May 19th, 2019


The populist moment: This is a historic year of experts ignored, conventions upended and establishments reordered

David Shribman

By David Shribman

Published June 27, 2016

The early 1860s were years of liberation, in America where a great civil war was fought over slavery and in Russia where millions of serfs won freedom. The late 1920s were a time of privation, when joblessness and despair swept the globe. The year 1969 was a time of upheaval, when robust figures like Charles de Gaulle and Lyndon Johnson were chased from office.

And so history almost certainly will record that 2016 was a year of rebellion and populism, when a Manhattan tycoon with an Ivy League degree but little fealty for the conventions of modern politics or politesse was a finalist for the American presidency and when a Tory prime minister with impeccable Eton and Oxford credentials lost perhaps biggest the public gamble of modern times.

Regardless of whether Donald J. Trump prevails in November — and right now public opinion polls show a close race with former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton — this year is set to be remembered as one of unusual tumult, with the political establishment reduced to rubble and with all of the expectations and assumptions of American civic life turned upside down. In Britain, the wreckage of the old order is just as stark, the elites just as battered, the political calculus just as disrupted.

In an era of disruption — in commerce, in music, in the news media, even in the taxi business — it should come as no surprise that vast and powerful disruptive forces are sweeping through civic life, leaving political parties in upheaval if not in ruin, forcing veteran political figures into retrenchment if not into full retreat, rendering established institutions damaged if not demolished.

Indeed, the great populist moment and the great populist figure of the age were joined, by caprice of the calendar Friday, when Mr. Trump, in a visit to the Turnberry golf resort he owns in Scotland, stood in front of television cameras in his “Make America Great Again” baseball cap and said that Brexit, as the British withdrawal from the European Union is called, was “a great thing.”

Populism, to be sure, is a slippery concept, often mischievous or misleading. It can arise from the right (the anti-immigrant impulse of former Gov. Pete Wilson of California, which in 1994 tipped Hispanics against the GOP in a state where the party was once competitive) or the left (the Populist uprising that produced a separate political party in the 1892 election). It can be local (the Upton Sinclair gubernatorial campaign of 1934, which was defeated in California), regional (the 1968 third-party presidential campaign of Gov. George C. Wallace of Alabama) or national (the “Share Our Wealth” campaign of Sen. Huey Long of Louisiana in the 1930s).

It can be led by figures who are soft-spoken (Democratic Sen. George S. McGovern of South Dakota, who lost 49 states in the 1972 presidential election) or who are fiery and flamboyant (businessman H. Ross Perot, who finished third in the 1992 election). It can occur in nations prone to upheaval (Argentina, where the Perons were principal figures in politics from the 1940s to the 1970s) as well as in nations marked by social peace (such as Canada, where Tommy Douglas and his Co-operative Commonwealth Federation in Saskatchewan became pioneers in single-payer medicine in the early 1960s).

What all these movements have in common are platforms and rhetoric claiming to speak for the people rather than big institutions, for the poor or middle class rather than for the wealthy, for a national interest rather than for established special interests.

The world has seen populist rebellion throughout history, sometimes for great good, sometimes for great evil. The populism of the American West at the end if the 19th century, for example, was the prelude to a burst of creative reform that eventually was steered not by William Jennings Bryan, the Democrat who railed against the banks of the East, but by Theodore Roosevelt, who went to Harvard and who lived in a 22-room mansion on Long Island. The populism that swept Italy and Germany in the years between the great wars was racist, destructive and murderous.

There was little question, even before the ballots were counted in the Brexit referendum, that Britain was experiencing a populist moment for the ages, with anti-elitist themes in the air and talk of the people’s will on every tongue.

It was clear that one slice of British life — the expert class, for want of a better phrase — favored continued British membership in the European Union, while another slice — call it the iconoclast class, for along with blue-collar and service-industry workers, it included established political figures such as former London Mayor Boris Johnson, a devout warrior against conventional thinking — just as fervently opposed it.

The collision between these warring sides was illuminated just before the referendum by opinion pieces in two newspapers, the Telegraph, which generally leans right, and the Guardian, which generally leans left. They offered world views that were in conflict, one arguing, “We can only reach our full potential if we take back democratic control over the direction and destiny if our country” and the other imploring, “Vote for a united country that reaches out to the world, and vote against a divided nation that turns inwards.”

These divisions are replicated across the West. In France, the insurgency of National Front leader Marine Le Pen got a boost with the Brexit victory; she surely will press her anti-immigrant views as next year’s presidential election nears. In Britain, the vote scrambled the political order, adding urgency and perhaps potency to Scottish nationalism, which may come to another referendum vote sooner rather than later.

The effect on the United States is yet unknown, but already 2016 is etched in history as a campaign year of unusual tension and tumult.

Long before Britons lined up for Leave or Remain, Americans divided over the rise of Mr. Trump, who criticized his rivals with a venom seldom seen in domestic politics, who expressed views on race seldom shared in public and who defied the establishment of a political party that itself was a symbol of the national establishment. He belittled the Bushes, the royal family of the Republican Party, even as he ridiculed the party leaders who control the legislative branch and who would, in a Trump administration, hold in their hands the destiny of the Trump agenda.

And yet there is little question that Mr. Trump will use the British vote as a bludgeon against Ms. Clinton, who herself has just completed a battle against a populist insurgency in her own party. The campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont was based on the same anti-establishment forces that propelled Mr. Trump to victory, and the hurricane-force winds of the Sanders campaign, which blew away Ms. Clinton’s aura of invincibility, pushed the former New York senator to adjust her views on trade agreements and to adopt an anti-business profile at odds with her recent history and perhaps her inclinations.

Campaigning as a populist is easy; governing as one is far more difficult. Mr. Trump has mastered the former. Ms. Clinton will argue that the latter is incompatible with American tradition. Thus the great populist moment is itself about to be transformed into a truly significant November confrontation of ideas and institutions.

David Shribman, a Pulitzer Prize winner in journalism, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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