The Populist Ploy
It is something of an understatement, at this point, to say that no one saw Donald Trump coming. Initially opposed by almost every Republican official, Trump went over their heads to galvanize a working-class base that none of them understood existed. In the process, he exposed the party’s underbelly of bigotry and xenophobia with deliberately provocative rhetoric, and went on to make a mockery of both the mainstream media and the liberal political establishment.
But one right-wing luminary did, in fact, see Trump coming—a full three decades before his arrival. In 1985, Irving Kristol, the leading founder of the neoconservative movement, wrote an article in The Wall Street Journal called “THE NEW POPULISM: NOT TO WORRY.” In it, Kristol foresaw the possibility that a conservative posing as a populist could one day lead a successful democratic uprising against the nation’s liberal elites. What’s more, Kristol argued, such an uprising was an absolute necessity to salvage America from what he had come to see as the pernicious effects of the Enlightenment principles on which it had been founded.
Kristol, a Trotskyite-turned-antiliberal intellectual, was at first repelled by the emerging populism of the 1970s, much of it tied to the religious right. In a 1972 article in his magazine The Public Interest, he described populism as “the belief that the world is being misdirected by a kind of mischievous conspiracy against the common man,” and noted with obvious condemnation the “tendency toward xenophobia and racism” of American populist movements of the past.
By 1985, however, after Ronald Reagan swept into office with strong support from the Christian right, Kristol had done an about-face. If there was any potential danger to republican government that concerned the Founding Fathers, he acknowledged in the Journal, it was that of populism, which he defined as “democracy at its least rational, least sensible.” The Founders knew from reading their Plato that a sudden upsurge in anti-elitist, popular passions— legitimate or not—often ended in the triumph of demagogic tyranny, a common phenomenon in the ancient world of small city states. That’s why they built into the Constitution mechanisms like the Electoral College—which Kristol hailed as a true “republican remedy for the diseases of republican government.” (How ironic that it was this supposedly fail-safe constitutional provision that put into office the first genuine demagogue in American history to accede to the presidency.) ...