In the late 19th century a movement arose in the agricultural areas of the United States, especially among poor farmers in the southern states, which was called populism. This movement stood for three beliefs. The first was that contemporary America was divided sharply into two groups: the working people (especially the farmers) and the large corporations just coming into existence (especially the banks). There was much to support this first belief. Farmers worked all year round but didn’t get paid regularly throughout it. They would sow, weed, irrigate, cultivate, but as long as they had no product to sell, they didn’t make any money. As a consequence they were starved for cash during certain parts of the year and had to depend on banks to loan them money to buy new seeds, fertilizers, tools, and farm animals. Farmers were (and continue to be) very dependent on banks and banks have taken advantage of that. This leads directly to the second belief of the populists: the rich corporations and banks took advantage of the farmers while they remained impoverished. The third belief was more remedial in nature: that the government should be a government of, for and by the people, not a government of and for large corporations and big banks.
This movement was politically powerful for about 10 or 15 years and then it died. One of its striking characteristics during its heyday was its opposition to racist divisions which in the late 19th century were as powerful as ever and more out in the open then they may be today. It was therefore not uncommon to find among the populist farmers of that era farmers of color.
This is interesting because the word “populism” has suddenly come back into constant use. Everyone talks about this or that populist movement or organization. But the word is now not used to describe a movement of working people and farmers who demand greater political power against the very rich, large corporations, big banks, or real estate billionaires. Such a movement does not exist.
Instead the people who are called populists today are moderate fascists. They draw lines between themselves and others and often those lines are racial. Unlike the populists of 130 years ago, today’s populists do not make efforts to bury racial distinctions but are racists. White supremacists of all stripes are called “populists” whether they are out to get African-Americans or Hispanic people. Color lines are important. Americans – at least good Americans – have white skin.
European populists oppose immigration, as do American populists, and those immigrants tend to have darker skins than Northern Europeans. People with brown skin should go back to Africa or Latin America. They should not be here. As far as I know these are moderate fascists. They are not drawing up plans for gas chambers. But when well-meaning people leave plastic containers of water at the border to help immigrants who come across the hot desert, these new kind of populists don’t hesitate to pour out the water and make it more likely that the immigrants die of heatstroke. They are murderous all right.
Using the word populist today to apply to these right wing movements is often justified by describing the populist movements as being in opposition to the contemporary elites. A newspaper article about the annual meeting of super rich big shots in Davos, Switzerland, describes the representatives of global corporations and banks as the elite who are the target of protest by today’s populists. Similar definitions of today’s populism can be found in other publications.
But a little thought shows that this characterization of “populism” in 2019 makes little sense. Donald Trump, one of the leaders of American “populists” today is a billionaire (even though there is considerable debate about how he comes by those billions since he seems to be an incompetent businessman). At any rate he is part of the elite which populists are supposedly opposing. But the people who are called populists in America today adore Donald Trump. They believe everything he says and with it all the bad mouthing of immigrants from Central America. They believe with him that we need a wall at our southern border. They believe with him that cutting taxes for the rich will benefit the middle-class.
Donald Trump supporters have been studied carefully. What many of them like is that he is rude, foulmouthed. They like the violence of Trump. Fascism is notoriously violent. None of this involves a critique of a so-called elite or calls for giving power back to the people to rule themselves in their own interest.
Why then call these new moderate fascists “populists”?
The new moderate fascists are not committed to democracy. They want rights but only for white people and more for white men than white women. But calling them “populists” misrepresents them as advocates for popular democracy. It misrepresents them as the enemies of the very rich and powerful. It makes it appear that contempt for persons of color, contempt for people not born and raised in America, contempt for women are all acceptable stances consistent with the traditional American belief in freedom and democracy.
The captains of industry including the big bankers have always been very hesitantly committed to democracy. The Koch brothers today corrupt the democratic process by buying Congress persons and senators. A process which is supposedly representing all Americans has in fact become largely a process representing the rich. The misnamed new populists admire the very rich and powerful. They share the mission to limit rights and democratic participation to white men.
This is obviously not a project that will win you friends in America (except on the moderate fascist fringe) and therefore needs to be concealed and misrepresented. Calling moderate fascists populists is an attempt at confusing the real mission of these groups and their sponsors in the elite.
Accordingly these new fascists in the United States, in the United Kingdom, in Europe in the West as well as the East have acquired this rather venerable and respectable name of “populist”— people who do not want their lives to be run by big banks and big business but want to run their lives themselves—as the name for the moderate fascism they favor.
But this is a shabby propaganda move that both besmirches the name of a respectable movement in American history and does so in order to hide the close connection between large corporations and banks, and the alt-right, anti-black and Hispanic racists, anti-Semites, anti-Muslims.
What matters here, is, of course, not just a word –”populism” – but the alliance between powerful business interests who are not very happy about democracy – to put that very politely – and people of low and middle income who for reasons of their own are also enemies of democracy, who think the Constitution was meant only for them. The misuse of the word populism is an effort to conceal the concerted effort of rich (and some white poor) to undermine what remains of our democracy. The new populists, unlike the 19th century populists, are a serious threat to our most important traditions.