Donald Trump’s rage against the machine has been typified as a reason why populism is rotten to the core. Stephen Rand’s article on “the Capitol shows why we need Merkel’s conservatism not Trump’s populism” in The Article is a simplistic knockdown of populism by using Trump as an example. In reality Trumps’ disgrace is of his own doing not populism.
What Trump believes in most of all is Donald Trump. More than Republicanism. His political manoeuvring around Capitol Hill last week showed how engulfed he was by his own narcissism, to the point today when he turned on his own supporters for the violence he stirred up in them, but, never has he had anything to apologise for. This is not populism as we know it. Nor should it be assumed populism is so easily categorised to include Trump as a cheerleader. By some means he was successful as populist to gain the American presidency through “America First” and “Make America Great Again”, slogans backed up by nationalism and a forceful foreign policy, but his divisive approach with American voters (Which America?) and overtly pro-rich policies such as on tax and medicare (again, for which America?) were ultimately about divide and rule. And populism can never succeed when it restricts itself so violently.
Stephen Rand sets out his stall on populism by laying out a number of chosen characteristics. Some are justifiable such as populism’s distrust of a government’s civil service – which most ruling parties find as limiting on them (as Thatcher and Blair did in achieving their goals). He then defines it as riding roughshod over the rule of law yet the law is there to be changed to meet any government’s ideals (Thatcher and unions). Rand then attacks populism for its rage against the media. Five Star movement in Italy had its roots in using social media more effectively than traditional media did; Trump clearly had his supporters in the media such as Fox.
Rand ends his negativity on populism by stating “populism stands for nothing but pessimism and scepticism.” He views it as a nihilistic materialistic crusade. But to use the Brexit referendum as an example it was Europhiles who sought to misuse the law to their own ends and frustrate the referendum result. It was the Europhiles who painted a picture of gloom with Brexit and continue their declinism by denigrating their own country. Rand ignores the values of the nationalism as a force for good, democracy in action, and protecting sovereignty.
Where I have some common ground with Rand is when he describes conservatism as directly against populism. The binary politics of left and Right have now begun to break down as voters become disenfranchised by liberalism (and its proximity to conservatism). The Conservative party has already imploded once over Brexit (by Cameron’s miscalculation over the referendum) and is only held together now whilst its members seek a truce to stay in power. But at some point the conservative faction in the Conservative Party will no longer tolerate the populist policies of Boris Johnson. Kier Starmer of the Labour Party has the same challenge as he seeks to wrap the party in conservatism whilst accepting the Brexit decision. Traditional party politics in the UK are in transition with conservatism and populism dividing the votes. Both parties have learned the evils of liberalism when under Blair and Cameron.
Stephen Rand paints conservatism as a force for good through the work of Burke and his emphasis on partnerships, with Merkel as its latter day heroine. Yet whilst Merkel is undoubtedly a major politician so was Thatcher and Blair who were ultimately consumed by their own sense of invincibility. Merkel has presided as a dominant force in a Europe and Union that, for instance, in the height of the Coronavirus pandemic failed its southern states – what we saw is conservatism in tandem with liberalism – protecting an undemocratic institution whilst failing to work in partnership. Stephen Rand ends his attack on populism – or should we really say, Trump’s populism, by demanding its evils are distinguished. Trump has managed that on his own.