Populism, Left and Right

The rise of an often militant right-wing populist movement – the tea partiers, the Ron Paulistas, the tenth amendment restorationists and the regionalists – has the powers-that-be in a tizzy. On the "progressive" left, we have Rachel Maddow sounding the alarm about hordes of armed militia types supposedly marching on Washington, in a populist version of Seven Days in May. The "brown scare" now energizing those who call themselves progressives is no longer limited to the familiar precincts of MSNBC and the Obamaite/limousine liberal wing of the blogosphere: now we have Bill Clinton giving voice to the Bizarro World McCarthyism that inspires the "left."

McCarthyism was the offspring of Senator Joseph "Tail-Gunner Joe" McCarthy, who carried out a campaign – some would say a witch-hunt – against employees of the US government he accused of being Communists or fellow travelers – that is, people who believed the government should run everything. Not just the insurance industry, and the auto industry, and the banking field – everything. While less than judicious in his accusations, by accusing a whole lot of people, McCarthy was often right, as the Venona revelations and other surprises from the KGB archives later proved.

I have long been of the opinion that the 9/11 attacks impacted with such physical and psychological force that they caused a rift in the space-time continuum, and the Bizarro-McCarthyism that has maddened the progressive left provides yet more validation of this theory. In Bizarro World, where up is down and right is left, we have witch-hunts against those suspected of harboring "anti-government" sympathies: that is, they are in favor of freedom – an obviously subversive concept, which must be ruthlessly exposed and suppressed.

A similar reaction is taking place, to a lesser extent, on the establishment (i.e. neoconservative) right. David Frum, the Bush speechwriter and co-author of the "axis of evil" catchphrase, has become the liberal establishment’s favorite interview subject because he now spends all his time attacking "right-wing extremism," most especially the explicitly libertarian elements of the tea party movement. He has set up his own movement, which might be called the "Scoop Jackson Republicans," and a Web site where one can go for regular denunciations of the tea partiers and pleas for Republicans to moderate their message – except when it comes to foreign policy, naturally enough. In that realm, it’s the same old Republican invade-the- world globaloney: Iraq was a "victory," Afghanistan is a necessity, and Israel must be defended and succored no matter the damage to demonstrable American interests.

This ostensibly conservative hostility to the latest expression of American populism is hardly surprising. One of the founding myths of neoconservatism is that populism, in all its forms, is always dangerous, as it is invariably a carrier of the anti-Semitic virus. All that constant guff we hear about "the "paranoid style in American politics" comes directly from the neocons in their earlier, "liberal" mandarin incarnation. The "paranoid" theme was popularized by the historian Richard Hofstadter and a claque of neoconservative sociologists back in the mid-Fifties and Sixties, who, in their classic anthology on The Radical Right, and other works, applied the sociological theories of the Marxist theoretician Theodor Adorno to the "problem" of fighting "extremism" in the postwar world. Adorno and his disciples took the classical Marxist theory of fascism as a phenomenon attributable to "the enraged bourgeoisie" and gave it a sociological-Freudian gloss.

According to these geniuses, all expressions of popular opposition to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal were merely symptoms of repressed hatred of the father and inspired by the desire to kill him. The "reactionary" subjects of their solemn sociological examinations were invariably antisocial misfits, possessed of an "authoritarian personality," and the clear implication was that these types represented a threat to the social order, which it was in society’s interest to suppress.

These same leftist professors who had found their place in the postwar economic and political order, and were firmly ensconced in their comfortable university chairs, had furthermore decided that we had come to "the end of ideology," the title of an essay (and later a book) by one of their number. The old revolutionary spirit of the 1930s had dissipated and proved to be an illusion, and on the right there were merely reactionary tics, or as Lionel Trilling, one of their big heroes, put it , "just irritable mental gestures." In shoring up the defenses of the postwar Welfare-Warfare State, and the rising power and prestige of the American empire, these former revolutionaries sought to defend the status quo against all comers, who were to be banished to the fever swamps of the "far right" and the "far left," exiled to the Coventry reserved for "extremists." (For a wonderful debunking of the entire "anti-concept" of "extremism," see Ayn Rand’s scintillating essay on the subject.)

In its contempt for the hoi polloi, Trilling’s remark fairly sums up the liberal/neocon elite’s reaction to the current tide of right-wing populism – or, indeed, any sort of populism, including the traditional left-wing variety.

Which brings us to the question of why is this suddenly happening – this volcanic eruption from the subterranean depths of the American political landscape? And why are the elites so alarmed?

The question of why now comes into focus if one notices the complete absence of any real form of left-wing populism. The genesis of the tea-partiers was the bank bailout, not the election of Barack Obama, and one would have thought that the takeover of the government by a few corporate giants might have provoked a hostile reaction on the left – but not in Obama’s America. Although both major party presidential candidates supported the bailout, and issued a joint statement to that effect, under Obama, the bailouts were expanded and are now being institutionalized under the rubric of "financial reform." The old-line anti-corporatist progressivism of the southern Bryanite "free silver" Democrats, the LaFollette brothers in the northwest, and the Midwestern variety represented by such figures as Senator Burton Wheeler – which was radically decentralist, and militantly anti-imperialist – has been completely supplanted by the modern super-centralizers who are in bed with Goldman Sachs and have no aversion to imperial adventures.

Blocked from finding any real expression on the left – except for some hand-wringing over "What’s the matter with Kansas?" – antigovernment anti-corporatist sentiments have found a comfortable home on the right. This combination our elites consider literally explosive, which is why Rachel Maddow is relentlessly trying to link "today’s antigovernment extremism" with the Oklahoma City bombing and the views of Timothy McVeigh.

The message coming from our liberal elites, and their neoconservative allies, couldn’t be clearer: if you’re an "antigovernment" extremist – a phrase that, in their view, is a bit redundant, since any and all "antigovernment" ideology is inherently extremist and violent – you represent a physical threat to the social order. To be against the government and its policies – and to call them "gangsters," as right-wing congresswoman Michelle Bachmann did – is to call for insurrection and terrorism, as Bill Clinton more than hinted at in his reply to Bachmann, in which he likened her and her supporters to McVeigh. Clinton even gave an Adorno-style diagnosis of Bachmann et al.: these are "profoundly alienated, disconnected people who bought into this militant antigovernment line.”

Having inherited and even expanded on the police state apparatus set up by the Bush administration – with the PATRIOT Act, expanded domestic surveillance, and other recent innovations in our government’s war on civil liberties – the rationale for outright repression is being articulated by our rulers with increasing emphasis. The recent statement by FBI chief Robert Mueller that homegrown terrorism of the "antigovernment" sort is as big a threat as al-Qaeda should send a chill down the spine of everyone who values what’s left of our freedom. Because what this means is that the US government is currently using all the blunt instruments of repression available to it under the extensive Bush era rewrite of statutes protecting persons and property from arbitrary actions of government.

The Obama administration and its supporters have decided to demonize anyone whose activities or beliefs could vaguely be construed as "antigovernment," likening them to terrorists – and this surely includes anyone who opposes the foreign policy of this government, which is acting in a distinctly gangsterish manner over in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Under the Obama administration, the infiltration and surveillance of the antiwar movement has continued, and there’s little doubt the Feds are utilizing the same tactics in their bid to undermine and discredit the tea partiers and other "antigovernment" heretics out there in the hinterlands.

Just as war is the ultimate expression of government power, so opposition to war is the ultimate expression of "antigovernment" sentiment. Indeed, as Ms. Maddow, now the expert on such matters, well knows, McVeigh was motivated in large part by his bitterness over his experiences in the first Iraq war, where we slaughtered thousands wantonly in a hugely uneven conflict. This is why the US government is now cracking down on "right-wing extremism" in the US military: as US military personnel return from a series of unjust – and murderous – wars, coming back to ill treatment and terrible economic conditions, the boys in Washington rightly live in fear of the monsters they may have created.

Not content with going overseas in search of monsters to destroy, the current administration and its supporters are conjuring them right here at home. In any case, creating monsters, both real and imagined, is the one thing the US government is really good at.

Our elites hate populism in all its forms simply because it threatens their power, their privileges, their pelf and their prestige: populism is by definition a revolt against the elites, in government and society. Worst of all, from a ruling class perspective, is populism of the "antigovernment" variety, because it threatens the source and symbol of their power: what Murray Rothbard called the Welfare-Warfare State.

The maintenance of this apparatus of power, both at home and abroad, in straitened economic circumstances, requires tightening the belts of ordinary citizens – while the elites, of course, continue to fatten at the public trough. With the worldwide economic downturn, they know their hegemony is at risk, and so they’re arming themselves, politically and legally, against the onslaught of popular rage they expect – and deserve.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of Antiwar.com, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].