Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to the show.
Shikha Dalmia: Thanks for having me, Aaron.
Aaron: What is populism?
Shikha: It's a good question, and as you've noticed, the name of my newsletter is The UnPopulist, and its addressed at the authoritarian currents we are seeing around the world. Then the question arises why am I calling it The UnPopulist and not the anti-authoritarian or something like that? Partly, because it's cuter, but the more serious reason is that the kind of illiberalism and the kind of authoritarianism we are seeing around the world has what is essentially a populist element.
Now there's a lot of confusion around the word populism, and there is actually a great deal of effort on the left to try and take back this word which it thinks has been unfairly characterized in the last six years with the rise of the Trump era and the MAGA era. I, in some ways, feel for some of the left-wing writers, like Thomas Frank who's a public intellectual and an author and something of a Bernie Sanders progressive. He wrote a book not too long ago defending the term populism because he sees populism as essentially a movement of the people. Roger Cohen, a New York Times columnist, similarly wrote in 2018, shortly after Trump, where he also was lamenting the fact that the term populism has acquired this negative connotation.
Now, I actually feel for some of these liberals because, as you and I know, we are still grieving the loss of the term liberal. However, I think they fundamentally misunderstand what populism really means and why it has a bad connotation.
To some extent, it's a semantic issue, you can give any phenomenon any name, but populism, for the longest time has had a bad odor. They [Frank et al] see populism as essentially a popular movement that is supposed to do the most good for the most people, and those most people are not the rich people. They are generally lower or middle-income people who are the vast majority of the population.
But that's not what populism really is. It's not a popular movement. A populist movement, if you read the literature on it, which admittedly is murky, it's about pitting the “real” people against some other entity, and that entity is the elites. The elites are considered to be these corrupt oligarchs, and the people are supposed to be something pure, representing something good.
There is instantly this division between the elite, which controls “the establishment,” and the pure people whose interests are being avoided. Now, even that exactly doesn't capture the problem with the term populism. The term populism gets its bad odor from the fact that it's not just that the real people are trying to get their way and have their preferred policies enacted, it is more that they want to flatten certain elements of liberalism, the deliberative process, the representative process, because they believe it's been captured by some bad people, by The Establishment which is not representing them.
It's an effort to flatten certain institutions of liberalism, not improve them, not reform them, but simply to either side step them or do an end-run around them, or even just get rid of them so that the real people can have their will.
Now, obviously, the real people can't govern. There are too many of them, somebody has to govern for them. So in some senses populist and authoritarian seem like anti-poles. But inevitably they come together because whenever you have a populist movement some authoritarian figure or demagogue arises who will say they're representing the people. And we saw very clearly with Trump, we the people became me the people…they are not representing the people, they are the people. Populism inevitably goes hand-in-hand with a certain kind of authoritarianism, and so therefore, the term unpopulist and therefore why populism is something to be worried about.
Aaron: I think that's one of the interesting things about watching the rise of populism in the U.S over the last five or six or seven years, has been that it's framed as an anti-elite movement and “drain the swamp” is an anti-elite thing. We're constantly hearing about these coastal cities where these out-of-touch elites who don't understand the real people are. The real Americans in this context really just means rural working class whites. But then you look at their leadership and it is fantastically wealthy, though we don't know quite how wealthy [in Trump’s case], because his finances are a little sketchy, but a fantastically wealthy businessman.
Then in Congress the figureheads for this movement, or at least people trying to claim that mantle, tend to be Ivy league law school educated, pretenders to the common-man identity. You're right, it is this odd thing what begins as a movement framing itself as of the people turns into a personality cult that's no longer about the people's identity, it’s about the people building their identity through fealty to this strong-man leader, which is then how it can very quickly turn into an authoritarian movement, because either that leader's power when he has to do something is seen as absolute, because he's the embodiment of our hopes and dreams and cultural identity, or when that leader's position is threatened, as we saw when Trump lost the election, it can morph quickly into violence in defense of that leader's status. Not so much the working class or the common man status, but defending that leader from perceived failure.
Shikha: That's right. Now, populism can be of both the left wing and the right wing varieties, and we have seen them throughout history. Latin America has had populism of every strain. In every instance it has led to the cult of the personality, but there are two things in populism. There is a cult of personality, which is the leader, and then there is a cult of the people too. There is a certain deification of the people that they are true owners of the society, their will needs to be respected.
The two, the cult of the leader and the cult of the people, build on each other, they both deify each other. Whether it is Hugo Chavez, whether it is Bolsonaro right now. The Bolsonaro is interesting and he's losing some of his popularity, but Trump is a classic phenomenon of a cult leader, of a demagogue who is leading in the name of the real people, and then the real people deify him. He really was a deity in certain MAGA circles, and he in turn deifies them in his rallies.
If you watched some of his rallies, which I tried to avoid as much as possible, but he was constantly flattering the people there. It was, "You people are great, and you are being ignored." Yes, there is this mutual cult of the leader and the cult of the people that goes hand-in-hand in a populist movement.
Nomenclature and Taxonomy
Aaron: I want to stay for a moment on our terms and taxonomies, because the purpose of this show, ultimately, is not just to critique illiberal and populist ideas, but to try to understand them, to try to understand where these people are coming from, what the philosophies and personality traits and historical perspectives that inform them because it's hard to challenge ideas without understanding them deeply and, to the extent you can, fairly.
We've talked about what populism is, but this show is not called the authoritarian mind, it's not called the populist mind, it is called Reactionary Minds. Where does the term reactionary fit into all this?
Shikha: Aaron, this is your show! You and I both talked about why we like Reactionary Minds. I'll give you my side and perhaps you can say something about why you like it. The textbook definition of reactionary is a person or a sensibility that is opposed to economic or political liberalization of any kind. Usually, it goes along with a certain conservative mentality.
I think there's another element to the reactionary sensibility, and that is, it is also anti-ideas, and it's anti-intellectual. The reason is ideas and intellectual theories can lead to change. They require a certain amount of openness to the world and to knowledge, and those can be intensely threatening to existing cultural orders. In that sense, reactionary minds, I think, is a good way to describe the show because you and I are both quite troubled and perturbed by the last six years.
Things are happening in America that we never thought would be possible. We think that there needs to be some kind of a response to this, but we can't really fight these ideologies unless we understand them. We do want to understand the reactionary movement that's brewing in America on its own terms. That's the reason I like the term reactionary minds.
Aaron: Yes, I agree with all that. What I would add is, I think that you can make the case that political ideology, moral ideology, and so on is, to some extent, downstream of personality, that we tend to have different personal and personality preferences, and then we sometimes look around for theories or intellectual edifices that provide structure to them or support them or don't really challenge them.
In that regard, reactionary it is a personality type that says I am turned off by, sometimes threatened by diversity, by change, by things being different than the way that I'm used to, or people who aren't like me being more prominent than they used to be, or higher status than they used to be, or the way we talk about language is changing and that bugs me, and I don't like these kids asking me to use different pronouns or different terminology. There is this set-in-my-ways-ness that drives a lot of this.
It's not an accident that Trump when he was first running for president, he led with anti-immigration, with a xenophobic perspective and a nationalism that was the corollary of that, because for a lot of his most faithful followers, it's “America is looking different than either the way I was used to it being, or the way that I imagined it being, or the way that I would like it to look demographic.”
On the far fringes of the populace, we get the Great Replacement Theory about they're trying to change the demographics of the country to make it less white than it used to be. There is this very “I don't like difference” and then reacting strongly against that, then that feeds into political preferences, which is, "I'm going to vote for the person who will stop the change, whether that's preventing immigrants who don't look and talk like me from coming into the country, or will elevate the status of the people who have the same preferences I do against the people with the diverse preferences that I dislike."
That's another thing that I want to dig into on the show is the way that there is such a thing, I think, as a populist or an authoritarian or reactionary psychology as well. There are ideas that inform it, but there's also just beliefs and values and attitudes and they end up mixing together into this very toxic political outcome. That was the attraction to me of the reactionary minds, because it gets both the notion that this is an ideological perspective, but also that this is just an attitudinal perspective.
Shikha: Right. That's very well stated, Aaron. I would, however, push back just slightly in that we do want to make a distinction between the conservative mind and the reactionary mind. Bill Buckley's very famous statement when he launched the National Review was he wants to stand athwart history screaming or yelling stop. There is a way in which, even though I am not a conservative, never have been, never will be, I can understand the urge to be careful about change and reform, and to be a little deliberative. You don't want to simply throw out existing social arrangements just because some fad has taken hold of the land.
There is a way in which the conservatives, even though I'm not a conservative, they can be incrementalists, but not completely opposed to reform. Reactionaries, I think, is conservatism on steroids in that sense. Reactionaries simply don't want change because they don't like change. Usually, reactionariness is a phenomenon that's associated with conservatism, but to the extent that it's not just any change that reactionaries are opposed to, it's actually liberalism that they are opposed to. To the extent its liberalization they are opposed to, they can even come from the progressive side.
Like communists when China liberalized its economy, there were reactionaries in China who wanted the communist order to hold and they didn't want liberalization. In that sense, I like the term reactionary because potentially, it will even capture the leftist reactionaries.
Aaron: I think that often manifests in the contemporary American left as an intolerance of difference. That is, it's not the same as the intolerance of difference that we see from the right, which is obviously very much there, but rather, the left thinks we have advanced, we have liberalized, so certain behaviors that used to be socially unacceptable are now considered normal, or certain underprivileged groups that used to be underprivileged are now considered no different than everyone else.
That liberalization is good. That's the kind of liberalization we want, but there is a tendency among some people on the left to then to be incredibly intolerant not of difference in the political realm. It's one thing to say yes, we should — people who want to re-criminalize gay marriage or gay relationships that's bad, but it's people who themselves in their own lives are not affirmatively supportive of these things need to be stamped out, need to be punished.
This often can manifest in the lefts wanting to punish businesses that weren't supportive of gay weddings, baking cakes for gay weddings. The small conservative baker says, "That's against my conscience. I don't want to bake a cake for your wedding." In a genuinely liberal society the answer to that is, "Okay." Like, "I will go somewhere else and get a cake from somewhere else and no harm, no foul."
The liberalism that manifests on the left is like, "No." It's not enough that you are just saying, "Hey, I don't want to participate." You have to participate and embrace, or we are going to, in this case, try to use the state to punish you, to destroy your business, to find you, to drive you out, because you're not one of us. That ends up with this ratcheting up of the reactionariness because then what that says to the people who are more culturally conservative is, "I need to dig in even deeper because if the culture drifts in a more liberal direction, that's even more ground for me to be punished often with state force. I need to fight even harder because I won't be tolerated.
Shikha: That's exactly the dynamic we are in right now. The problem with the left is that it's too impatient and, to some extent, one can understand its impatience. I think systemic injustices are prevalent, systemic racism is a thing! We all do need to grapple with legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, all of that is correct. But the left doesn't want to do the real hard work of changing hearts and minds. It wants to grab power nodes and exercise and push on them to engineer change.
It's not just the levers of the state that they are using, it's also the levers of corporate power and what have you. Not all of [these tactics] are illicit. Some of them are perfectly acceptable. Certain kinds of boycotts against views clearly beyond the pale are probably acceptable. But they have lost the capacity of making distinctions between good-natured fear of what they are asking for — and a reactionary fear, I guess.
It's this lack of calibration and this lack of finesse in their techniques, which is a big problem. This, in some ways, is driving a more reactionary attitude on the part of the conservatives, bringing out their worst tendencies.
But I actually don't want to simply blame the left . I think the conservatives always wanted — there was a certain kind of conservative mind that was always uncomfortable with certain social changes, gay marriage, what have you. They've also been looking for a pretext to dig in. I think to some extent, the left is giving them a pretext [by its excesses]. It's not a reason, it's a pretext for their reactionariness. It's hard to untangle all of this, I admit, but all these currents are right now with us.
Aaron: At their core they're all ultimately a rejection of genuine liberalism, which is if nothing else, it is a belief in a social tolerance and social pluralism. If we're going to live together in a big society, commonly governed, we have to get along with each other. The way that you get along with each other given our diversity of viewpoints and values and preferences and backgrounds and so on is to tolerate difference. To say: "I'm going to let you live the way that you want to live and I'm going to live the way that I want to live. Even if I'm not celebrating the choices that you make, I'm accepting them as part of this liberal consensus."
So much of what we're seeing now seems to be a rejection of that liberal consensus of saying, "No, it's not just that I think I am right in… All of us think we're right in our own preferences and values or we wouldn't hold them. It's not just that, it's saying, “therefore, anyone who differs from my preferences and values is wrong and is wrong to an extent that they are dangerous or a threat or impure, or in some other way, need to be, whether it's with the state or other mechanisms, need to be shut down, excluded, punished so that we can have a higher degree of uniformity that happens to align with my preferences.”
Shikha: When Obama became president he was against gay marriage. He was against all kinds of pro-gay policies, and then, of course, during the course of his presidency he changed his mind. I wonder if there is any room for Obama in the current left. Room for evolution of thinking.
Now I think Obama was always there and he was holding back for strategic reasons, which turned out to actually be not bad reasons. You can see the growing intolerance of the left in that it's not just being censorious against the right, but it's also being censorious toward its own. That’s why, in a way, I'm a little less worried about the left, because the left, in its demand for purity and consistency, in a way is becoming less united and is at that stage of devouring its own.
The left is now generating healthy pushback. I actually think if Trump had not arrived on the horizon, there was so much concern within the left about the left that right now we would be in a much better position with respect to the left. But with Trump arriving on the scene, I feel myself pivoting. I think there is no bigger threat in this country than the right because it has become so completely not just reactionary, but authoritarian and illiberal in 30 different ways that I've had to drop my attention on the left and now right is the big problem.
Before Trump arrived, I remember Vox, very much a progressive publication, had published a piece by a liberal professor saying something to the effect, "My liberal students terrify me." This piece went on to say that conservative students his class, this was a professor who's in a liberal arts college, who said the conservative students in his class will push back, might not like his ideas, but are still willing to discuss them. Liberal students were not willing to do that.
Now what we are seeing on the other hand is that the right is no longer simply pushing back against what were legitimately called left-wing excesses. It wants to just crush them. Now you are seeing bills banning the teaching of critical race theory. That's where the reactionariness comes in. This is no longer now about calibrating the pace of the change, it's not about that. Now we are only going to impose our vision from like 200 years ago. Now it’s in a completely different orbit.
The Roots of Modern Day Right-Wing Populists
Aaron: We talked about Trumpism as exemplary of the kind of populism that we are concerned about, but is Trump the major figure, or who are the other figures that are important to understand when looking at the lay of the land on American populism, left or right, the main, I guess, influencers, as the kids say?
Shikha: Well, populism in America, depending upon how you use the term, has a long history. The first populist movement was the People's Party in 1890, which was a third party. It was this agrarian movement and labor movement against the industrialization that was happening. In the building of the railroads, lots of people were dispossessed; traditional livelihoods were lost. That is generally regarded as the first populist movement in this country. It got co-opted by the Democratic Party, which became the labor union party. The People's Party put it's a lot behind William Bryan Jennings. When he lost the election that year, it spelled the end of that party, but it got co-opted by Democrats.
You've seen certain other populist movements arguably whether George Wallace, he was a populist phenomenon, very much appealing to the same kinds of anxieties that Trump now appeals to. In between, you had The Tea Party movement, you also had the Occupy Wall Street movement.
The difference is that the Tea Party, I think, was the beginning of the turn towards MAGAism. Although interestingly, the Tea Party movement was very much pitching itself as this constitutional movement. It wanted to return to the Founders. It wanted to limit the scope of the government, all of which went out of the window when Trump came along.
I think Trump is not sui generis. Partly, the Tea Party is behind him but partly, I think we had the phenomenon of right-wing radio with the advent of Rush Limbaugh who started pushing all kinds of populist tropes. He was a nativist. He was anti-left. The preoccupation with the leftist enemy is a huge, huge part of the right, right now. I think that's the single biggest motivating force. Even the anti-immigration and the anti-immigrant animus is not quite as powerful a force as the fear and anger and the hatred of the left, actually.
I think Rush Limbaugh started stoking that, and then you had a whole slew of copycats on the right. That paved the way for Trump. The right was primed for a populist takeover, and then Trump came along with his MAGA message and at that stage, all the right wanted to do was use the levers of the state to smash the left and impose its vision of a insular, insulated, closed America polity.
Aaron: This isn't new, even with Trump, even with Rush Limbaugh, this is what we watched in the '50s and '60s with anti-communism, was the Soviet Union was a legitimate threat, although maybe in retrospect, not as big of a threat as we thought it was at the time. There were communists in the country, although they weren't going to win out. America was not going to turn communist, but they did exist, and communism was very bad.
The American right used that as a way to exert the power of the federal government to punish particularly culturally left people or people who were calling for liberalization of the positions of Blacks or gays or women and so on. That the urge to define an enemy and then use a potentially an inflated threat of that enemy — or mischaracterizations of that enemy or strawman version of that enemy — to justify a reactionary turn is very strong.
A moment ago we were talking about Trump and you said had Trump not come along the left would have fractured more than it did. What's interesting about Trump is that he unified both the right and the left into these deeply tribally opposed camps. For decades, the conservative movement was split between — there was the base that looked very much like Trumpism does now. The conservative right’s reactionary base has been around as long as there has been a right. But you had the elites, the Bill Buckley types or the Ronald Reagan or the Paul Ryan who controlled the GOP and pushed it in a more, if not liberal, at least more liberal-adjacent on its best days direction.
That went away with Trump and suddenly the elites all either swore fealty, or at least shut up about their criticisms of the really reactionary right. And then on the left, you had exactly that, that the left, those fault lines went away because we had a unified enemy. Trump won't be around forever, and so there's a sense in which that potentially gives a way out when that enemy has gone away.
There are other people like what DeSantis is doing in Florida right now, he's clearly trying to tee himself up as the inheritor of the Trump mantel. But it's questionable whether any of the people trying to do that have Trump's — I'm going to call it — charisma, but a lot of people think of it as such, but Trump's showmanship. There's something about him and his celebrity and all of that that made him successful in the way that someone who had just spouted the same views probably would not have been. Is there cause for hope there that if the populist leader goes away, then the sides will become more pluralistic than they are now?
MAGA’s Ugly Progeny: Integralists and Nationalists
Shikha: It's a good question. No, I'm actually not optimistic about that. Look, what Trump did was he didn't really unite the Republican Party, what he did was he united a certain element within the Republican Party, and the rest of those who didn't agree with him were either purged — Paul Ryan didn't last a year after Trump came on the scene — or became persona non grata within the party.
That's actually a classic populist move. It's not just that they don't respect parliamentary institutions and they don't respect the opposition, they actually turn their own party into an embodiment of themselves, and you've seen that with Trump. It's literally classic populism. In that sense, I think he's been hugely damaging to the Republican Party in a way that I'm not sure the Republican Party can recover from it for a very long time. Or at least I think it has to be in the political wilderness for a very long time. It has to be punished at the polls repeatedly before it will give up this populist formula.
I think even though there may not be a charismatic figure like Trump, and the reason I was laughing when you said charismatic, because I know to you and me, he's just so utterly not charismatic. It's hard for us to see his appeal, but there'll be other populists who will try and copy him. They may not be successful, but their very presence is going to be damaging. That's one.
The bigger danger of Trump is not Trump but Trumpism. Trumpism is essentially an illiberal mindset that doesn't respect the checks on executive power. It gives various factions within the conservative right, therefore, the permission to use the levers of the state to promote their own vision. You've written about this, the integralist movement. Why is that emerging now? The national conservative movement, why is that emerging now?
He's actually fractured whatever little uneasy fusion/consensus there was in the right and allowed these illiberal monster children of MAGAism now to assert themselves. I actually think things are going to get much worse before they get better.
Aaron: Let's turn briefly to the integralist movement and the national conservatism movement which somehow overlap but are distinct in other ways because they represent an interesting move on the part of the conservative elite to try to take on the energy of Trump's populism, but intellectualize it too because, Trumpism is basically all id.
There's not an intellectual philosophical through-line there, but the national conservatives and the integralist are saying, "No, there is a philosophical case against liberalism, that liberalism has failed for reasons inherent to it, and that we need to embrace non-liberal, well thought out philosophical positions." If Trump is spouting id, the integralists and the national conservatives have legitimately thoughtful and often interesting thinkers articulating these views in ways that are I think they're wrong and I think they're often dangerously wrong, but they're not stupid and they're worth wrestling with.
It is interesting watching these very elites. These are law professors and philosophy professors and theologians trying to take this energy and reapply the intellectual veneer that used to exist with Buckley, the National Review but was shed under Trump.
Shikha: The difference between Buckley and the [Adrian] Vermeules of the day is that Buckley was still trying to promote a certain conservatism within a broadly liberal framework and a broadly liberal understanding. He agreed that checks and balances were a good thing, checks on executive power were a good thing. All of that is now out of the window with these new movements.
Discontents with liberalism are always there because liberalism is an uneasy equilibrium between all kinds of different interests that don't comfortably fit together. Minorities are not happy with liberalism because liberalism doesn't give them the levers of power to instantly correct all the injustices against them. They are always unhappy. Of course, the majority is unhappy because, especially in a liberal democratic society, if pure majoritarian rule were to exist, it would get its way far more frequently.
Everybody is always unhappy with liberalism. But there has always been this understanding there that life on the other side of liberalism is nasty, brutish, and short, so we better stick with liberalism. That consensus that liberalism may be wanting, but there is no other real alternative, that understanding is completely gone because some people have come to believe, thanks to Trump's assault on liberalism, that they can have the whole cake.
The integralists, and you wrote great stuff about this — integralists, as you've pointed out, are a really weird movement because they're Catholics, they are actually a minority, and integralists within Catholicism are a really small minority, so why would you want to give up liberalism? The answer is that they think that any conservative state will give them more of what they want than they'll get from a liberal state.
Ultimately, even a reactionary like Trump will give them more than anybody else will. Hence they have turned on liberalism because they feel they're getting less out of it. Every faction within conservatism I think is making a similar bet. You have national conservatism, which is a very, very diverse movement. You have Yoram Hazony who's an Israeli intellectual, who's the godfather of this movement, weirdly enough. You also have standard nationalists who just feel like there should be more flag-waving in the United States. You have somebody like Rich Lowry, who was actually [initially] a Never Trumper, and now feels that there needs to be some kind of America First-ism in America. He's flirting with something like blood and soil nationalism based on geography and ancestry. That will rule me out as a robust American citizen, I'm not sure about you. Geography it means Americans need to love the landscape of this country. The Shenandoah Valley is something that every American should do a pilgrimage to. It's all goofy stuff.
They all feel whatever was missing in the liberal arrangement in America now they feel it's up for grabs, and they're all trying to make a bid for it very quickly to get what they can.
Aaron: In the time that we have left, I want to turn to the future of this podcast. This is the inaugural episode of Reactionary Minds, we plan to do a lot more of these. Our goals, why we created this show, and what we're hoping to get out of it. I can start on this one. I touched on this a bit earlier, but I think my goal is this rise of liberalism is really troubling. As someone who has dedicated his career to advancing a quite radical conception of individual and economic liberty and individual autonomy and self-authorship, this is a direct assault on the values that not only I hold, but I think are the ones that lead to the best world for everyone.
This has always been with us, but it has ramped up considerably. We're seeing some of it on the left, we are seeing one of the two major parties, more or less, entirely overtaken by it. We have seen it embodied in a president, we are seeing an increasing number of intellectuals come out in support of it in one form or another. This is a real threat. The value of a show like this is in trying to understand where that's all coming from, and what it is the people who hold these views actually want, why they want it? What are the ideas that are leading them to it or providing support for it?
I don't want this to be a superficial understanding or a dismissive or they're all just evil kind of way because that's easy and ultimately uninteresting. My goal is to really try to understand them on their own terms and then to critique it from the perspective of the value of radical liberty.
Shikha: That's exactly right, Aaron. That's why I'm excited that you are doing this. I think this is going to be a great podcast. As you've said, the plan is to understand this illiberalism and its appeal at every level, psychological, social, political. I'm sure you will be having guests that address all of it. Marxism makes this distinction between theory and praxis. You and I, we both have a penchant for an intellectual understanding of things. We like to understand things at a theoretical level, it's almost an end in itself. But in this case, we cannot fight this phenomenon without actually understanding it. [On the praxis side], The UnPopulist is not going to shy away calling the right reactionary and taking on specific political figures who are behaving in an illiberal fashion. It’s not going to shy away from taking sides. We know what we are opposing. But to me the theory of Reactionary Minds is going to inform the praxis of The UnPopulist. So there is a yin and yang here that I’m super excited about. I really look forward to this.