In 1935, Sinclair Lewis published what would go on to be his most famous novel, It Can’t Happen Here. The novel describes the rise of Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, a populist politician who resembling Louisiana’s Huey Long or, for modern readers, Caracas’ Hugo Chavez. He is described thusly:
The Senator was vulgar, almost illiterate, a public liar easily detected, and in his "ideas" almost idiotic, while his celebrated piety was that of a traveling salesman for church furniture, and his yet more celebrated humor the sly cynicism of a country store.
Certainly there was nothing exhilarating in the actual words of his speeches, nor anything convincing in his philosophy. His political platforms were only wings of a windmill.
Windrip goes on to take over America, slowly turning it into a fascist state.
While totalitarianism does not threaten the United States today, and does not seem likely to in the future, Populism (a sort of soft-despotism) does. Rhetorical over-inflation—one of the hallmarks of a populist—is a continuous threat to a country whose decision-making process relies on sober conversation. And while we have had our share of sober-sounding (and minded) politicians, recent comments by presidential hopefuls should serve as a reminder that a populist trend is always a few utterances away.
What is interesting about populism in the United States, is its copy-cat quality. After all, once the political class takes note that rhetoric sells, it is hard to scale back. Take, for instance, Donald Trump’s surge in the polls, despite numerous controversial, tone-deaf statements. Below is a wonderful collection tallied by NPR:
On South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham
"I see your senator, what a stiff. What a stiff: Lindsey Graham."
"And then you have this guy Lindsey Graham, a total lightweight. Here's a guy — in the private sector he couldn't get a job. Believe me. Couldn't get a job. He couldn't do what you people did. You're retired as hell and rich. He wouldn't be rich; he'd be poor."
On President Obama
"We're tired of being pushed around, kicked around ... and led by stupid people. They're stupid people!"
On the media
"I have many millions [of followers] between Twitter and Facebook. It's great. It's like owning a newspaper without the losses. It's incredible."
The people reporting unemployment figures (i.e., the Bureau of Labor Statistics)
"Bunch of clowns. Bunch of real clowns."
This shoot-from-the-hip approach may strike many voters as a refreshing breeze in a bog of political misdirection. There is apparently an appeal to populism, as well, in times of economic stress. Consider the Latin American approach of making false promises of economic largess to the beleaguered poor. But not all candidates are content to follow the populist tide. Jeb Bush, whom some see as a likely Republican nominee, said this in response to Trump’s antics:
"Mr. Trump has every right to have every belief he has. He's going to run, that's fine," Bush said. "But I don't want to be associated with the kind of vitriol that he's spewing out these days."