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Will Populism Win? Don't Bet On It

In this December 6, 2016 photo, Texas A&M student Harsimran Singh, from India, signs a message board at an event in College Station, Texas. (David J. Phillip/AP)
In this December 6, 2016 photo, Texas A&M student Harsimran Singh, from India, signs a message board at an event in College Station, Texas. (David J. Phillip/AP)

The serially unserious Donald Trump actually got serious last week, though few noticed.

I don’t mean the president’s serious anxiety about impeachment. Rather, opening the United Nations General Assembly session, Trump staked his stance on one of the most substantive issues of our time: The future doesn’t belong to “globalists,” as he derided them, but to “sovereign and independent nations.”

Of course the nation-state isn’t going anywhere, the fantasies of the stray one-world advocate notwithstanding. But Trump proceeded to hang the defense of his own nation-state on his misguided populism, from his rejection of international deals like the Iran nuclear pact to his rants against the supposed scourge of open-borders immigration. He tossed a bone to his beleaguered fellow populist Boris Johnson, forecasting a “magnificent new trade deal” between the U.S. and U.K. after Brexit.

“Trump goes to the United Nations to argue against everything it stands for,” Vox described his speech. The president lost the argument. At least in the U.S., populism doesn’t own the future. American history demonstrates that.

That’s so, even though more informed observers share Trump’s view. After his speech, one of populism’s early tribunes, Pat Buchanan, seconded the president’s view of dying globalism, adding that even within nations, notably ours, people are splintering:

The future belongs basically to nationalism, tribalism — it may be good or bad — also racial identity, also religious fundamentalism, sectarianism … The [American] melting pot is not melting. We’re not all becoming one nation. We’re dividing by race, by class.

Buchanan mustered undeniable evidence of this populist surge — for now. Beyond Trump’s and Johnson’s ascensions, nationalist populist governments have come to power in Poland, Hungary, Brazil and Russia. But whatever the future holds for those places, the American past testifies that populism here is always a fleeting infatuation, not a permanent love.

It has always appealed to a rigid, ethnically or religiously based wall around the definition of who gets to be an American (hence Trump’s literal wall against a nonexistent immigrant “invasion”). We’ve had such spasms throughout our history, with scaremongers predicting dire dilution of Americanism by alien others.

The scaremongers always lose.

As Boston University historian Stephen Prothero has written, cultural conservatives have failed time and again to block the pipeline into the American family. Attacks on Thomas Jefferson’s deviations from Christian dogma didn’t deny him the presidency. My people, Irish Catholics, so threatened “Know Nothing” Americans in the first half of the 19th century that anti-Catholic riots convulsed some cities. Today, Irish Catholics are an unthreatening thread in the American fabric.

If we’re not defined by ethnicity, race or religion, what the hell is an American?

Later that century, after Chinese workers helped build the transcontinental railroad, ingrate populists engineered a ban on Chinese immigration to these shores. The ban was discarded during World War II. Mormons, European immigrants who drank (a spur to prohibition, Prothero notes), gay Americans seeking to marry — all faced a populist backlash but hurdled that barrier to gain their rights (to say nothing of African Americans whose liberties lovers of Jim Crow opposed as late as my childhood).

If we’re not defined by ethnicity, race or religion, what the hell is an American? One who assents to what’s been called our civic religion, enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, which George Will summarizes as belief in “an uncircumscribed future that Americans would be uniquely free to shape by choices not constrained by the viscosity of history. So the last and greatest dream was nothing less than perfect freedom.”

U.S. history is the story of extending that freedom to more people. This has forged a nation that is closer to Abraham Lincoln’s America than uber-populist Andrew Jackson’s. Prothero titled his book on this topic “Why Liberals Win the Culture Wars (Even When They Lose Elections).” It’s the reason Trump’s border wall is under construction largely in his own mind only.

Why the populist losing streak? Mainly, Prothero says, because populism depends for its fuel on believers’ fears over clearly “lost causes.” Take immigration. Not only are white Americans inevitably headed toward losing their majority, the nation needs immigrants, Will notes; native Americans’ falling birth rates won’t produce enough soldiers to defend the country or taxpayers to cover retirees’ Social Security.

... the arc of American history must navigate around occasional populist potholes, but it bends towards inclusivity.

Populist fright at these demographics is sincere, all right. Since 1960s immigration reform brought more Latin Americans and Asians to the U.S. Trump, Buchanan and their bench have insisted that many newcomers are unassimilable at best and “rapists” and “murderers” at worst. But consider one anecdote and one statistical fact refuting this apocalypticism.

The anecdote: For several years, the PBS NewsHour has run a periodic “honor roll” of fallen U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Regular viewers couldn’t miss the many faces of color, and names like Gonzalez, Ortiz, and Deleon-Figueroa over the years. WASPs aren’t the only ones willing to die as Americans, for America.

And recall this statistical fact: Part of our civic religion is respect for the rule of law. Newcomers obviously buy into that belief, as, Fox News propaganda notwithstanding, they commit fewer crimes than native-born Americans.

The balkanization of our current politics is frightening, abetted as it is by Trump’s heedless, self-serving predictions about “civil war” if he’s impeached. Other Americans sacrificed their lives over the centuries to extend freedom’s gift to marginalized groups. To tweak a line from one such martyr, Martin Luther King, Jr., the arc of American history must navigate around occasional populist potholes, but it bends towards inclusivity.

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Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.

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