The “Threat” of Populism

Following the Brexit vote in the U.K. in June and Donald Trump’s unexpected election victory mainstream media have been filled with reports about a wave of populism that supposedly threatens to wash right across the formerly Christian and now liberal West, striking fear and loathing in the hearts of the political class and liberal commentariat. Populism is labeled “extremist,” “far right,” “anti-immigrant,” and sometimes simply “fascist”.

The anxiety of the politically correct sharpened at the beginning of December due to a presidential election in Austria and a referendum vote in Italy, both of which took place on the fourth. In the event, the Austrian populist “far right” Freedom Party’s candidate for the largely ceremonial office of president lost but did secure 47 percent of the vote, possibly auguring gains for his party in parliamentary elections two years from now. In Italy Prime Minister Matteo Renzi had announced he would resign if voters rejected constitutional “reform” he sought but populists of the Five Star Movement and Northern League opposed. The opposition prevailed, Renzi resigned and populists rejoiced. Matteo Selvini, leader of the Northern League, captured their feeing in Italy and elsewhere when he tweeted, “Long live Trump, long live Putin, long live Le Pen, long live the League!”

Why do the political class and their journalist sycophants fear populism? After all, it really amounts to no more than democracy writ large.

From the point of view of the politicians and liberal journalists that is exactly the trouble with it. We need to recall a little modern history to grasp why it is so.

Most Americans would describe the governments of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany as dictatorships and they would be correct. What they sometimes fail to realize is that Italian Fascism and German National Socialism (Nazism) were also mass movements. That is, they were populist. When Allied victory in World War II led to liberals replacing defeated regimes everywhere in continental Europe west of the Iron Curtain except Catholic Spain and Portugal (which had both been neutral in the war) the parliamentary systems they set up worked like the U.S. Congress insofar as members were elected. However, the systems were also engineered so as to prevent populist movements from again becoming a decisive force. “The people” were to have a say in government, but not the wrong people, not the ones described by U.S. media after Mr. Trump’s victory as “white working class.” So it is that in France, for instance, the National Front, a fringe group thirty years ago and now the country’s second-largest party, has never held more than two or three seats in the Chamber of Deputies.

Besides the exclusion of populists, governments in Europe since World War II have been dominated by Social Democracy or its Catholic variant, Christian Democracy, designed to reconcile Church teaching with the Revolution that began to unroll when liberalism exploded politically in France in 1789. In the U.S. the Democratic Party plays the role of Social Democracy and the Republican Party that of Christian Democracy but with nothing Christian about it.

The two actually form a kind of uniparty with the Republicans allowing the Democrats to provide entitlement programs and enough other government goodies to keep the citizenry pacified, and the Democrats letting the Republicans advance the interests of Big Business and Big Finance without too much hindrance. At least that’s the way things have been. However, in a democracy everybody is supposed to be equal and a great many, beginning with the “white working class,” have come to see some members of society, not to speak of illegal immigrants and “refugees” receiving taxpayer-supported government benefits, as a lot more equal than themselves, and they are reacting against it when given the chance.

The Brexit referendum in the U.K. was such a chance. Brits who seldom or never voted in elections because they never saw candidates concerned about issues touching their lives, like workers from other E.U. countries taking jobs from them, were happy to vote for leaving the E.U. Similarly, Americans who have believed it would make no difference if they voted for a typical Democrat politician or Republican one, were electrified by the emergence on the electoral scene of Donald Trump, who is nothing if not atypical. Indeed, with forty-five Republican members of Congress announcing they wouldn’t vote for him in November, he was running without the full support of the party whose candidate he was!

This is not the occasion for speculating at length on what the populist-backed incoming Trump administration will be like except to wonder whether those who voted for him may find themselves the victims of a bait-and-switch con.That’s in view of how Mr. Trump is filling his cabinet with millionaire and billionaire former Goldman Sachs executives, defense-contractor board members, Big Oil and other corporate CEOs. One thing to be said for them: They may be more interested in doing business with Russia than in the insanity of waging a new Cold War (or worse) against the major country hated by the uniparty because it is the only one left in which Christianity (albeit schismatic) plays a visible role in the nation’s public life.

Mention of the religion leads to another observation. A miniscule section of the U.S. public, Catholics to whom moral issues are more important than pocketbook concerns, has no reason to be especially hopeful. Mr. Trump calls himself pro-life, but it is clear he will do no more about abortion than maybe try to name to the U.S. Supreme Court a Justice who might vote to reverse Roe v. Wade if the occasion arose. Contrary to what many seem to believe, reversal would not end abortion in the U.S. but simply return the question of its legality to the states. What is needed is a Constitutional Amendment protecting life from the moment of conception, as the late Nellie Gray of March for Life always knew. As for same-sex marriage, Mr. Trump made a point of inviting the support of the “LGBT community” in his acceptance speech at the G.O.P. convention and told Leslie Stahl on “Sixty Minutes” after his election that the matter is “settled” (his word). Divorce, as common in the U.S. today as marriage, is so deeply embedded in the culture as well as the law that it is not an issue, though it should be. If it were, Mr. Trump would not be in a position to take a stand against it.

That raises the question of his trustworthiness. Does he keep his promises? The ladies who used to be named Mrs. Trump might be asked.

To be sure, there was no question at all as to where Mrs. Clinton stood in regard to anything discussed here. How is it she lost? Why didn’t women voters turn out for her as it was supposed they would? Were they so sure she’d win that many — too many — didn’t bother to vote? Whatever the answer, populism, if that’s what it must be called, prevailed.

It is also not enough, and here I give voice to a view held by so few in the U.S.or elsewhere that to describe them as a miniscule section of the public would grossly exaggerate their number: What is needed is government by men of power with consciences well formed by teachings of the One True Faith, men who see the purpose of government as providing conditions enabling as many as possible to save their souls, not jobs, health care or security; government dedicated to doing what God wants instead of what “the people” think will make them happy; the kind of government that existed before the Revolution transformed Catholic Christendom into the liberal West. Its rulers were not indifferent to their subjects’ material welfare (it is leftist propaganda that the governance of Christian princes was oppressive; that they kept peasants and workers poor in order to make themselves rich) but they knew from Scripture that earthly wealth gaineth a man nothing if he loses his soul. Since such government is not likely to exist anytime soon, we’ll have to take what exists even if it is only populism, hope for the best from it, and do what we can to advance the better.

  • schmenz

    Well stated. Thank you.

  • Kimberly Gilbert

    “Mr. Trump calls himself pro-life, but it is clear he will do no more about abortion than maybe try to name to the U.S. Supreme Court a Justice who might vote to reverse Roe v. Wade if the occasion arose.”

    That is no small consideration. Given the binary choice of the presidential election, would we be able to make this kind of statement had HRC won?

    Not. A. Chance.

    I think we are in a much more hopeful place as Americans, (and yes, even as Catholics), with the incoming Trump administration; I continue to pray for good judgment on behalf of the president-elect.

    “This is not the occasion for speculating at length on what the populist-backed incoming Trump administration will be like except to wonder whether those who voted for him may find themselves the victims of a bait-and-switch con.”

    This statement itself is an example of a “yuge” speculation, (and a cynical one), but I respect your opinion, Mr. Potter. Thank you for expressing your thoughts on this.

  • Reggie Ramsbottom

    Even if Trump should get Roe V. Wade overturned the result will still be people of the “Pro-Life” movement arguing that women should never be punished for delivering their child up to the executioners knife.

    Women in America are some of the most horrific murderers in the world today and they get white-knights the world over to rub their back, give ’em hug and tell them everything is going to be ok even after they commit such a wholly detestable act.

    So no matter what Trump does, the commonly shared anti-punishment aspect of the “Pro-Life” and “Pro-Choice” movements will never change.

    Cause ultimately that’s what people want, Even most Catholics.

    Sad.

  • AugustineThomas

    The Church in the West is full of cowards. This stuff is all obvious, but for selfish reasons, the people who control the Church and who control the governments in the West don’t want to acknowledge it. The real problem is the average people who keep allowing themselves to believe that some, new, slick-talking politician will finally bring them the immediate salvation that Christ makes us wait for. Rebuilding the Tower of Babel will always have the same end results.

  • AugustineThomas

    It’s almost as if orthodox Catholics need to stop waiting for non-Catholics to save them and create their own cultures again.

  • Alyosha Karamazov

    That’s a very good point. Politicians have a Messiah complex in part because dupes that vote are looking for a Messiah in all the wrong places. Also, perhaps a lot of it has to do with the clericalization of the Church, meaning that clueless laymen are waiting for the clergy to tell them what to do, and are afraid to act without them. Sad to say, the call to build Christendom will not come from most of our clergy, who are generally as clueless as the laity.

  • Carl Phillips

    Thanks, Gary, I think you hit the nail right on the head. Let’s hope he lives up to what he says.