John Shattuck, a professor at Tufts University, recently gave a public lecture on the topic of populism and nationalism. Although it touched upon an international issue, Shattuck’s speech was specifically intended for an American audience. Given in Boston’s historic Old North Church, Shattuck noted the historical significance of the location in regard to the topic in question. As he explained, the US was founded by men like Paul Revere who courageously revolted against unjust government policies. Shattuck contrasted Revere to the Tea Party movement within the Republican Party, which he claimed was a far departure from the courage displayed by the colonists when they poured tea into the harbor in revolt against Britain. Despite his painfully obvious distaste for right-wing politics, Shattuck managed to offer a rational proposal to put an end to the rise of populism in America.
In order to provide proper context for the controversy regarding nationalism and populism, Shattuck devoted a significant portion of his speech to how such movements began in Europe. Shattuck claimed the movement towards globalization following the end of World War II resulted in a chaotic externality. In other words, as a result of the global movement towards union such as the creation of the United Nations, countries soon began to see a rise in paranoia that would later give rise to populism and nationalism. As Shattuck argued, many poor and middle class citizens throughout Europe began to fear the loss of their national identity in the wake of globalization and its role in the integration of countries in a new global network. This fear following the rise of globalization in the 20th century would give birth to populism and demagoguery in the 21st century.
The country that Shattuck used as an example to illustrate this trend in Europe was Hungary, specifically Viktor Orbán and his nationalist movement. According to Shattuck, Orbán was able to gain power and consolidate his hold on politics in Hungary by playing to right-wing paranoia and preaching that he would put the people of Hungary first. What is significant about this movement is that Orbán was able to organize and manipulate the government in his favor, contrast to the US where such an event would be less likely to occur due to stronger political guardrails. Specifically, Shattuck noted the attempt by FDR to organize the Supreme Court in his favor, the revolt against Nixon by the media, and the pushback from the judicial system to George W. Bush on the issue of torture all as evidence that the US is more resilient to demagogue and politicians who would use populist rhetoric to manipulate power.
Shattuck used this evidence of US resilience as grounds for optimism in the fight against populism and nationalism in the US. As a concrete proposal to stopping these movements from undermining American democracy, Shattuck offered five ways to fight against populism. First, he argued that it is important to actually listen to and address the fears of the people, claiming that part of why Trump has gained support is because he has listened to these fears whereas other politicians, particularly those from coastal cities, have not given them proper attention. Second, Shattuck argued that Americans must work to close the divide in the country in order to end the tribalism that comes with populism and seeks to turn citizens against each based on group identity. Perhaps is most obvious, yet underappreciated, proposal was the claim that Americans need to go out and participate in politics, at least by going out to vote in local and national elections. Similarly to his second claim, Shattuck argued that another necessary step to ending the populist movement is to revitalize democratic negotiation. To be clear, this is meant as a critique, and accurately so, of American politicians who prioritize garnering votes and support over compromising with opposing colleagues in order to makes laws that will benefit the country as a whole. His last, and arguably Shattuck’s most insightful, proposal to stopping populism in the US is to present the defense of democracy cause. To be clear, Shattuck claimed that liberals are guilty of allowing right-wingers and Republicans to claim patriotism as their own. Truly, patriotism is an act that every American should participate in, and so the claim that it needs to connect to the fight against populism is a very strong argument.
Although his five steps to fighting populism in the US are all strong claims, there is one aspect of Shattuck’s argument regarding American populism that falls short. While Shattuck accurately describes the divide in the US and how it needs to be fixed, his argument was weakened by his emphasis on Trump as a white nationalist. This is not to say that Trump is not a populist, as it would be naïve and ignorant to claim otherwise about a politician with no strong conviction to either the right or left. Still, Shattuck made several claims regarding Trump as a white nationalist, arguing that he was able to gain support by pandering to racists and white paranoia of immigrants and other minorities. In what has become a copout for original insight by almost any critic of Donald Trump, it has become a disgustingly predictable habit to claim that the president is a white supremacist with no strong evidence. This kind of unoriginal criticism of Trump can be seen in the article, “Old Whine, New Bottles”, where the author accuses the president of racist attitudes without citing any sources to prove so. To be clear, this is not to say that the president is not guilty of unruly and gross behavior, but to simply accuse him of racism because of his policies without proof that they are designed arbitrarily is counter-productive.
In his book, Suicide of the West, Jonah Goldberg accurately addresses the ignorant response of leftists to Donald Trump. Goldberg claims that, although Trump ought to be criticized, the neglect of progressives to properly address certain issues has served to fuel support for Trump: “The imperial arrogance of progressive social engineers and social justice warriors had earned an apocalyptic backlash so powerful that even clear-eyed conservatives who recognized Trump’s dishonesty and demagoguery couldn’t resist it,” (316). This kind of arrogance is displayed rather obviously by Shattuck and other critics of Trump who are unwilling to accept that there is logical support for his policies. Goldberg addresses this arrogance when he claims that it works against critics of Trump: “No doubt mass immigration elicits racist and other bigoted attitudes…But relying on these sorts of explanations encourages a kind of smug virtue signaling: People who don’t like immigration are backwards bigots – unlike me,” (316). This kind of ignorance is disappointing when one considers that it is present in thinkers like Shattuck who have perfectly constructive proposals for fighting populism.
While fighting populism needs to be praised as a patriotic cause, and very well should be, the claim that populism is a reflection of white supremacy is counter-productive. As Goldberg argues, this serves to widen the gap in American politics rather than narrow it. If the US is to restore civic society, then it will be done when people on both sides are willing to accept the intellectual integrity of their rivals.
Goldberg, Jonah. Suicide of the West. Crown Forum, New York, 2018.
Kazin, Micheal. “Old Whine, New Bottles”. Foreign Affairs. October 6, 2016.
Photo: David McNew, “Pro-Trump Activists Hold Rally On Border Supporting President And His Immigration Policies”, Getty Images