Poisonous Populism: How (and How Not) to Deal with It

populism

Andrés Miguel Rondón, a Venezuelan economist, writes In Venezuela, we couldn’t stop Chávez. Don’t make the same mistakes we did. “The recipe for populism is universal,” he says:

Find a wound common to many, find someone to blame for it, and make up a good story to tell. Mix it all together. Tell the wounded you know how they feel. That you found the bad guys. Label them: the minorities, the politicians, the businessmen. Caricature them. As vermin, evil masterminds, haters and losers, you name it. Then paint yourself as the savior. Capture the people’s imagination. Forget about policies and plans, just enrapture them with a tale. One that starts with anger and ends in vengeance. A vengeance they can participate in.

That’s how it becomes a movement. There’s something soothing in all that anger. Populism is built on the irresistible allure of simplicity. The narcotic of the simple answer to an intractable question. The problem is now made simple.

The problem is you.

His counsel?

  1.  “Never forget that you’re that enemy. Trump needs you to be the enemy, just like all religions need a demon. A scapegoat. … What makes you the enemy? It’s very simple to a populist: If you’re not a victim, you’re a culprit.”
  2. Show no contempt. Leave “the theater of injured decency behind.”
  3. “A hissy fit is not a strategy.” Don’t try to force him out.
  4. Adopt a counterstrategy of proving “that you belong in the same tribe as them—that you are American in exactly the same way they are.” He continues,

Show concern, not contempt, for the wounds of those who brought him to power. By all means, be patient with democracy and struggle relentlessly to free yourself from the shackles of the caricature the populists have drawn of you.

It’s a tall order. But the alternative is worse. Trust me.

Meanwhile, Ross Douthat reacts to David Frum’s dystopian vision—and to everything else we have seen in the last two weeks, by presenting at some length a theatrical pageant of decency in which poisonous populism dooms itself through its lack of political skill, unpopularity, and the opposition of of the “deep state.”

So who’s right, Rondón or Frum? Will Trumpism fall of its own weight, or will the problem persist as long as we can’t get inside the heads of the Trumpistas?