Trump, Berlusconi, Hitler, and the Populist Moment

AP Photo/Steve Helber

Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump gets a fist bump from supporters during a rally at Radford University in Radford, Virginia, Monday, February 29, 2016. 

This article originally appeared at The Huffington Post.

Right-wing populists ascend when three toxic forces converge. First, the economy needs to be really lousy for most citizens. Check.

Second, the political system ceases to be able to solve problems and loses legitimacy with regular people. Check.

Third, some foreign menace causes people to seek shelter in a strongman. Check.

Other factors common to successful rightwing populists are these:

·      They tend to be very good at breaking the rules of conventional political discourse, and at using mass media.

·      They are not conservatives. They love to use big government to help the masses. More on that in a moment.

·      They are not accountable to politics-as-usual. Because of their direct rapport with the folk (or if you like, the volk) their rise suddenly destroys the influence of politicians whose stock in trade is the usual currency of politics—money, trading favors, cutting deals. The populist doesn't need the pols because he has the people. (In the case of billionaires like Donald Trump and Silvio Berlusconi, they don't need political money either, since they have their own.)

·      They trigger cognitive dissonance. Once large numbers of people see a populist outsider as potential savior, it doesn't matter what they say, how much they contradict themselves, how crude they are, or how much their own previous life is at odds with their current role. This is all seen as anti-establishment cred.

In Berlusconi's case, Italy's instrument of populist anti-corruption rage was himself a corrupt billionaire. It didn't matter. Trump, the scourge of aliens who take American jobs, has imported hundreds. Water off a duck's back.

Hitler, calling for the golden-haired resurgence of a racially pure, Nordic German Reich, was a swarthy Austrian. Das macht nichts (no problem). More importantly, Hitler was seen as the avenger of the humiliation of the Versailles Treaty and the economic destitution afflicting much of Germany. He vowed to make Germany great again (sound familiar?). That the particulars were an incoherent jumble didn't matter either. He was the man of the hour.

And here's the most interesting part. Until he blew it all on a reckless world war, Hitler delivered.

I've been reading a fascinating book by the German historian Götz Aly titled Hitler's Beneficiaries.

As Aly documents, Hitler expanded the German welfare state. His rearmament and public works programs ended mass unemployment. (Remember, Nazi was an abbreviation for national socialist.) Hitler recycled the plunder looted from Jews and later from countries the Nazis occupied—to improve living standards of ordinary Germans. He probably could have gotten re-elected, had he not suspended free elections and civil liberties. Historian Aly's point is that ordinary Germans, as willing beneficiaries, were culpable.

This is not, of course, to excuse Hitler. Or to suggest that Donald Trump is a fascist. Not all right-wing populists are as extreme as Hitler.

This brings me to the difference between right-wing populists and conservatives.

Far right populists share with today's Republicans a fanatical ultra-nationalism, a scapegoating of foreigners, and a distaste for identity politics.

But there are several big differences. Conservatives are intimate allies of Wall Street while populists play on the resentment of Wall Street.

Populists tend not to be religious fundamentalists, while right-wing Republicans pander to the religious right. And the Republican right loathes government, while populists are willing to use it. If you think Obama expanded executive power, just wait for President Trump.

No wonder Karl Rove, the Koch Brothers, the Bushes, and the rest of the Republican elite feel like taking hemlock. Not only does Trump's populism hose away their power, but his appeal demonstrates that the vaunted Republican base, once the issues are unpacked, is a lot less conservative than they imagined.

Trump has kind words for Social Security and even for single-payer health systems. When Ted Cruz tries to bait him as a big government guy, Trump responds that Cruz would let people die in the streets. Advantage Trump. Turns out that the base actually likes Social Security and Medicare.

Trump has been soft on abortion rights, he has hired illegals and scammed students, his numbers don't add up, he's been married three times and is proud of his womanizing—and the social conservative base doesn't care.

Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, a prominent evangelical who has endorsed Trump, said the following to a New York Times reporter:

All the social issues—traditional family values, abortion—are moot if ISIS blows up some of our cities or if the borders are not fortified. Rank-and-file evangelicals are smarter than many of the leaders. They are trying to save the country and maybe vote on social issues next time.

Jesus wept!

Which brings me to Bernie Sanders. Left populists, despite the term, have little in common ideologically with right-wing populists, other than a feeling that ordinary people are getting shafted and that government is in the hands of elites. Left populists ride the waves of progressive social movements—and energize them.

Unlike Trump, Sanders has a coherent explanation for what ails America, and a drastically different one. Wall Street has far too much power. Working families are not getting their fair share. The people need to take back the government and change the rules, via more progressive taxation, more social investment, and more protections of labor.

Some people who might vote for Trump might also vote for Sanders, an outsider of a very different kind. But Sanders is increasingly looking like a long shot for the Democratic nomination. And conversely, some voters, especially independents who are attracted to Sanders, could vote for Trump.

Thomas Edsall, for one, has challenged the idea that many potential Sanders voters could support Trump. Yet most polls show that in a head-to-head matchup, Sanders would do better against Trump than Clinton would. And it's not hard to see why.

Clinton represents continuity with establishment elite politics, with Wall Street, with ordinary people falling further behind—the very politics that has so alienated Trump and Sanders voters.

By dint of experience and resume, Clinton is one of the most qualified people ever to seek the presidency. In any other year and against almost any other candidate, that might be a plus. But if you asked a computer to design a Democratic candidate who'd be the wrong standard-bearer against Trump, it could hardly improve on Hillary Clinton.

And if you think the Rubio-Cruz-Trump slugfest looks like a playground food-fight, just wait for the Trump-Clinton general election. Trump, seemingly, is vulnerable on wild inconsistencies that will be easy marks for Democrats and the media. But for every Trump liability, Clinton has her own blemishes that Trump will wail on. A recent New York Times editorial calling on her to release the transcripts of her Wall Street speeches was more withering than anything Bernie Sanders said.

In Massachusetts, where I live, the Democratic primary is on (Super) Tuesday. Many of my Democrat friends are agonizing over the following conundrum:

Vote for Clinton and bring this contest to an early close so that Democrats can be unified while Republicans are still throwing pies at each other? Or vote for Sanders, either in the fleeting hope that he might yet win, or at least to signal Clinton that she needs to sound more populist.

The trouble is, at age 68 and with a long and well-documented record, Clinton is well past the age where she can re-invent herself with any credibility. It's hard to imagine what might rouse the enthusiasm of the Sanders base for a Clinton candidacy (unless perhaps Elizabeth Warren is on the ticket).

Republicans such as Karl Rove may be ready to jump out the nearest window over the destruction of the Republican coalition of social conservatives and Wall Street conservatives that he helped build. But though Trump is not Rove's kind of guy, he could still give Clinton a close race in November.

It's only February. God only knows what this election year will still bring.

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