Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Populism in Wartime

Ross Douthat in the NY Times:

Putin’s war has struck two blows against populism, one direct and one indirect. First, there is the embarrassment involved for every populist leader, European or American, who has either offered kind words for Putin or at least held him up as an adversary whose statecraft runs circles around our own incompetent elites. Such flirtations have now largely ended in backpedaling and reversal, forcing populists to choose between self-marginalization or a shameless pivot. Which is to say: Don’t be surprised if Donald Trump somehow evolves into the biggest Russia hawk you’ve ever seen come 2024.

The more damaging blow, though, is the indirect one, the way the Ukraine invasion has revealed how uncertain and at sea the populist instinct becomes when it’s confronted with an adversary that doesn’t fit easily into its focus on internal Western corruption, its narratives of elite perfidy and folly.

This uncertainty isn’t confined to right-populists alone; rather, you see it among anti-establishment voices of all stripes at the moment — the left-wing gadflies who didn’t expect the Ukraine invasion because they did not expect Western intelligence to ever get something right, the critics of U.S. power who didn’t expect Ukrainian resilience because they assumed that any regime backed by our foreign policy elites would be too hapless to survive, the media personalities casting about for narratives that fit populist preconceptions because the bigger picture of Putinist aggression and Western unity does not.

Indeed American populism has a strong history, going back to before the Revolution, of thinking that international conflicts are just distractions from our real problems, likely ginned up by the bosses to justify their continued hold on power. American populism lacks a language for speaking about dangerous threats from outside.


David said...

I'm going to make a trivial point about a pet peeve: I'm pleased to think that one form of western flirtation with Putin that's going to wane after Ukraine is techbro fascination with Putin as a sort of model of the awesome liberated tech mogul, Russia as a cool bandit hacker haven, etc. Consider Assange's seeming preference for Russia over the US, as an example. It seems clear to me that aggressive libertarian tech bro-ism is really about hating US power and especially western law enforcement.

Susi said...

Like the gunslinger in the western movies… The ‘Big Man’ will always draw challengers. It’s part of the cycle of life. Staying on top of the heap, be it a manure pile or a world, is difficult and temporary. Are we living in the “good old times’? Or in the ‘End times’. I vote that these are both.

David said...

On a totally different point, I think American populism does have several languages for talking about threats from outside. First, there's a basic conspiracism, which has been present since the first days of the Republic (and arguably before). This became most powerful in the days of fear of Catholics, and then in the days of Communism and Red Scares. Second, there's a tough-guy jingoism. Third, there is, yes, a tradition of racism.

All told, I'd say American populism is pretty ready to talk about threats from abroad. What they're not ready for is foreign alliances, caution, nuance, ambiguity, trying to understand the foe (even in order to defeat them better) or anything else that the soft-handed diplomatic crowd is into.

David said...

Indeed, I might argue that American populism's understanding of foreign relations is ALL threat. Either foreigners threaten us, or, if they don't, it's because they've been cowed by our threats.