clipped for the sake of security or a protection loosened for the sake of freedom, it has to be done precisely, judiciously, without over-reach. A good example of this is Ted Cruz’s response to the Brussels airport bombing. He proposed halting the flow of refugees from countries with a significant Al Qaeda or ISIS presence and expanding the policing of “Muslim neighbourhoods” in the US to prevent them being radicalised. While relatively few such neighbourhoods exist in America (Dearborn in Michigan is the best-known example), what Cruz did in a few words was to highlight Europe’s great undoing and a practical American alternative.[6] The latter encapsulates both the exceptions and the rule. It expects communal neighbourhoods, the handful that exist, to be properly policed (no “no-go” zones); it shields the broader society from unverifiable people coming out of nihilistic war zones; and it relies on America’s open, energising, mobile settler society to do the rest.

Such carefully-drawn distinctions are too restrained for populism. This is not Donald Trump “speaking his mind”. There is no spell cast by exaggeration. Ted Cruz is the most analytically-minded candidate in memory to make a bid for the American presidency. Many of his peers find his degree of calculation off-putting. To date though, it has paid off. He survived the culling of a huge Republican primary field because he foresaw the populist volcano that was brewing and positioned himself accordingly. He has campaigned as a US Senator who is an outsider. This is a precarious high-wire balancing act. A Janus-like quality attaches to the most accomplished politicians. Their success invariably relies on bridging great gulfs. Whether Cruz can unite a party that is fractured three ways is unclear. His calculations are not always right. In early Republican primary ballots he expected to snare the evangelical primary vote but failed to do so. He didn’t anticipate that populism had replaced evangelism in the minds of put-upon voters. Cruz’s flat-tax-focused economic plan, like his evangelical strategy, echoes the Reagan era. The saliency of that time, though, is almost over. All the same Cruz’s analytical approach stands out. It draws precisely targeted, careful distinctions that address serious problems that slack elites want to brush under the carpet. It does not ignore the fiery issues that rouse populist voters yet it treats them coolly, clinically. With Cruz’s cool intellect comes quick-wittedness and a sense of humour. Whether his unfazed style can manage to placate both the red-hot emotions of America’s angry populist voters and the irritated and ill-disposed feelings of Washington’s spurned political class, only time will tell. (editor’s note: Time did tell. Cruz dropped out shortly after this edition of Quadrant went to press.)

This year feels like a realignment year in US politics, akin to the turning points of 1932, 1896 and 1860. The Democrats look exhausted. Their primary season has pitted the unappetising crony liberalism of Hillary Clinton against the unpalatable geriatric socialism of Bernie Sanders. Republicans in contrast are going through a tense fire of renewal. It shows in their big turn-out numbers. This renewal is very high risk. The populist surge has ensured that. Nominating Donald Trump as its presidential candidate would guarantee a wipe-out in the 2016 general election. He is an anathema to many female, millennial and minority voters. In spite of that, high risk is sometimes necessary in politics, never less than when the tectonic plates of a nation start shifting.

Republicans today are experiencing the ground moving under them. After decades of dominance, the genteel formulas of the Mitt Romney–Jeb Bush donor-consultant class of institutional Republicans today are dead on arrival. Even the stock recipes of the Reagan-style conservatives are in trouble. Conservatives are yet to present a compelling vision of a “new normal” economy. Everything is up for grabs. No one can predict the outcome of the Republicans’ unplanned and uncontrolled stab at an on-the-run renaissance. Whatever happens, it is almost certain to affect Republicans and the American centre-Right for a generation. It is already making enemies out of allies and allies out of enemies. Certainties are evaporating. Surprising possibilities are emerging. Much re-aligning is going on. Where it will end it is impossible to say.

Peter Murphy is Adjunct Professor in Humanities and Social Sciences at La Trobe University and the author of Universities and Innovation Economies: The Creative Wasteland of Post-Industrial Societies.

 

 

Notes



[1]               The chapter on Hanson in his autobiography, Lazarus Rising, Sydney: Harper Collins, 2010, pp. 255-262 illustrates the subtlety of Howard’s understanding of the layers of appeal of populism and how to calibrate its antidote accordingly.

[2]               The immigrant-prohibitionist Alternative for Germany mutated out of a free-market party opposed to the euro-zone common currency.

[3] On this also see Ian Tuttle, “Donald Trump: The Post-Truth Candidate”, National Review, March 4, 2016. http://www.nationalreview.com/article/432375/donald-trump-debate-highlights-just-how-dishonest

[4]               James C. Bennett and Michael J. Lotus rightly observe that “the entire concept of a ‘job’ is going away. At the time of the Founding, most Americans did not have jobs. There is no reason to think most Americans in the future will have jobs, primarily working at the direction of others employing capital owned by others. Americans are not yet remotely prepared for this shift, either institutionally, or psychologically.” America 3.0: Rebooting American Prosperity in the 21st Century, New York: Encounter Books, 2013, p. 186.

[5]               See Jay Nordlinger’s excellent podcast interview with Ben Sasse at Ricochet.com https://ricochet.com/podcasts/sasse-speaks

[6]               In 2015 Daniel Pipes identified six no-go zones (for state officials) outside of Europe: Dearborn and Hamtramck, Michigan; Lodi, California; Queens, New York; Mississauga, Canada; and Lakemba, Australia. http://www.danielpipes.org/16322/muslim-no-go-zones-in-europe

Comments [4]

  1. Don A. Veitch says:

    Trouble or dissent, or is it dialectical progress, what is it? Yes, the slaves and the peasants are certainly revolting. Its been going on for far too long. Trump has bad hair days, too many, and his misguided many are on the march. You missed the real disruptive trouble makers from History.
    It began with that disturbing gadfly, Socrates, the corruptor of youth. And who on earth gave that pesky Nazarene and his committee of 12 the right to agitate, then dispute Pharisee Party business practices at the Temple? Wycliffe, the Lollards, dirty dissenters and disrupters all, they actually wanted to read The Bible by themselves. How dare they cause distress to Rome Inc. – it only led to Martin Luther’s disrupters.
    And those American terrorists at Concord had no right to challenge Crown Party policies on taxation. It only led, eventually, to Donald Trump and his ilk. Over in France, sans culottes upstarts then challenged Bourbon Party policy ‘to eat cake.’ No doubt all this trouble making came from that ’filthy atheist ‘Englishman, Tom Paine, scribbling about the rights of man.
    Adam Smith, what was up his kilt when he attacked Crown Party privileges and prerogatives well established, over centuries. He only encouraged Hayek who had a psychological problem with Austro-Hungarian, Nazi and Communist business practices. What’s wrong with serfdom anyway, everyone knows there place, everyone has a job and the rent is paid.

  2. bullockornis says:

    So what is this? Just an overview? A history? It doesn’t seem to have anything to say, to contribute. Unless that’s it: ‘Everything is up for grabs.’ Well I think we knew that.

    You know clever, informed commentators like this one keep talking about the Trump thing. They come up with all sorts of observations about his popularity but none of them seem to me to get right to it: he just speaks demotiki in the fullest sense, that’s all.

    He doesn’t have to be reasonable, or clever, or valid, or consistent or profound. If I may: all ‘you’ people have been all those things to your own satisfaction for generations. And still swank around and pat yourselves on the back about it. You are consciously, self consciously, an ‘upper’ class.

    Well, the hoi polloi is sick of you.

    Not simply sick of the ‘masters’ in the seats of government, sick of the bankers, sick of they international companies and whatever – no, sick of YOU. You, the ordinary journalist, professor, observer, commentator, pundit, ‘know it all’.

    See? You all speak High German. It is like a globally spread court of the Sun King. The ship of state slowly sinks under your command and you stroll the decks perfumed lace beneath your noses, idly discussing the matter and lamenting the irrational behaviour of the crew and passengers..

    Like this magazine perhaps. Sinking. Yet proud of its cleverness. Yet too stupid to make its comments pages widely popular… unlike for instance that grotty thing Takimag (apologies to Taki and the contributors) which makes automatic the notification of replies to one’s posts.

    Hasn’t made Takimag world famous or the toast of town but by god it has put it closer to it than Quadrant’s attitude.

    Of course this sounds like merely my desire to have my comments responded to and notification of it be sent to me.

    Well that’d be fine. But no, that’s not my motivation. I get enough notifications from other quarters. No, my desire is to have Quadrant arise from the ashes, to grow, to spread, to get invigorated… I wouldn’t give a damn if every word I’ve ever said were totally expunged from the site and ban imposed on my ever contributing another.

    Try me. Do it. All of it.

    • ianl says:

      Partly agree. Trump’s success is based on wide-spread dislike of the self-named “elites”, such as the author of this article.

      The more people like Peter Murphy sneer cleverly at the “masses” for being ignorant, boorish, easily led, the higher Trump flies. One would have thought that such clever “elites” would have seen that and toned down accordingly (in their own language – deny him oxygen) … but their egos, their narcissistic impulse to noble cause corruption cannot be controlled. So Trump flies ever higher.

      We have exactly the same set of dynamics in Aus, minus a Trump. Waffle was imposed upon us by a sneering “elite” (those voters don’t matter) and he has gone about installing everything the last popular vote in 2013 rejected. Noble cause corruption at its’ finest, eh Murphy ?

      Your obfuscatory rhetoric fools no one.

      • Bwana Neusi says:

        I found there were some real pearls in Peter’s article.

        He put his finger firmly on an irrefutable fact, namely that mechanisation and automation are inexorably replacing “jobs” and no number of promises from politicians of every persuasion will change that fact. They claim that they will create new jobs, but the reality is that meaningful opportunities will reduce and even built in redundancy will not change that fact.

        The next time you listen to our politicians sprouting on about creating jobs, just remember this article