Donaid Warren’s untimely death in May has deprived the American and European populist right of a truly penetrating analyst. From his pioneering study of “Middle American radicals,” a term he coined in 1976, to his dense biography of Father Charles Coughlin published last year. Professor Warren examined in depth the populist bridge between modern democracy and social reaction. Though by no means a partisan of what he described, he nonetheless maintained close friendships on the right—with, among others, several editors of Chronicles. In my case that friendship led to his sharing of valuable data on the Austrian populist Jörg Haider, on whom he reported regularly in these pages in recent years. Without that aid, which Don offered unstintingly, I could not have completed the final chapter of a book then in progress.
To some on the populist right, Don did not seem sufficiently engaged, but, like Max Weber, he drew a useful distinction between scholarship and political commitment. Though at times he gave at least inklings of rightist sentiment, he saw himself, for the most part, as a research scholar, whose bounden duty it was to be dispassionate about his subject. In pursuit of that ideal, he taught the rest of us about the prospects and pitfalls of populist movements combining majoritarian and egalitarian rhetoric with an anti-modern social vision. Don did not believe that these two populist features were always in harmony or that populism could always be counted on to resist leftist elites. He was right in both assumptions, painful though it may be for some of us to admit it.
At our last meeting, about a year ago, in a noisy cafe abutting the University of Michigan, Don responded to my comment that Christopher Lasch had come around to his view about Middle American radicals by observing that “things have changed.” He went on to explain that Middle Americans could be seduced with entitlements, even those who were not keen on quotas or liberal immigration policies. Don made this observation without visible emotion, which was typical of the way he approached his work. Though upset by his bleak premise, which he could of course document, I was forced to agree. One could not be angry at Don even when he punctured cherished illusions. An honest researcher who never avoided uncomfortable conclusions, he nonetheless showed kindness as well as candor. Anyone who dealt with him would have sensed this at once.
One suspects this fact was as obvious to his students at Oakland College, where he taught for decades, as it was in his other professional relations. As Samuel Francis, who benefited from his early work, once noted: “Only a brute could dislike Don Warren.” A detailed obituary in the New York Times on May 22 lists his scholarly accomplishments and gives the upshot of his widely publicized work on Father Coughlin’s populist career. Among the achievements not mentioned was that Don Warren could be characterized as “nice,” as that term was traditionally applied, not as a putdown but as a compliment intended for a considerate person. For this even more than for his diligently pursued studies, Don deserves our prayers and fond memories.