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


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?





Clash of Civilizations


David Ignatius writes this morning that For Bannon, the game has only just begun, but the column does not quite live up to the headline. It ends on the theme that Bannon’s false start may have jeopardized his long-term goal of fostering a clash of civilizations.

As with many revolutionaries, Bannon’s story is that of a wealthy man who came to see himself as a vanguard for the masses. He rose from a middle-class life in Richmond through an uneventful stint with the Navy; but his life changed after he enrolled at Harvard Business School, joined Goldman Sachs, founded an investment bank and made a fortune. He began directing conservative agitprop documentaries in 2004, but the 2008 financial crisis was a turning point. Bannon saw it as a betrayal of working people, and he embraced the tea party’s conservative revolt against Republican and Democratic elites. …

The rise of the Islamic State in 2014 gave Bannon a new rallying cry: “We are in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism,” he told the Vatican audience. “I believe you should take a very, very, very aggressive stance against radical Islam,” he said. …

Bannon undeniably has a powerful radical vision. But this time, he may have blundered. The travel ban has triggered a counterrevolt among millions of Americans who saw his target as the Statue of Liberty.

Although Ignatius didn’t tell us exactly what is coming next, this morning Bill de Blasio filled us in.

Six Initial Thoughts on the Gorsuch Nomination

Few wait with baited breath for Aardvark’s initial comments, but what the hell, I’ll share them anyway.

  1. It could have been worse. (See this reaction by Obama’s solicitor general, Neal Katyal.)
  2. Someone who makes a point of not showing undue deference to the executive branch is not a bad guy to have at this point in history.
  3. Accordingly, this time around the better part of wisdom would be for Democrats to participate actively in the hearings, listen to get a sense of his character and views, and then decide whether it’s someone they can support. If fundamental problems arise out of the testimony, vote no. If not, abstain or vote yes.
  4. Progressives need to take a clear stand on the stolen seat issue. 2018 and 2020 are both election years. They should declare in advance that they will refuse to anyone Trump might nominate to fill any Supreme Court vacancy that occurs in those years. Not because they agree with the Republicans’ having deducted one year from Obama’s term of office, but because turnabout is fair play.
  5. If a vacancy does occur in one of those years, the Democrats filibuster, and the Republicans invoke the nuclear option, then so be it. The filibuster is on the way out anyway, and it should be on the way out as long as its going to be abused. Jonathan Chait says let the Republicans kill it, and I tend to agree.
  6. Finally, just for laughs, I hope someone of a scholarly bent will provide a detailed, reasoned catalog of legal issues on which Gorsuch and Garland would probably vote differently. That might make for a reasonably informed discussion. And God forbid that we should have an informed discussion on a matter such as this.

David Brooks and David Frum: A Time to Choose


Essential reading today comes from David Brooks  (The Republican Fausts) and David Frum (How to Build an Autocracy).

To address your existential despair, Aardvark suggests a large bottle of Jack Daniels close by your side. Remember, no matter what time it is in your time zone, the sun is under the yardarm somewhere. My Hungarian readers should feel free to substitute palinka; Aardvark knows form experience that it will also get the job done.

Frum’s essay is an extended think piece for the March issue of the Atlantic (much of which was written, presumably, before the turmoil of the last few days). It is plausible, persuasive, and chilling. I can’t do it justice here, but, in summary, Frum sees a potential future in which many elements of society have gotten what they want from Trump, and are increasingly willing to tolerate a “repressive kleptocracy.” Take Hungary, for example, Frum writes,

Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s rule over Hungary does depend on elections. These remain open and more or less free—at least in the sense that ballots are counted accurately. Yet they are not quite fair. Electoral rules favor incumbent power-holders in ways both obvious and subtle. Independent media lose advertising under government pressure; government allies own more and more media outlets each year. The government sustains support even in the face of bad news by artfully generating an endless sequence of controversies that leave culturally conservative Hungarians feeling misunderstood and victimized by liberals, foreigners, and Jews.

The problem, as I see it, is that Frum’s  dystopian prognostication rests on the assumption that the constituencies to whom Trump has made his extravagant promises will actually receive the promised benefits—or can, at the end of the day, be deluded into thinking they have received them.

But that will not happen. The magical health care fix will not occur. The manufacturing jobs will not return. The middle class will not be rescued.

Two thngs to remember.

One. Trump never keeps his promises. If you’re doing the plumbing work for a new Trump hotel, the one thing of which, in an unpredictable world, you may be fairly confident is that you will not actually be paid.

Two. You can food some of the bubbas some of the time, but you can’t fool all the bubbas all the time.

Actually, I’m tempted to add a third: Donald, I served with Viktor Orbán, I knew Viktor Orbán, Viktor Orbán was a friend of mine, and you, Donald, are no Viktor Orbán.

But all seriousness aside, in his column today David Brooks offers four reasons why Republican officeholders will come to rue their Faustian bargain. Brooks’ second point relates to the present discussion:

Second, even if Trump’s ideology were not noxious, his incompetence is a threat to all around him. To say that it is amateur hour at the White House is to slander amateurs. The recent executive orders were drafted and signed without any normal agency review or even semicoherent legal advice, filled with elemental errors that any nursery school student would have caught.

It seems that the Trump administration is less a government than a small clique of bloggers and tweeters who are incommunicado with the people who actually help them get things done. Things will get really hairy when the world’s problems are incoming.

Finally, lest there be any doubt about where this will all end, there are reports today that John Dean—he of the missing moral compass; you younger folk can find him on Widipediapredicts that the “way the Trump presidency is beginning it is safe to say it will end in calamity.”



Vote Early and Vote Often


In case you missed it, this just in:

A man who President Donald Trump has promoted as an authority on voter fraud was registered to vote in multiple states during the 2016 presidential election, the Associated Press has learned.

Gregg Phillips, whose unsubstantiated claim that the election was marred by 3 million illegal votes was tweeted by the president, was listed on the rolls in Alabama, Texas and Mississippi, according to voting records and election officials in those states. He voted only in Alabama in November, records show.