From the late 19th or early 20th century down to the present day, liberalism has been progressively oriented to psychology and therapeutic technique. Yet advanced liberalism in the 21st century is as materialist a creed as classical liberalism was in the 19th, and liberal psychology remains as firmly grounded in a materialist philosophy as it was in Jeremy Bentham’s day. As Patrick Deneen has explained in a recently published and widely discussed book (Why Liberalism Failed, Yale), when we speak of radicals, liberals, and conservatives in their present context we are actually referring to radical liberals, liberals, and conservative liberals, and have been for a century at least. We are speaking, then, of philosophically radical materialists, philosophically liberal materialists, and philosophically conservative ones; of Social Democratic materialists, Christian Democratic materialists, Labour materialists, Tory materialists, neoliberal materialists, Democratic materialists, and Republican materialists. So it is natural that all of these parties should have a materialist understanding of the phenomenon they call populism in America and in Western and Eastern Europe, which they explain as the reaction on the part of the ignorant middle and unwashed lower-middle classes to what they perceive to be the damaging consequences of the neoliberal economic system founded on economic competition, free trade, the globalized economy, open borders, and free migration of peoples, all undergirded by the enforced principles of multiculturalism and secularism within a global association of withering national sovereignties and societies. Alone among the various heads of state of the Western nations, Donald Trump sees most clearly the falsity—or anyway the radical incompleteness—of this point of view, and the blindness of those who hold it. It is in this respect that Trump is least a Republican president; least, in fact, a Republican at all compared with his political colleagues on the right side of the aisle. It is true that he campaigned against free-trade deals, the transfer of American jobs overseas, the free and unlimited importation of cheap labor known as immigration, unemployment resulting from these things and from over-regulation, and the rest of it, yet he is carefully attuned to the noneconomic aspect of his supporters’ dissatisfaction and angst. What Republican politician of the pre-Trump era, what Republican politician even today, would have insisted—is insisting—that “We’re all saying ‘Merry Christmas’ now, aren’t we”?
It is for this reason that Trump’s famous promise to “Make America Great Again!” has been widely, or partly, misunderstood by the man’s political friends, his enemies, and people resolved to make the best of this presidency (meaning, often enough, to turn it to their selfish advantage and exploit the President himself). It is not at all clear, for instance, that the Claremont Institute’s National Greatness agenda fully or accurately represents Trump’s view of America, and that of his less learned and intellectually sophisticated supporters. Last February Claremont’s chairman of the board suggested that “Many Claremonters have the ear of this administration and may help Trump take what he feels in his gut and migrate it to his head.” Eight months later, the president of the institute, in an address critical of the American Enterprise Institute’s internationalist bent and agenda, asserted that, “we have a more urgent task at home. . . . We have over the last hundred years been heading down the slippery slope of despotism—even if an often benign and administrative despotism.” This of course is both true and truly stated, and Claremont’s insistence on “America First!” is a worthy thing. Nevertheless, there is a very real and healthy difference between nationalism and patriotism, and Claremont seems inclined toward the first of these. In Donald Trump’s first year in office he has shown himself to be both a nationalist and a patriot. The two things are not mutually contradictory, yet in combination the active element of the pair tends readily to dominate the passive one, as active things do. Trump is a man of action, with an active, impetuous, and often reckless personality very similar in some ways to Theodore Roosevelt’s, minus Roosevelt’s formal intellect. Trump is, as Roosevelt was, a man who cares neither to be left alone nor to leave others alone. Yet—I base this estimate on an individual impression—the mood of the portion of the country that elected him seems to have been isolationist in a loose, informal way, with respect not simply to foreign powers but to government at every level, international, federal, state, and local. Trump’s constituency seems interested above all in preventing governmental and financial officials from subjugating them, regulators from harassing and oppressing them and fencing them in—and then in being left alone. They do not appear eager to restore America to international hegemony, especially not at the price hegemony demands. (The Populist Party of the late-19th and early-20th century had no interest at all in empire.) They do, however, wish their country to be respected internationally, but on her own terms and not in response to blackmail in the shape of demands for international aid, for armed intervention to prop up some incompetent or corrupt government on behalf of world peace, or otherwise to rescue a world in which the shithouse countries predominate from itself. Hence the shouting, the signs, and the banners at every Trump #MAGA rally. The same may be said of the Britons who voted for Brexit in another “populist” coup, as liberals view it, that is rumored nowadays also to have been inspired, aided, and abetted by the Kremlin to weaken Great Britain and sabotage the European Union; the notable difference being that in the case of Brexit, demonstrations on behalf of bidding the E.U. fare-thee-well did not occur beneath waving placards lettered Make the U.K. Great Again. Simple British sovereignty was quite sufficient for the supporters of the Leave campaign.
All things considered, the bedrock of populist—of popular—discontent lies deeper, and stretches far more extensively, than concerns about national pride, national sovereignty, and economic distress. It is considerably more basic, and profoundly more human, than that. It has to do with the perpetual unsettledness of everything today: of politics, culture, religion, geographical place, and—especially—demography; of grounding assurances and beliefs. Human beings are constitutionally incapable of feeling secure and comfortable in modern liberal societies—societies mobilized by liberalism for an endless unwinnable war against the political and social evils endlessly identified by liberals and by liberal government that amounts to a state of permanent revolution, of relentless and accelerating economic, social, intellectual, and technological change, whose predicate and ultimate aims are the reinvention of human nature and the redesign of human society. The manifold results of this effort—personal uncertainty and apprehension; social restlessness, agitation, and commotion—add momentum to the project along its hurtling postmodern trajectory away from the human condition of the ages and toward an unknown and unknowable future. The liberal attitude toward the past is manifest in the contemporary liberal concept of what was once called a liberal education. Michael Oakeshott described “education in its most general significance” as “a specific transaction which may go on between the generations of human beings in which newcomers to the scene are initiated into the world they inhabit.” Oakeshott called this “a moral transaction . . . upon which a recognizably human life depends for its continuance.” But today, liberal education is no more—or rather, it is all too recognizably liberal. “[D]uring the past century,” Frank Furedi writes (“No Patrimony,” First Things, February),
this natural process has been stymied. Western societies have found it increasingly difficult to socialize young people into the values of the previous generations. In the face of extraordinary technological and social change, older generations have lost confidence in the values into which they were acculturated. As things now stand, Western society is estranged from the values that inspired it in the past. It no longer provides adults with a compelling narrative for socialization,
while prosecuting a “silent crusade” against its own past.
Aviezer Tucker of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard, writing in the January-February number of The American Interest, deplores the “noxiousness” of populism, its “vulgar and vile” politicians, and suggests means by which populism itself can be suppressed and finally made impossible. These include regulating the Internet to “block disinformation,” avoiding referenda and plebiscites, insulating international institutions from the voters, and translating political debates into technical ones managed and determined by technocrats for the purpose of “facilitating trade and migration to stimulate the global economy and generate growth that can shorten and moderate the severity of recessions” that produce “a vicious cycle of economic decline, breakdown of trade, economic and political hostilities, and isolation[ism]”—in short, “populism.”
Karl Polanyi, the Viennese-born left-wing social democrat, journalist, and author of The Great Transformation, held that the collapse of market economics and the liberal free-trade system of the 19th century that had “disembedded” economics from the larger social context in which it had been historically assumed was directly responsible for the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, and for the rise of fascism in the 1930’s after that system, briefly resurrected in the 1920’s, collapsed again beneath the weight of its inherent contradictions. “From the point of view of the community as a whole,” Polanyi thought, “socialism is merely the continuation of that endeavor to make society a distinctively human relationship of persons which in Europe was always associated with Christian conditions.” In his analysis, the state of markets determined the part fascism played in the postwar period. “In the period 1924-29, when the restoration of the market system seemed ensured, fascism faded out as a political force altogether. After 1930 the market economy was in a general crisis. Within a few years fascism was a world power.”
The wider point should be obvious, and it has a plain lesson for the present time. The free-market, free-trade system that subsumes all of human society, indeed all of human life, to the economic sphere is inhuman, inhumane, humanly intolerable, and finally unworkable, since in the end society as a whole will naturally rebel against it. In the 1930’s, the rebellion took the form of fascism. Today, the rebel movement is the thing neoliberals inaccurately and misleadingly call “populism.” This is emphatically not to say that “populism” is the same thing as fascism, though liberals insist that it is. Yet the fact that they see an equivalence between the two shows that they see plainly the situation before them, while failing to recognize the reality for what it really is.