If 1967 was the Summer of Love, 2018 is the Summer of Populism. From Donald Trump’s presidency to the new populist Italian government, people all over the world are trying to make sense of what has hit us and where it’s taking us. Here are three books I’m reading to help me make sense of it all.
Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Nationalism, Populism, and Identity Politics Is Destroying American Democracy is essentially a plea for the return of late 20th-Century normalcy. Goldberg believes that the discovery of liberal democratic capitalism has been miraculous – it has given mankind longer, more comfortable, and happier lives than ever before in human history. He fears, though, that current developments are killing the goose that has laid our golden eggs; he believes the people are suicidally despatching the noblest political economy yet devised.
Goldberg’s argument is effectively a more sophisticated version of the one often made on the American right – it’s an inaccurate one because it fails to take seriously the views of those being criticised. People do not lightly seek radical political or economic change. When they do, as is happening throughout the West, those seeking to conserve the existing order should attempt to understand their motivation. Only then can the prudent alterations needed to re-establish social peace be adopted, and what is best from the prior social order be retained.
Salena Zito’s book is a great place to look for such an understanding. Zito is an old-fashioned journalist – she actually talks to people on the ground to find out what is going on and writes her stories according to what she learns from those interviews. Her book, The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics, explains that Trump rose not because the people followed him but because he followed the people.
Zito’s interviews and analysis accurately represent the views and experiences of those white working-class voters who switched to vote Trump. She reports their despair as their jobs, their families, and their communities crumble around them. Their belief that a bi-coastal, bi-partisan elite ignores and disdains them comes through clearly. These voters’ concerns are not going away, she warns, and they aren’t tied to Trump. The implication for the political establishment is clear: cast him down without reforming yourselves and these people will take vengeance ten-thousand-fold. Sow the wind and reap the whirlwind.
The centre-left will never defeat European populism if it fails to first understand it
That question – can the political establishment of Western countries remodel itself before it is swept away – is the central question of our time. In Britain, the continued resistance by the political classes to come to any accommodation with the forces behind Brexit is tearing the country apart. It is leading to a split on the Right and could end in the elevation to power of Jeremy Corbyn, a man most liberal Remainers fear and detest.
Continued resistance to change in Germany has led to the incredibly weak and precarious government of Angela Merkel at a time when the entire European project is under assault from within and without. These establishments like to think of themselves as society’s open ones, but their closed-mindedness threatens the very order they so richly love and benefit from.
This brings us to the third book any thoughtful observer should read, David Frum’s Trumpocracy. Frum, an editor at the Atlantic, is a relentless and dogged opponent of President Trump. He believes that the President’s crudeness and naked pursuit of wealth and power is weakening American democracy. But unlike many of Trump’s critics, especially those on the Right, Frum understands that people support Trump because they have legitimate grievances. Trump, Frum argues, knows that the American, white working class has suffered economically and culturally, and it is Trump’s shrewd exploitation of these grievances that allowed him to rise. If, to refer back to Goldberg, the embrace of Trump is a suicidal one, at least Frum understands that this choice springs from deep and sustained unhappiness.
These books will not leave the reader in a happy frame of mind. That is well and good: the troubles of our times have deep roots and cannot be understood through simple narratives. But taken as a whole, these books will leave the reader with a deeper understanding of what is at stake and how we arrived here.
To paraphrase Churchill after the battle of El Alamein, acquiring such an understanding is neither the end nor the beginning of the end, but it is perhaps the end of the beginning. For only with such an understanding can we perhaps craft a new course forward, one that adapts our current regimes to our novel challenges and brings the age of populism to a fruitful and not illiberal end.