Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the fallacy of populism—particularly the hypocrisy of those who espouse it. Scholars define populism differently but the gist of it is a rejection of “corrupt” elites who are seen to act in their own self-interests. In contrast, populists claim to pursue the “people’s interests.” Populists can be left leaning or right leaning—think William Jennings Bryant/Bernie Saunders/Elizabeth Warren or Joe McCarthy/Barry Goldwater/Donald Trump.
A populist philosophy leads to a rejection of globalization, standard institutions, bureaucracies, the media, and basically checks and balances of any kind. Rapid demographic changes in the US have caused older established Americans and younger under-educated Americans to feel they’ve lost status and influence. These Americans tend to be anti-immigration and skeptical of recent global trends which have led to job losses in the US.
Successful populists today latch onto fears and prejudices of the masses to gain political power. They often use catchy slogans, nicknames, etc. as bait to reel in their prey. Such techniques smack of the Pied Piper who plays music that supporters want to hear, and these supporters blindly follow where he leads—no matter how divorced from reality his play card is.
The concept that disenfranchised Americans bought what Trump was selling still boggles the mind. Is there any way that Trump understood the average American? I think not. The son of a multi-millionaire who gave his son millions and bailed him out time and time again from one bad business decision after another is hardly a man of the masses. (We won’t mention his illustrious college career that started at Fordham and ended at Wharton after someone else reportedly took his SATs, an academic record not to be found—much like his bone spur diagnosis to avoid the military.)
The fact that any average American thought Trump related to them and their plight borders on the absurd. Do you really imagine that Donald Trump would welcome any of his rally participants to one of his properties? And who really gained during Trump’s reign, including the loathsome year of 2020? Was it the masses or the “corrupt elite” who made a killing in the stock market –many with record returns? And let’s not dissect the makeup of his pardon list—loyal cronies— “corrupt elites” — who committed felonies and kept singing his tune. Yet Trump continued to play that tune, and his followers continued to sing his praises while thousands of Americans died, and Trump virtually checked out of managing a pandemic of epic proportions.
Now enter Josh Hawley; the brave Republican Missouri senator who has chosen to object when Congress meets to certify the electoral college vote for President-elect Joe Biden on January 6, 2021. Hawley has been coined the post-Trump populist, and he has decided to hitch his wagon to that falling star in a bid for the 2024 Republican nomination. He bills himself as “for the people” and a fighter of elitist policies. But let’ take a closer look. OK first, a banker’s son, he went to Stanford and Yale, two of the most elite schools in the country. Then he taught at England’s most prestigious school, St. Paul’s. Then he went to work at a prestigious law farm. Then he clerked for Justice Roberts. Not exactly your everyday guy.
And this decision to object to the electoral college vote is not Hawley’s first grandstanding move. During the Amy Coney Barrett hearings, he railed on and on saying, “When you tell somebody that they’re too Catholic to be on the bench, when you tell them they’re going to be a Catholic judge, not an American judge, that’s bigotry. The pattern and practice of bigotry from members of this Committee must be stopped and I would expect that it be renounced.” The irony here is that no Democratic member of the Committee even pounded on religion–the only members who spent time on Barrett’s faith were Republicans. Democrats avoided that pitfall at all costs. But Hawley, ever the opportunist, took every opportunity to grandstand here as well, never missing a chance to boost name recognition and ingratiate himself with the religious right.
Hawley’s move to object to electoral college certification is a risky one. Perhaps it will serve him well in coming months—perhaps not. He claims he “has to do something”—even though case after case, recount after recount have ratified election results. Ben Sasse, a Republican senator from Nebraska, has taken the opposite route. He called Trump’s pardons “rotten to the core.” He also called Hawley’s proposed actions “a dangerous ploy.” It will be interesting to watch how this drama plays out.
My point with all this is “beware of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” It is true that you needn’t be poor to be an advocate for the masses and propose policies that would enhance their standards of living. But it is incumbent on all of us to look closer at truly fraudulent claims.
Donald Trump is not a religious man. He never was. Josh Hawley, it has been said, doesn’t even live in Missouri. (He denies this, but records show he has used his sister’s address as his—where his sister pays the taxes– and put his name on his parent’s piece of land where he claims to be building a house.) Others in Congress have gotten harsh reprimands and worse for similar tactics.
My hope for 2021 is that we respect, honor, and promote expertise. I would venture to guess if you asked Trump today how a bill becomes a law, he could not explain the process. America has some of the best and most respected educational institutions in the world—the best facilities, the best training, etc. Why in God’s name wouldn’t we select the most qualified people for those positions?
Steven Hassan, the author of The Cult of Trump explains how the President uses mind control to convince his followers that only he can save them from ruin. Supervising editor of The Apprentice Jonathon Braun told The New Yorker, “Most of us knew Trump was a fake. He had just gone through I don’t know how many bankruptcies. But we made him out to be the most important person in the world. It was like making the court jester the king.” Bill Pruitt, another producer recalled, “We walked through offices and saw chipped furniture. We saw a crumbling empire at every turn. Our job was to make it seem otherwise.”
In 2021, let’s all commit to doing a better job of seeking truth, verifying credentials, experience, and references. Let’s respect and trust science, expertise and facts. It’s important. And it’s the right thing to do. It’s also a worthy new year’s resolution.
Maria Grant was principal-in-charge of Deloitte’s Federal Human Capital practice. Since retiring, she has focused on writing, reading, piano, travel, nature, kayaking and biking.