I’m having the worst anxiety.
All of the reading I’ve been doing as of late. At the end of every paragraph, I’m compelled to write a response, to describe how this observation, made however many years ago initially, is germane to something that is happening today.
[That, of course, was your intention when you committed to reading only that political literature which was published prior to the year 2008. Why, then, do you complain about your, shall we say, fecundity of response?]
Because there’s never enough time in the day to respond to all of it. I feel as though I’m constantly racing against time, battling to get the words out before I lose the thought.
[If you are truly in such danger of forgetting that which you wish to say, then is it fair to question the pertinence, the urgency, of whatever it is you would?]
Jeez, you make it sound like I’m annihilating my mind with alcohol, or something. What I meant to say is that, by the time I get to the next paragraph, a new idea comes to mind and hogs the mental spotlight from its predecessor. I wish I had more time to read and write, more time to focus on the things I’m reading, and more time to draft a more detailed reply.
[Then perhaps it would behoove you to dispense with this expository filler and proceed to the heart of the matter forthwith. What have you been reading over the past few days? It’s still A People’s History of the United States, I trust?]
Oh, yeah: I’ll be reading that book for a while yet. It’s almost seven hundred pages long, and while it isn’t exactly dense, seven hundred pages of anything will command your attention.
[Didn’t you once read Les Misérables in three weeks?]
Yeah, but that was the Fahnestock and MacAfee translation, which a high school student could get through breezily enough. The vocabulary was simplified to an insulting extent, and while it didn’t kill the book, it did take away the reverent tone that accompanies other translations, that of Charles Wilbour in particular.
[Would you say that Howard Zinn’s writing style in A People’s History is as . . . moderated . . . as Fahnestock’s and MacAfee’s?]
Eh, that would be disrespectful to Howard Zinn—and distorting to his purpose. A People’s History was written in its chosen style originally, whereas Victor Hugo’s work was altered by Fahnestock and MacAfee. It’s the context, not just the style, that is troubling to me.
It’s funny that you would mention Les Misérables in connection to A People’s History, though, as both are concerned with the plight of the poor, of the downtrodden, or of the proletariat, as well as how that lowest of economic classes has been looked upon and treated historically by the elite. It’s an awfully familiar theme, nowadays, but all the same: reading A People’s History in 2018 is about as surreal as was reading Les Misérables in 2012.
[Did you really mean to say that the theme is awfully familiar?]
Well, that political/socioeconomic issue has been at the forefront of popular debate for years, but it became really ubiquitous in this decade, beginning with the emergence of the Tea Party. It’s still hard to tell what, exactly, the Tea Party was advocating for: some people say it represented the far-right reactionaryism of Ann Coulter and her ilk, but others believe it was the popular expression of the hardline economic libertarianism of Ron Paul—and if you think that that bifold definition is confusing, try to imagine how I felt, furnishing that definition in real time, when the Tea Party was still active, in the years 2011-2012.
[Do you believe that the Tea Party has since been deactivated?]
No, but the name has been discontinued, and it will probably be lost to history soon. Nevertheless, its spirit endures—or the spirit as I have come to understand it. In my humble opinion, even though the Tea Party may have come into being as a libertarian concept, it was almost immediately taken over by the far-right, and it became a catch-all for the right-wing populism, the feverish and rabid right-wing populism, that was all the rage within the Republican Party throughout Barack Obama’s first presidential term. The Tea Party’s ideology, for lack of better word, has since been rebranded by Donald Trump, but its intellectual tenets have been almost entirely unchanged.
[Does the Tea Party now represent the poor, and if not, did it ever?]
It claims to, but it doesn’t, and, in fact, it never could have. One of my coworkers, a conservative, troubled me when he said, sometime last year, that he cannot vote for Bernie Sanders for the same reason that he cannot vote for Donald Trump: because both of those politicians are populists. While there has never been any doubt in my mind that Sanders is committed to populism, I found it odd, his claim that Trump was a populist, as well. This isn’t because the men stand at such a distance from one another on so many different issues: it was because Trump had always struck me as the opposite of a populist.
[Is this because, in your mind, conservatism and populism are mutually exclusive?]
They are mutually exclusive. When Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee, Charles Krauthammer told Bill O’Reilly, and I quote: “Conservative populist is a contradiction in terms.” It’s true because, historically, conservatism has been associated with the consolidation of executive power, with the deliberate limitation of popular sovereignty. Liberalism, in turn, has been seen as the very opposite of this, hence why the United States has been traditionally referred to as a liberal democracy.
[Even though the majority of American presidents have favored right-wing policies.]
Exactly. One can be a right-wing populist just as easily as one can be a left-wing populist. It’s just that I was never apprised of the possibility of the former until I heard Trump described in those terms.
[And why were you skeptical of the possibility of right-wing populism? Hadn’t you encountered at least one reference to that concept in the lead-up to 2012?]
Actually, yes. Time magazine diagnosed the “pitchfork populism” of the Republican Party shortly after Mitt Romney entered the race in 2011, but somewhere down the line, I forgot that little tag—one which was cutesy when I first heard it, but which has become ominous in the seven intervening years. Basically, my skepticism of right-wing populism was based on my belief that the Right does not represent the will of the people, and therefore, it cannot be truly populist.
[Such a hypothesis, while potentially correct in its broader implications, is predicated on a strong and gross misunderstanding of what populism is.]
Oh, absolutely—but what do you expect from the citizen of a country wherein conservatism and liberalism have nothing to do with their historical antecedents? For instance, how many Americans can actually follow the conversation we’re having?
[Probably not very many, but let’s get back to your misunderstandings. Your clumsy definition of populism betrays left-wing bias, clearly, but so does it betray a misplaced emphasis on the results of populist policies, on the outcomes of such, rather than on populism in and of itself.]
Yeah, and that curiosity didn’t even become apparent to me until I read It Can’t Happen Here, a novel written by Sinclair Lewis in the year 1935. In this novel, widespread disappointment with the American government and economy leads to the rapid rise of Berzelius Windrip, a populist and psychopath who, with the backing of “the silent majority”, wins the presidency, abolishes the freedom of the press, appoints unqualified and compromised lawyers to the Supreme Court, and establishes prison camps for his many critics.
[You’re about to suggest that Sinclair Lewis was exceptionally prescient.]
Yes, but not because Berzelius Windrip is the original Trump. On the contrary, Windrip runs on a platform of aggressive socialism, calling for the government to take control of the banking systems and to assume a more prominent role in business generally. Trump, needless to say, is the opposite of that. Granted, Trump does share Windrip’s disdain for free expression, as well as his penchant for cronyism, but there were very few concrete links, little that would inspire somebody a hundred years removed from the Trumpish age to say, “This is awfully reminiscent of that one president I have heard and read so much about.”
[If that’s the case, then why did the book change your mind about populism?]
Because Windrip is a populist, and so is Trump. I never would have envisioned Trump as a populist before I read this book, but with the help of Sinclair Lewis, the illusory distinction is, at long last, overcome. Windrip promises to take over the banks, which have, in his opinion, defrauded so many working-class Americans. The results of this procedure are predictably disastrous, but what may be of the utmost remarkability in a thoroughly dishonest political culture is Windrip’s commitment to following through on his promise. Yes, the consequences are dire, which are common enough in American government, but they follow a pledged action, and that is almost unheard-of.
[Do you believe, then, that Trump has not kept his many campaign promises?]
No, he hasn’t. In his inaugural address, he claimed that the power of government was being placed in the hands of “the American people”. This statement seems increasingly preposterous and empty, the more I think about it, but whatever its meaning, it is clearly meant to inspire populist sentiment, to allude to some populist ideal.
[What was his exact quote? “We are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the people.”]
It’s a bunch of garbage, to be sure, but the claim is populist, regardless of what he did after he made that claim.
[So, you were judging the so-called populists by their deeds, and not by their rhetoric?]
Exactly. I wasn’t wrong, of course, but, as depressing as it is to say, often we learn a lot more about politicians from their lies, more so than from their truths, or their deeds.
[Let us end with a quote from President Trump: “January 20th, 2017 will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.” Implying that they were rulers once before?]
Not to my knowledge, but then again, I’m not very well-read.