Who Are ‘The People’ Anyway?

Paul Gottfried:

I’m asking these questions because I’d like to know how 39 percent of the voting public can become all of “the people.” I asked myself a similar question as I read The Revolt of the Elites by Christopher Lasch—a work that tries to dissociate “the people” from the vile, transnational “overclass” that Lasch blames for the decline of the family and a traditional sense of community. Lasch studiously ignores a major reason that the entertainers, authors, and other celebrities whom he deprecates have done so remarkably well. It’s because “the people” adore them and their cultural products and have made them what they are. Without Lasch’s “people,” the overclass that he despises would not be prospering.

Non-leftist populists have certain groups in mind when they use their conjuring term, just as Democrats do when they refer to grievance-bearing lifestyle and racial minorities as “the people.” Lasch, a defender of settled communities, typically holds up as his paradigm a mid-twentieth century working-class family, featuring very traditional gender roles. Lasch’s ideal mommy packs a lunch pail for his ideal blue-collar dad, who goes off to work in a factory. This is also the image of the populist family that comes to mind when Pat Buchanan tells us about the declining rustbelt and about all of the jobs that have fled from our blue-collar communities to Third World countries. Unlike Buchanan—who is linked to the Old Right—Lasch was considered to be a part of the socialist Left during his lifetime. And yet, the two figures are rhetorically and often programmatically indistinguishable. Both would now exemplify a populism of the Right, combining demands for the protection of the indigenous workforce with fond images of a disappearing America. Since I can easily identify with these images, I am noting this regretfully.

By contrast, most of those who I hear celebrating Trumpian populism—like Sean Hannity and Newt Gingrich on Fox News—are not about to restore “the people” as they used to be, or at least how they were perceived to be. After all, cohesive societies with traditional gender and family roles that right-wing populists once took for granted are now much weaker than they once were. The last thing that our would-be populists would want to do is face the rage of LGBT and feminist activists on the social Left, and the unavoidable media outrage. Our self-advertised populists do not therefore attempt to take us back to mid-twentieth century communities, lest they be accused of praising the bad old times. In any case, Trumpian populists have different priorities. For example, Hannity and other pundits on Fox News want to mobilize their viewers against the Democrats and in favor of Republican political candidates. Although they occasionally criticize the GOP for not being up to speed, they then go on to hammer the Democrats for not caring about “the people.” We are urged to help “our president” fulfill the people’s will by voting for Republicans at every level.