In 1935, Sinclair Lewis published what would go on to be his most famous novel, It Can’t Happen Here. The novel describes the rise of Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, a populist politician who resembling Louisiana’s Huey Long or, for modern readers, Caracas’ Hugo Chavez. He is described thusly:
The Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his "ideas" almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor the sly cynicism of a country store.
Certainly there was nothing exhilarating in the actual words of his speeches, nor anything convincing in his philosophy. His political platforms were only wings of a windmill.
Windrip goes on to take over America, slowly turning it into a fascist state.
While totalitarianism does not threaten the United States today, and does not seem likely to in the future, Populism (a sort of soft-despotism) does. Rhetorical over-inflation—one of the hallmarks of a populist—is a continuous threat to a country whose decision-making process relies on sober conversation. And while we have had our share of sober-sounding (and minded) politicians, recent comments by presidential hopefuls should serve as a reminder that a populist trend is always a few utterances away.
What is interesting about populism in the United States, is its copy-cat quality. After all, once the political class takes note that rhetoric sells, it is hard to scale back. Take, for instance, Donald Trump’s surge in the polls, despite numerous controversial, tone-deaf statements. Below is a wonderful collection tallied by NPR:
On South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham
"I see your senator, what a stiff. What a stiff: Lindsey Graham."
"And then you have this guy Lindsey Graham, a total lightweight. Here's a guy — in the private sector he couldn't get a job. Believe me. Couldn't get a job. He couldn't do what you people did. You're retired as hell and rich. He wouldn't be rich; he'd be poor."
On President Obama
"We're tired of being pushed around, kicked around ... and led by stupid people. They're stupid people!"
On the media
"I have many millions [of followers] between Twitter and Facebook. It's great. It's like owning a newspaper without the losses. It's incredible."
The people reporting unemployment figures (i.e., the Bureau of Labor Statistics)
"Bunch of clowns. Bunch of real clowns."
This shoot-from-the-hip approach may strike many voters as a refreshing breeze in a bog of political misdirection. There is apparently an appeal to populism, as well, in times of economic stress. Consider the Latin American approach of making false promises of economic largess to the beleaguered poor. But not all candidates are content to follow the populist tide. Jeb Bush, whom some see as a likely Republican nominee, said this in response to Trump’s antics:
“Mr. Trump has every right to have every belief he has. He’s going to run, that’s fine,” Bush said. “But I don’t want to be associated with the kind of vitriol that he’s spewing out these days.”
Trump’s counterpart on the left, or, as a recent Wall Street Journal article termed them, the “disrupter brothers,” is Bernie Sanders. The socialist from Vermont is right at home using language of economic populism to advance an agenda that clearly distinguishes his campaign from other Democrats. (Sanders, to be fair, has never changed.) Elizabeth Warren also has a populist streak, which caused early commentators to wonder if Hillary Clinton would start to fall in line with the trend. (She has.)
Ultimately, rhetoric, no matter how inflammatory, has to be backed up by deed, so the best statesmen tend to possess the right combination of speech and action. Churchill had it, and so did Reagan. FDR did as well.
Here is Churchill:
Hitler is a monster of wickedness, insatiable in his lust for blood and plunder. Not content with having all Europe under his heel, or else terrorized into various forms of abject submission, he must now carry his work of butchery and desolation among the vast multitudes of Russia and of Asia.
And, true to form, Churchill met the monster and defeated him.
Here is Reagan in his First Inaugural:
Above all, we must realize that no arsenal, or no weapon in the arsenals of the world, is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women. It is a weapon our adversaries in today's world do not have. It is a weapon that we as Americans do have. Let that be understood by those who practice terrorism and prey upon their neighbors.
During this speech, 52 American hostages who had been held by the Iranians for 444 days were on their way home.
Today, there are a few younger politicians who show sparks of anti-populist seriousness.
Paul Ryan is one example. Known for his dispassionate, “wonky” quality, Ryan is the last person in Washington anyone would dream calling a populist. And yet, a recent speech at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in support of his poverty reduction proposal, demonstrates that the admixture of passion and social politics does not always result poorly. While Ryan is not running for president, other candidates, both Democrats and Republicans, might consider his approach; it cannot hurt, and compassionate conservatism, if anyone is looking for a branding idea, is not a half bad rhetorical touch. And after all, its much better than sounding like Hugo Chavez on World Water Day:
I have always said, heard, that it would not be strange that there had been civilization on Mars, but maybe capitalism arrived there, imperialism arrived and finished off the planet.
America could use more serious, non-populist politicians in the halls of power. The experience of Latin America makes this painfully clear. Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump style populists need not apply.