By Robert Zaretsky
THE STONE / NYT Op-Ed
Nearly 50 years ago, Guy Debord’s “The Society of the Spectacle” reached bookshelves in France. It was a thin book in a plain white cover, with an obscure publisher and an author who shunned interviews, but its impact was immediate and far-reaching, delivering a social critique that helped shape France’s student protests and disruptions of 1968.
“The Society of the Spectacle” is still relevant today. With its descriptions of human social life subsumed by technology and images, it is often cited as a prophecy of the dangers of the internet age now upon us. And perhaps more than any other 20th-century philosophical work, it captures the profoundly odd moment we are now living through, under the presidential reign of Donald Trump.
As with the first lines from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “The Social Contract” (“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”) and Karl Marx’s “Communist Manifesto” (“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles”), Debord, an intellectual descendant of both of these thinkers, opens with political praxis couched in high drama: “The whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that once was directly lived has become mere representation.”
In the 220 theses that follow, Debord, a founding member of the avant-garde Situationist group, develops his indictment of “spectacular society.” With this phrase, Debord did not simply mean to damn the mass media. The spectacle was much more than what occupied the screen. Instead, Debord argued, everything that men and women once experienced directly — our ties to the natural and social worlds — was being mulched, masticated and made over into images. And the pixels had become the stuff of our very lives, in which we had relegated ourselves to the role of walk-ons.
The “image,” for Debord, carried the same economic and existential weight as the notion of “commodity” did for Marx. Like body snatchers, commodities and images have hijacked what we once naïvely called reality. The authentic nature of the products we make with our hands and the relationships we make with our words have been removed, replaced by their simulacra. Images have become so ubiquitous, Debord warned, that we no longer remember what it is we have lost. As one of his biographers, Andy Merrifield, elaborated, “Spectacular images make us want to forget — indeed, insist we should forget.”
For Marx, alienation from labor was a defining trait of modernity. We are no longer, he announced, what we make. But even as we were alienated from our working lives, Marx assumed that we could still be ourselves outside of work. For Debord, though, the relentless pounding of images had pulverized even that haven. The consequences are both disastrous and innocuous. “There is no place left where people can discuss the realities which concern them,” Debord concluded, “because they can never lastingly free themselves from the crushing presence of media discourse.” Public spaces, like the agora of Ancient Greece, no longer exist. But having grown as accustomed to the crushing presence of images as we have to the presence of earth’s gravity, we live our lives as if nothing has changed.
The Republican intellectual establishment is united against Trump – but his message of cultural and racial resentment has deep roots in the American right
Au 16, 2016 – The Republican party, its leaders like to say, is a party of ideas. Debates over budgets and government programmes are important, but they must be conducted with an eye on the bigger questions – questions about the character of the state, the future of freedom and the meaning of virtue. These beliefs provide the foundation for a conservative intellectual establishment – thinktanks such as the American Enterprise Institute, magazines such as National Review, pundits such as George Will and Bill Kristol – dedicated to advancing the right’s agenda.
Over the last year, that establishment has been united by one thing: opposition to Donald Trump. Republican voters may have succumbed to a temporary bout of collective insanity – or so Trump’s critics on the right believe – but the party’s intelligentsia remain certain that entrusting the Republican nomination to a reality television star turned populist demagogue has been a disaster for their cause and their country. Whatever Trump might be, he is not a conservative.
That belief is comforting, but it is wrong. Trump is a unique character, but the principles he defends and the passions he inflames have been part of the modern American right since its formation in the aftermath of the second world war. Most conservative thinkers have forgotten or repressed this part of their history, which is why they are undergoing a collective nervous breakdown today. Like addicts the morning after a bender, they are baffled at the face they see in the mirror.
Writing under pseudonyms borrowed from antiquity, such as “Decius”, the masked authors described the site, called JAG by its fans, as the “first scholarly journal of radical #Trumpism”. Posts analysing the campaign with titles such as The Twilight of Jeb! alternated with more ambitious forays in philosophy such as Paleo-Straussianism, Part I: Metaphysics and Epistemology. More intellectually demanding than the typical National Review article, the style of their prose also suggested writers who were having fun. Disquisitions on Aristotle could be followed by an emoji mocking the latest outraged responses to Trump.
The Republican intellectual establishment is united against Trump – but his message of cultural and racial resentment has deep roots in the American right
The authors at JAG were not all backing Trump himself – officially, they were “electorally agnostic” – but they were united by their enthusiasm for Trumpism (as they put it, “for what Trumpism could become if thought through with wisdom and moderation”). They dismissed commentators who attributed Trump’s victory to his celebrity, arguing that a campaign could not resonate with so many voters unless it spoke to genuine public concerns.
JAG condensed Trumpism into three key elements: economic nationalism, controlled borders and a foreign policy that put American interests first.
These policies, they asserted, were a direct challenge to the views of America’s new ruling class – a cosmopolitan elite of wealthy professionals who controlled the commanding heights of public discourse. This new ruling class of “transnational post-Americans” was united by its belief that the welfare of the world just happened to coincide with programmes that catered to its own self-interest: free trade, open borders, globalisation and a suite of other policies designed to ease the transition to a post-national future overseen by enlightened experts. In the language of JAG, they are the “Davoisie”, a global elite that is most at ease among its international peers at the World Economic Forum in Davos and totally out of touch with ordinary Americans.
Mainstream conservatives and their liberal counterparts were equally complicit in sustaining this regime, but JAG focused its attention on the right. Leading Republican politicians and the journalists who fawned over them in the rightwing press were pedlars of an “intellectually bankrupt” doctrine whose obsessions – cutting taxes, policing sexual norms, slashing government regulation – distracted from “the fundamental question” Trump had put on the agenda: “destruction of the soulless managerial class”.
A dissenting minority has been waging a guerrilla war against the conservative establishment for three decades
JAG unleashed salvo after salvo against “Conservatism Inc”, the network of journals and thinktanks that, along with talk radio and Fox News, has made defending the party of ideas into a lucrative career path. “If Trump ends up destroying the Republican party,” they wrote, “it is because the Republican party, as it exists today, is little more than a jobs programme for failed academics and journalists.”
News of JAG began circulating on the right shortly after its debut early in the primary season. “The first time I heard someone refer to it, I thought it was a joke,” says former George W Bush speechwriter David Frum. But it quickly found an audience. “They got a huge response almost immediately,” says conservative activist Chris Buskirk, who recalled excited emails and frantic texting among his colleagues. In June, the Wall Street Journal columnist and former Ronald Reagan speechwriter Peggy Noonan alerted her readers to the “sophisticated, rather brilliant and anonymous website”. A link from the popular rightwing website Breitbart News drove traffic even higher, and JAG seemed poised to shape the discussion over the future of conservatism.
Keynote Speech by H.E. Xi Jinping
President of the People’s Republic of China
At the Opening Session
Of the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2017
Davos, 17 January 2017
President Doris Leuthard and Mr. Roland Hausin,
Heads of State and Government, Deputy Heads of State and Your Spouses,
Heads of International Organizations,
Dr. Klaus Schwab and Mrs. Hilde Schwab,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I’m delighted to come to beautiful Davos. Though just a small town in the Alps, Davos is an important window for taking the pulse of the global economy. People from around the world come here to exchange ideas and insights, which broaden their vision. This makes the WEF annual meeting a cost-effective brainstorming event, which I would call “Schwab economics”.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” These are the words used by the English writer Charles Dickens to describe the world after the Industrial Revolution. Today, we also live in a world of contradictions. On the one hand, with growing material wealth and advances in science and technology, human civilization has developed as never before. On the other hand, frequent regional conflicts, global challenges like terrorism and refugees, as well as poverty, unemployment and widening income gap have all added to the uncertainties of the world.
Many people feel bewildered and wonder: What has gone wrong with the world?
To answer this question, one must first track the source of the problem. Some blame economic globalization for the chaos in the world. Economic globalization was once viewed as the treasure cave found by Ali Baba in The Arabian Nights, but it has now become the Pandora’s box in the eyes of many. The international community finds itself in a heated debate on economic globalization.
Today, I wish to address the global economy in the context of economic globalization.
The point I want to make is that many of the problems troubling the world are not caused by economic globalization. For instance, the refugee waves from the Middle East and North Africa in recent years have become a global concern. Several million people have been displaced, and some small children lost their lives while crossing the rough sea. This is indeed heartbreaking. It is war, conflict and regional turbulence that have created this problem, and its solution lies in making peace, promoting reconciliation and restoring stability. The international financial crisis is another example. It is not an inevitable outcome of economic globalization; rather, it is the consequence of excessive chase of profit by financial capital and grave failure of financial regulation. Just blaming economic globalization for the world’s problems is inconsistent with reality, and it will not help solve the problems.
From the historical perspective, economic globalization resulted from growing social productivity, and is a natural outcome of scientific and technological progress, not something created by any individuals or any countries. Economic globalization has powered global growth and facilitated movement of goods and capital, advances in science, technology and civilization, and interactions among peoples.
But we should also recognize that economic globalization is a double-edged sword. When the global economy is under downward pressure, it is hard to make the cake of global economy bigger. It may even shrink, which will strain the relations between growth and distribution, between capital and labor, and between efficiency and equity. Both developed and developing countries have felt the punch. Voices against globalization have laid bare pitfalls in the process of economic globalization that we need to take seriously.
As a line in an old Chinese poem goes, “Honey melons hang on bitter vines; sweet dates grow on thistles and thorns.” In a philosophical sense, nothing is perfect in the world. One would fail to see the full picture if he claims something is perfect because of its merits, or if he views something as useless just because of its defects. It is true that economic globalization has created new problems, but this is no justification to write economic globalization off completely. Rather, we should adapt to and guide economic globalization, cushion its negative impact, and deliver its benefits to all countries and all nations.
There was a time when China also had doubts about economic globalization, and was not sure whether it should join the World Trade Organization. But we came to the conclusion that integration into the global economy is a historical trend. To grow its economy, China must have the courage to swim in the vast ocean of the global market. If one is always afraid of bracing the storm and exploring the new world, he will sooner or later get drowned in the ocean. Therefore, China took a brave step to embrace the global market. We have had our fair share of choking in the water and encountered whirlpools and choppy waves, but we have learned how to swim in this process. It has proved to be a right strategic choice.
Whether you like it or not, the global economy is the big ocean that you cannot escape from. Any attempt to cut off the flow of capital, technologies, products, industries and people between economies, and channel the waters in the ocean back into isolated lakes and creeks is simply not possible. Indeed, it runs counter to the historical trend.
The history of mankind tells us that problems are not to be feared. What should concern us is refusing to face up to problems and not knowing what to do about them. In the face of both opportunities and challenges of economic globalization, the right thing to do is to seize every opportunity, jointly meet challenges and chart the right course for economic globalization.
At the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting in late 2016, I spoke about the necessity to make the process of economic globalization more invigorated, more inclusive and more sustainable. We should act pro-actively and manage economic globalization as appropriate so as to release its positive impact and rebalance the process of economic globalization. We should follow the general trend, proceed from our respective national conditions and embark on the right pathway of integrating into economic globalization with the right pace. We should strike a balance between efficiency and equity to ensure that different countries, different social strata and different groups of people all share in the benefits of economic globalization. The people of all countries expect nothing less from us, and this is our unshirkable responsibility as leaders of our times.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Dear Friends,
At present, the most pressing task before us is to steer the global economy out of difficulty. The global economy has remained sluggish for quite some time. The gap between the poor and the rich and between the South and the North is widening. The root cause is that the three critical issues in the economic sphere have not been effectively addressed.
First, lack of robust driving forces for global growth makes it difficult to sustain the steady growth of the global economy. The growth of the global economy is now at its slowest pace in seven years. Growth of global trade has been slower than global GDP growth. Short-term policy stimuli are ineffective. Fundamental structural reform is just unfolding. The global economy is now in a period of moving toward new growth drivers, and the role of traditional engines to drive growth has weakened. Despite the emergence of new technologies such as artificial intelligence and 3D printing, new sources of growth are yet to emerge. A new path for the global economy remains elusive.
Second, inadequate global economic governance makes it difficult to adapt to new developments in the global economy. Madame Christine Lagarde recently told me that emerging markets and developing countries already contribute to 80% of the growth of the global economy. The global economic landscape has changed profoundly in the past few decades. However, the global governance system has not embraced those new changes and is therefore inadequate in terms of representation and inclusiveness. The global industrial landscape is changing and new industrial chains, value chains and supply chains are taking shape. However, trade and investment rules have not kept pace with these developments, resulting in acute problems such as closed mechanisms and fragmentation of rules. The global financial market needs to be more resilient against risks, but the global financial governance mechanism fails to meet the new requirement and is thus unable to effectively resolve problems such as frequent international financial market volatility and the build-up of asset bubbles.
Third, uneven global development makes it difficult to meet people’s expectations for better lives. Dr. Schwab has observed in his book The Fourth Industrial Revolution that this round of industrial revolution will produce extensive and far-reaching impacts such as growing inequality, particularly the possible widening gap between return on capital and return on labor. The richest one percent of the world’s population own more wealth than the remaining 99 percent. Inequality in income distribution and uneven development space are worrying. Over 700 million people in the world are still living in extreme poverty. For many families, to have warm houses, enough food and secure jobs is still a distant dream. This is the biggest challenge facing the world today. It is also what is behind the social turmoil in some countries.
All this shows that there are indeed problems with world economic growth, governance and development models, and they must be resolved. The founder of the Red Cross Henry Dunant once said, “Our real enemy is not the neighboring country; it is hunger, poverty, ignorance, superstition and prejudice.” We need to have the vision to dissect these problems; more importantly, we need to have the courage to take actions to address them.
By Anton Barbashin and Hannah Thoburn
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has searched fruitlessly for a new grand strategy — something to define who Russians are and where they are going. “In Russian history during the 20th century, there have been various periods — monarchism, totalitarianism, perestroika, and finally, a democratic path of development,” Russian President Boris Yeltsin said a couple of years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, “Each stage has its own ideology,” he continued, but now “we have none.”
To fill that hole, in 1996 Yeltsin designated a team of scholars to work together to find what Russians call the Russkaya ideya (“Russian idea”), but they came up empty-handed. Around the same time, various other groups also took up the task, including a collection of conservative Russian politicians and thinkers who called themselves Soglasiye vo imya Rossiya (“Accord in the Name of Russia”). Along with many other Russian intellectuals of the day, they were deeply disturbed by the weakness of the Russian state, something that they believed needed to be fixed for Russia to return to its rightful glory. And for them, that entailed return to the Russian tradition of a powerful central government. How that could be accomplished was a question for another day.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, to whom many of the Soglasiye still have ties, happened to agree with their ideals and overall goals. He came to power in 1999 with a nationwide mandate to stabilize the Russian economy and political system. Thanks to rising world energy prices, he quickly achieved that goal. By the late 2000s, he had breathing room to return to the question of the Russian idea. Russia, he began to argue, was a unique civilization of its own. It could not be made to fit comfortably into European or Asian boxes and had to live by its own uniquely Russian rules and morals. And so, with the help of the Russian Orthodox Church, Putin began a battle against the liberal (Western) traits that some segments of Russian society had started to adopt. Moves of his that earned condemnation in the West — such as the criminalization of “homosexual propaganda” and the sentencing of members of Pussy Riot, a feminist punk-rock collective, to two years in prison for hooliganism — were popular in Russia.
True to Putin’s insistence that Russia cannot be judged in Western terms, Putin’s new conservatism does not fit U.S. and European definitions. In fact, the main trait they share is opposition to liberalism. Whereas conservatives in those parts of the world are fearful of big government and put the individual first, Russian conservatives advocate for state power and see individuals as serving that state. They draw on a long tradition of Russian imperial conservatism and, in particular, Eurasianism. That strain is authoritarian in essence, traditional, anti-American, and anti-European; it values religion and public submission. And more significant to today’s headlines, it is expansionist.
The roots of Eurasianism lie in Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution, although many of the ideas that it contains have much longer histories in Russia. After the 1917 October Revolution and the civil war that followed, two million anti-Bolshevik Russians fled the country. From Sofia to Berlin and then Paris, some of these exiled Russian intellectuals worked to create an alternative to the Bolshevik project. One of those alternatives eventually became the Eurasianist ideology. Proponents of this idea posited that Russia’s Westernizers and Bolsheviks were both wrong: Westernizers for believing that Russia was a (lagging) part of European civilization and calling for democratic development; Bolsheviks for presuming that the whole country needed restructuring through class confrontation and a global revolution of the working class. Rather, Eurasianists stressed, Russia was a unique civilization with its own path and historical mission: To create a different center of power and culture that would be neither European nor Asian but have traits of both. Eurasianists believed in the eventual downfall of the West and that it was Russia’s time to be the world’s prime exemplar.
In 1921, the exiled thinkers Georges Florovsky, Nikolai Trubetzkoy, Petr Savitskii, and Petr Suvchinsky published a collection of articles titled Exodus to the East, which marked the official birth of the Eurasianist ideology. The book was centered on the idea that Russia’s geography is its fate and that there is nothing any ruler can do to unbind himself from the necessities of securing his lands. Given Russia’s vastness, they believed, its leaders must think imperially, consuming and assimilating dangerous populations on every border. Meanwhile, they regarded any form of democracy, open economy, local governance, or secular freedom as highly dangerous and unacceptable.
In that sense, Eurasianists considered Peter the Great — who tried to Europeanize Russia in the eighteenth century — an enemy and a traitor. Instead, they looked with favor on Tatar-Mongol rule, between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, when Genghis Khan’s empire had taught Russians crucial lessons about building a strong, centralized state and pyramid-like system of submission and control.
Eurasianist beliefs gained a strong following within the politically active part of the emigrant community, or White Russians, who were eager to promote any alternative to Bolshevism. However, the philosophy was utterly ignored, and even suppressed in the Soviet Union, and it practically died with its creators. That is, until the 1990s, when the Soviet Union collapsed and Russia’s ideological slate was wiped clean.
China working with Africa on Infrastructure
By George Koo
Dec 22, 2016 – Now that Donald Trump has won the U.S. election to become the 45th president, everybody is offering his/her idea of how Trump will make good on his promise to make America great again. He does have the opportunity to make policies free from the burdens of the past.During his rough and tumble campaign, he expressed some ideas worth noting. He seemed weary of having the U.S. carry the sole burden of basing troops around the world, and he said more than once that he wanted to find ways to get along with other nations.
He also reiterated on numerous occasions that he would transform America’s infrastructure into the best in the world. With careful examination, these two positions could represent real cornerstones toward making America great again.
Importance of infrastructure investments
Once the best in the world when these investments were made in the ‘50s and ‘60s, everybody now recognizes that America’s infrastructure is badly in need of repair and replacement. The question has come up many times but there has been a lack of Congressional will and consensus to allocate the necessary funds. With a Republican majority in both houses, Trump would have the best opportunity to get something done.
Lest there are any doubts, the lead-tainted drinking water of Flint Michigan and the Minneapolis bridge collapse serve as stark reminders that infrastructure improvement is a real and urgent issue. According to the EPA, the U.S. will need $384 billion investments for the drinking water treatment and distribution to remedy the situation in places like Flint and to prevent future tragedies in other economically blighted areas of America.
There are 700 bridges in the U.S. in the same category as the bridge outside of Minneapolis that collapsed that are potential candidates for retrofit or replacement in order to prevent another rush hour collapse. The bridge in Minneapolis cost well over $200 million to replace. Thus the total potential tab to assure the safety of all the bridges would be in the ballpark of $100 billion plus depending on the actual number in need of remediation.
Trump did say as part of his acceptance speech, “We are going to fix our inner cities, and rebuild our highways, bridges, tunnels, airports, schools, hospitals. We’re going to rebuild our infrastructure, which will become, by the way, second to none. And we will put millions of our people to work as rebuild it.”
Trump hasn’t said exactly how he will find the funds to invest. There is a real solution that does not require pulling the wool over the public’s eye and that would be via reallocation of resources by changing national priorities.
Trump’s “get along” foreign policy
Again referring to his acceptance speech, he said, “At the same time we will get along with all other nations willing to get along with us. We will have great relationships…We will deal fairly with everyone. All people and all other nations. We will seek common ground not hostility, partnership not conflict.”
Taken at face value, Trump’s position could represent a sharp and refreshing departure from the disastrous foreign policy of his two predecessors.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of the government at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, September 19, 2016. Alexei Nikolsky / Sputnik Photo Agency / Reuters
In boosting Trump and funding fringe parties in Europe, Russia has helped construct a new kind of ‘Comintern’—and it’s even more effective than the Cold War version.
By Mike Lofgren
Oct 31, 2016 – One of the double-edged aspects of being a writer is that you can become known in all kinds of unlikely circles. That was what I was thinking when I pulled a large envelope out of my mailbox. The return address was Germany; the cover letter (in German) announced that I was the recipient of Compact magazine, and more oddly, requested that I should send an email confirming receipt.
The magazine itself, also in German, was about politics. A superficial look might suggest it was the anti-American manifesto of some fringe left-wing German group (“Heil Hillary! Candidate of US Fascism” reads one headline), but closer inspection revealed it came from the other end of the ideological spectrum.
A glance at a political profile of Jürgen Elsässer, Compact’s purported editor, discloses that he had been an extreme leftist who opposed German reunification and worked for Neues Deutschland, once the official newspaper of the East German Socialist Unity Party, the client Communist Party ruling East Germany in the interests of the USSR. Yet at some point in the 2000s, he migrated to the far right, and is now aligned with the new anti-immigrant party, Alternative für Deutschland. The prestigious newspaper die Zeit flat out calls Elsässer a Kremlin propagandist.
This year, the German public television network ZDF produced a documentary tracing the ideological and financial ties between Russia and extreme right-wing elements; among those elements was Elsässer. His own blogs show an over-the-top enthusiasm for the Russian regime, such as comparing Putin’s bombing of Aleppo with the Russian defense of Stalingrad. Whatever the realities of the situation in Syria, Russian intervention in the conflict hardly merits comparison with the decisive turning point of the Second World War.
There were other suggestions of Russian fingerprints on Elsässer’s magazine. It was printed on coated stock, with lots of photos and fairly high production values. Fringe parties generally can’t afford the production costs of this sort of thing—unless they are getting a bit of financial help. The editorial tone was a kind of unholy marriage between Breitbart.com and the Russian-funded website Sputnik, with a little Völkischer Beobachter thrown in for good measure (there was generous use of the term “Lügenpresse”—the lying press, a term popularized by the Nazis.) More to the point, it was written in the breathless, apocalyptic manner of the Soviet anti-NATO propaganda I used to see as a national-security analyst in Congress in the 1980s—with one exception.
Classic Soviet propaganda always treated Democrats and Republicans as essentially indistinguishable and interchangeable components of the bourgeois power structure, both equally worthy of denunciation. Compact, however, had several articles explicitly endorsing Donald J. Trump as an all-around swell guy, with one explaining how a President Trump would improve U.S. relations with Russia.
The propaganda message of this magazine crossed a threshold of sorts. The hacking of the Democratic National Committee that has been attributed to the Russians by the U.S. government is obviously intended to damage the candidacy of Hillary Clinton, but the Russian government, and Vladimir Putin above all, have been careful to avoid being seen publicly praising or attacking either candidate.
Yet Putin, or at least his European allies, apparently see it as worth their while to spend money attacking Hillary and talking about Trump in terms so flattering that Caesar would have blushed, in a country whose citizens don’t have a vote in America’s election in any case. The Soviet Union’s goals in attempting to rouse the European (and above all, German) public against, say, NATO’s deployment of intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe in the early 1980s was straightforward and understandable, but why would an ideological ally of Russia puff up Donald Trump to a German public that cannot vote for him?
The strategy becomes more comprehensible when one acknowledges that Trump received the nomination of one of America’s two major parties, and, not long ago, was tied with Clinton in the polls. The message to nationalist and authoritarian-minded Germans is that Trump is a model: If, in the self-styled “greatest democracy in the world” the demagogic real estate mogul could have a decent shot at becoming president, then the right-wing fringe parties of Germany and the rest of Europe are not toiling in vain. If they work hard enough and employ the right themes, they can win.
Never in its wildest dreams could the old Soviet politburo have imagined it would get a U.S. major party candidate so congenial to its interests.
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[Editors Note: Foreign Affairs is not a usual source here, but now and then, it offers some insight into how the ruling class policy centers themselves are viewing critical events.]
Thursday, October 6, 2016
Trump and American Populism
Old Whine, New Bottles
By Michael Kazin
MICHAEL KAZIN teaches history at Georgetown University and is Editor of Dissent. He is the author of the forthcoming book War Against War: The American Fight for Peace, 1914–1918.
Donald Trump is an unlikely populist . The Republican nominee for U.S. president inherited a fortune, boasts about his wealth and his many properties, shuttles between his exclusive resorts and luxury hotels, and has adopted an economic plan  that would, among other things, slash tax rates for rich people like himself. But a politician does not have to live among people of modest means, or even tout policies that would boost their incomes, to articulate their grievances and gain their support. Win or lose, Trump has tapped into a deep vein of distress and resentment among millions of white working- and middle-class Americans.
Trump is hardly the first  politician to bash elites and champion the interests of ordinary people. Two different, often competing populist traditions  have long thrived in the United States. Pundits often speak of “left-wing” and “right-wing” populists. But those labels don’t capture the most meaningful distinction. The first type of American populist directs his or her ire exclusively upward: at corporate elites and their enablers in government who have allegedly betrayed the interests of the men and women who do the nation’s essential work. These populists embrace a conception of “the people” based on class and avoid identifying themselves as supporters or opponents of any particular ethnic group or religion. They belong to a broadly liberal current in American political life; they advance a version of “civic nationalism,” which the historian Gary Gerstle defines as the “belief in the fundamental equality of all human beings, in every individual’s inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and in a democratic government that derives its legitimacy from the people’s consent.”
Adherents of the second American populist tradition—the one to which Trump belongs—also blame elites in big business and government for undermining the common folk’s economic interests and political liberties. But this tradition’s definition of “the people” is narrower and more ethnically restrictive. For most of U.S. history, it meant only citizens of European heritage—“real Americans,” whose ethnicity alone afforded them a claim to share in the country’s bounty. Typically, this breed of populist alleges that there is a nefarious alliance between evil forces on high and the unworthy, dark-skinned poor below—a cabal that imperils the interests and values of the patriotic (white) majority in the middle. The suspicion of an unwritten pact between top and bottom derives from a belief in what Gerstle calls “racial nationalism,” a conception of “America in ethnoracial terms, as a people held together by common blood and skin color and by an inherited fitness for self-government.”
Both types of American populists have, from time to time, gained political influence. Their outbursts  are not random. They arise in response to real grievances : an economic system that favors the rich , fear of losing jobs to new immigrants, and politicians who care more about their own advancement than the well-being of the majority. Ultimately, the only way to blunt their appeal is to take those problems seriously.
POPULISTS PAST AND PRESENT
Populism  has long been a contested and ambiguous concept. Scholars debate whether it is a creed, a style, a political strategy, a marketing ploy, or some combination of the above. Populists are praised as defenders of the values and needs of the hard-working majority and condemned as demagogues who prey on the ignorance of the uneducated.
But the term “populist” used to have a more precise meaning. In the 1890s, journalists who knew their Latin coined the word to describe a large third party, the Populist, or People’s, Party, which powerfully articulated the progressive, civic-nationalist strain of American populism. The People’s Party sought to free the political system from the grip of “the money power.” Its activists, most of whom came from the South and the West, hailed the common interests of rural and urban labor and blasted monopolies in industry and high finance for impoverishing the masses. “We seek to restore the Government of the Republic to the hands of the ‘plain people’ with whom it originated,” thundered Ignatius Donnelly, a novelist and former Republican congressman, in his keynote speech at the party’s founding convention in Omaha in 1892. The new party sought to expand the power of the central government to serve those “plain people” and to humble their exploiters. That same year, James Weaver, the Populist nominee for president, won 22 electoral votes, and the party seemed poised to take control of several states in the South and the Great Plains. But four years later, at a divided national convention, a majority of delegates backed the Democratic nominee, William Jennings Bryan, who embraced some of the party’s main proposals, such as a flexible money supply based on silver as well as gold. When Bryan, “the Great Commoner,” lost the 1896 election, the third party declined rapidly. Its fate, like that of most third parties, was like that of a bee, as the historian Richard Hofstadter wrote in 1955. Once it had stung the political establishment, it died.
Senator Bernie Sanders has inherited this tradition of populist rhetoric. During the 2016 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, he railed against “the billionaire class” for betraying the promise of American democracy and demanded a $15-an-hour minimum wage, Medicare for all, and other progressive economic reforms. Sanders calls himself a socialist and has hailed his supporters as the vanguard of a “political revolution.” Yet all he actually advocated was an expanded welfare state, akin to that which has long thrived in Scandinavia.
The other strain of populism—the racial-nationalist sort—emerged at about the same time as the People’s Party. Both sprang from the same sense of alarm during the Gilded Age about widening inequality between unregulated corporations and investment houses and ordinary workers and small farmers. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the champions of this strain of thought used xenophobic appeals to lobby Congress to bar all Chinese and most Japanese laborers from immigrating to the United States. Working- and middle-class white Americans, some of whom belonged to struggling labor unions, led this movement and made up the bulk of its adherents. “Our moneyed men . . . have rallied under the banner of the millionaire, the banker, and the land monopolist, the railroad king and the false politician, to effect their purpose,” proclaimed Denis Kearney, a small businessman from San Francisco with a gift for incendiary rhetoric who founded the Workingmen’s Party of California (WPC) in 1877. Kearney charged  that a “bloated aristocracy . . . rakes the slums of Asia to find the meanest slave on earth—the Chinese coolie—and imports him here to meet the free American in the labor market, and still further widen the breach between the rich and the poor, still further to degrade white labor.” (continued)