Populism and the trauma of history

Populism Is a Door That Swings Both Ways

Let me introduce you to Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who became president of Mexico in January of this year.  He’s a populist of the left.  I bring him up because there’s a misperception in the US, and even in Europe, that populism is a pathology of the right, appealing to low but deeply-rooted prejudices about race and nation.

In fact, populism swings both ways.

“Populist” is a term favored by the elites for politicians who have migrated into, and occupied, the vast space between the public and themselves.  Local history and circumstance determine the direction of the populist’s advance.  In the US and Brazil, where the establishment was controlled by the center-left, populism, token of a public in revolt, erupted from the right.  In Greece and Mexico, where government and the economy were in the hands of the center-right, the assault came from the left.

First in the current crop of triumphant populists was Alexis Tsipras, who in 2015, at the age of 40, was elected prime minister of Greece.  Tsipras is, or I should say was most of his life, a Communist.  His program attacked capitalism, the banks, the European Union as a tool of German bankers, and traditional Greek politicians as corrupt agents of the EU.  He stood against the international and domestic status quo, and for a sort of economic nationalism.  Tsipras the prime minister soon abandoned most of Tsipras the candidate’s long-held beliefs – but these remain a fair representation of left populist positions.  The world is said to be controlled by shadowy forces – the super-rich, the one percent.  The nation is in bondage to these foreign, or rather rootless, entities.  Mainstream politicians and established institutions are merely stooges and enablers, feeding off the trough.  They must be swept away.

Obrador, 65, is somewhat younger than his American counterpart, Bernie Sanders, but he belongs to an older generation than Tsipras, and his rhetoric often sounds dated, an echo of the Sixties and Seventies.  But the message is the same.  The dragon Obrador believes he was put on earth to slay, his Great Satan, is “neoliberalism.”  This is the cause of social and economic inequality.  This is the reason for Mexico’s violence and corruption.  Obrador holds that democracy in his country is really a “mafia in power.”  He has cried “to the devil with the institutions,” and is currently attempting to replace many of them with his own improvised structures.  Resistance he blames on sellouts and puppets of neoliberalism.  A constant target of Obrador’s rage is the “bourgeois” news media.

It would be useful, before I enter into my theme, to contrast the world of the left populists with that of their supposed opposites on the right.

In many ways, it’s the same dark place.  Power and money go hand in hand.  For the left populist, government is a tool of the one percent.  For the right, it preys directly – and vampirically – on the “forgotten man and woman.”  “Washington flourished,” charged Donald Trump at his inauguration, “but the people did not share in its wealth.  Politicians prospered, but the jobs left, and the factories closed.”

On the question of why modern society is in crisis, the differences are somewhat more marked.  For a left populist like Obrador, it’s the repudiation, by the ruling class, of the principle of equality.  Those at the top kill and steal with impunity.  (Obrador has sold off the presidential airplane, and now flies, ostentatiously, in economy class.)  For populists of the right, the crisis of society follows logically from the destruction of what is usually termed “culture” but could just as accurately be called “community” or even “morality.”   Global elites, promoting alien values like multiculturalism and political correctness, are said to be systematically dismantling the mos maiorum, the ways of the founders, like faith, family, and patriotism.  Their open objective is the abolition of the nation.  The response, therefore, must be the affirmation of the nation.  Trump insists on placing “America first.”  For Viktor Orban, it’s “Hungary before everything.”  That is the true basis of sovereignty, and thus the only possible grounds for equality.

The right populist wants to make the nation great again.  The past is a domain of turmoil and trauma, where much has been lost:  but for the right, that is the way to salvation.

The Past Is a Wound That Never Heals

On March 25, Obrador revealed that he had sent a letter to the king of Spain, demanding an apology for the conquest of Mexico 500 years ago.  He spoke of “massacres” of “indigenous people” and “human rights violations” by the conquistadors.  This backward projection of contemporary attitudes exemplified the left’s relationship with history, which serves a useful function as a bottomless source of grievance.  The past, on this account, is the mother of all injustice.  It has spawned bigots and fascists, and opened a gaping wound where memory should be.  In a world defined by racial and sexual identity, the only acceptable stance toward the past is repudiation.

Obrador doesn’t want to make Mexico great again.  He would agree with Eric Holder’s statement:  “Exactly when did you think America was great?  It certainly wasn’t when people were enslaved.  It certainly wasn’t when women didn’t have the right to vote.  It certainly wasn’t when the LGBT community was denied the rights to which it was entitled.”  The conquest of the vote and of rights to which minorities are entitled does not elicit admiration.  There are no lessons to be learned in that house of pain.  On the brutal master and abuser of power alone fell the snows of yesteryear.

The negation of history – that is, of every injustice against race and sex – is utopia, a place built from nothing on science and pure reason.  This has always been the orientation and destination of the left.  The past is to be transcended.  Political radicals of the last two centuries assumed that the task of transforming society required a profound understanding of history.  That faith has been discarded.  Obrador, the time avenger, has simplified Mexican history to three progressive episodes, to which his ascension to power is the culmination.  The Age of Obrador he has christened “the fourth transformation”:  it will make “honesty and brotherhood a way of life.”  Forgotten in this utopian scheme are the multitudinous life-stories of all the centuries since the Spanish conquest, and the millennial experiences of Mexico’s “indigenous people.”  The past is sorrow and grievance, not memory.

At least Obrador has thought about history, if only as a prologue to himself.  He gives away his age by this.  Younger prophets on the left reduce the past to rhetoric in the Holder style – a rote recital of iconic crimes against humanity.  Comparisons to US and European history favor Hitler and the Nazis to an exhausting degree.  Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, budding populist, has deployed the trope with regard to slavery.  Cory Booker, mere apprentice, has done the same with regard to Trump and the environment.  None of this is intellectually taxing.  The notion that we should make an effort to understand the past appears almost immoral.  The past is to be rejected, and the happy populist is liberated from the need to read all those fat tomes.  At the extremes, this attitude approaches nihilism, and takes the form of a war against memory.  The overturning of Confederate statues, the renewed call for slavery reparations, the erasure of Columbus Day to make room for “Indigenous People’s Day” – here are the skirmishes in the wars of time.

Spain’s government and mainstream political parties huffed their rejection of Obrador’s demands.  The left populist party, Podemos, declared that the Mexican president was justified “in demanding an apology for abuses during the conquest.”  Podemos is the offspring of the 2011 street protesters who embraced their own hazy visions of utopia.  The party’s spokesperson argued that an apology would “recover democratic and colonial memory that would restore the victims.”  Memory, in this instance, seemed to mean the invocation of loss and the resurrection of pain.

Greatness Is a Memory That Hides Beyond Recall

Populists deal in exaggeration.  Left and right alike, they inflate rhetoric until it bursts.  The present, therefore, is depicted by both sides in the most appalling terms:  we are stranded, so the story goes, in a disastrous, dystopian age – the worst of times.  Our existential political riddle is how to escape this horrific epoch.  The answer, from the left, is to erase the past and build the perfect society from scratch.  Matters are more complicated for the right.

Everyone knows that President Trump wants to make America great again.  But what, precisely, does that mean?  Trump aims to break out of the “carnage” and corruption of the decadent present.  The status quo must be overturned.  Unlike the people of the left, however, he doesn’t intend to hold the present accountable to a future utopia.  His ideal looks back to the past.  In the Trumpian formulation, greatness is a condition to which we must return.

Part of the ideal is economic.  There was once a time when workers could obtain high-paying jobs and enjoy comfortable middle-class lives.  The elites who rule over the awful present have somehow destroyed that possibility.  Trump has promised that his every decision “will be made to benefit American workers and American families.”  He will crush the “arrogant” elites.  Presumably, the golden age of working-class comfort will then resume.

Longing for a cinematic version of postwar society has been commonplace in politics, not just in the US – and not just on the right.  Even a progressive like Barack Obama can, on occasion, wax nostalgic:  “during the post-World War II years, the economic ground felt stable and secure for most Americans, and the future looked brighter than the past.”  The point of the exercise, here and always, has been to use the past as a cudgel with which to beat the present.

Trump has set his sights on more than prosperity for a particular class:  he seeks a resumption of national greatness.  To what period does his brand of greatness pertain?  The main difficulty to finding an answer is of course Trump himself, a man who (in the words of a defender) “never contextualizes,” and whose understanding of American history may be placed at or below Ocasio-Cortez levels.  The president, in brief, appears quite indifferent to the past in which he has located his ideal.  This creates ambivalence about the ideal itself:  predictably, opponents have denounced it as a “dog whistle” to frustrated racists.  That would be consistent with a gauzy memory of postwar society.

The reality is that, in his statements and tweets, Donald Trump has shown as little interest in race as he has in history.  While this could be a ruse to conceal all manner of secret maneuvers and dog whistles, we should at least consider a more straightforward explanation.  The president may have planted his ideal of greatness in a place beyond his reach and a time beyond recall.

On July 6, 2017, President Trump delivered a speech in Warsaw, Poland.  His subject was the West and its meaning.  A recurring theme was the need to remember.  Poland was praised as a “faithful nation” that “never lost that spirit.”  Our shared enemies were “doomed because we will never forget who we are.  And if we don’t forget who we are, we just can’t be beaten.”  This was repeated, as if to underscore the president’s urgency:  the US and Europe “will never forget.”  And what did we need to remember?  In what followed, Donald Trump came as close as he ever has to articulating his sense of the mos maiorum:

We write symphonies.  We pursue innovation.  We celebrate our ancient heroes, embrace our timeless traditions and customs, and always seek to explore and discover brand-new frontiers.  We reward brilliance, we strive for excellence, and cherish inspiring works that honor God.  We treasure the rule of law and protect the right of free speech and free expression.  We empower women as pillars of our society and our success.  We put faith and family, not government and bureaucracy, at the center of our lives.

And we debate everything.  We challenge everything.  We seek to know everything, so we can better know ourselves.

It was, in many ways, an extraordinary statement:  a portrait, visible in broken outline, as through a glass darkly, of the anti-Trump.  The virtues and achievements the president enumerated added up to a society in which people like himself would be unlikely to succeed.  It’s enough of a strain to imagine Donald Trump enthralled by Mozart in a concert hall.  But faith and family?  The builder of “Trump” edifices on the scale of Babel, honoring God?  And there’s no point to dwelling on his relationships with women, his inability to debate without insulting, his monumental incuriousness…

Trump found greatness in a past in which he could never have been president.  He belongs to, and personifies, the semi-barbaric present, the culture of self above all – yet in that darkness he searches for an America shimmering with virtue, rich in civilization, risen above the tawdry now.  Whether this is tragic or comical – or worse yet, cynical – I leave for others to decide.  The outcome is the same in every instance.  The trauma of time makes the right populist a blind guide to his own nostalgic future.  Trump’s life is the negation of the mos maiorum invoked in Warsaw:   no more than Obrador can drag Mexico to a utopia beyond the reach of history, can he return this country to a forgotten Camelot.

Social Life Is a Story That Starts With ‘Once Upon a Time’

Memory is authority.  To paraphrase George Orwell:  whoever controls the past commands the present and gets first shot at shaping the future.  Some model of right action, traced back to a remote, semi-mythical time, is the usual mobilizing factor.  The Romans emulated the ways of their earliest ancestors.  Christians look to the imitation of Christ.  We are constantly asking about the intent of the founders and framers.  These models embody the noblest ideals of humanity.  A nation, a people, or a class, come into view only in the bright light of their example:  they set the shared standard by which we become ourselves.

Hannah Arendt, asking “What is Authority?” as far back as 1954, had a somewhat different take on the matter.  Concerned, even then, that we were “in danger of forgetting,” she believed such an “oblivion” would “deprive us of the dimension of depth in human existence.”  “For memory and depth are the same,” Arendt explained, “or rather, depth cannot be reached by man except through remembrance.”  A person without a past is little more than a shadow on a screen.  A nation without a history is a shallow puddle that any strong wind will erase.  Only the “dimension of depth” could stand against the totalitarian assumption that society was the plaything of a messianic ideology or leader.  Arendt, I should note, wrote her essay less than ten years after the Jewish Holocaust.

True elites are the keepers and interpreters of a nation’s history.  But everywhere we find the current elite class abandoning the terrible discipline of remembrance for the joys of striking virtuous poses and increasing their moral distance from the mob.  The Baby Boomers, who learned history, felt superior to it.  The Millennials are unconscious and smug in their oblivion.  The elites, on this front, have played us false.

They have also become unmoored from their deepest source of authority.  The old appeals to “experts” and “science” and “technology” had no magic of their own.  Why should we believe an “expert”?  Who speaks for “science”?  The only possible answers were in shared stories with deep roots into the past.  The elites have made a bonfire of these stories, and watched their own authority go up in smoke – and now the public, swarming out of digital platforms, constantly and without hesitation tramples on their claims and ridicules their failures.  The public, for its part, has never felt the trauma of history.  It cares about the here and now, launching-point of its consuming anger at the established order.  A confident governing class would shift the engagement to the grounds of shared memory:  but that is not the way of our elites.  Their response has been to retreat ever farther from the public.  The distance today is astronomical.

Into that space have moved the populists.  They are the fruit of alienation – from the past, thus from ourselves – and the natural consequence of a crisis of authority.  The populist, we have seen, has no memory, no sense that anything of value existed before his arrival on the political stage.  For this reason, populism in power must exert a great deal of energy in a desperate search for some principle of authority.  Obrador signals ahead to his utopia, Trump peers behind to his golden age, but both, like others of their kind, can rule only by personifying the public’s rage against the system.  Unless we make nihilism the goal of government, that will not go far.  Meanwhile, we appear intent on proving Arendt right.  Democratic politics are declining to a shadow-show, frenzied in sound and motion but incoherent and insubstantial.  Deprived of a past, we are uncertain whether we can assume every conceivable identity or have been condemned to none.  We seem to be drowning in the shallows.

None of this is predetermined.  Massive changes in the flow of information have battered the institutions of democratic government and made the public ascendant.  Beyond that, it’s a matter of choice.  The public isn’t doomed to negation and nihilism.  We can choose otherwise.  Elites aren’t compelled to turn into escape artists.  Other groups in other times have chosen differently.  The dimension of depth is still within us, if we care to attain it.  That the past was tainted with injustice only makes remembrance a more urgent business.  Eric Holder’s ancestors were sold as slaves in Barbados.  He is a graduate of Columbia Law School, a former Attorney General, and senior partner in one of the country’s most prestigious law firms.  There is much injustice in that story – and more than a touch of greatness.

The restoration of authority is the supreme political task of our moment.  Nothing else comes close in importance.  I’m suggesting here that the recovery of historical memory will be a central element of this project:  the two quests, rightly considered, soon converge into one and the same.

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