The lead paragraph states the problem.
“Populism” is a magical word. Its mysterious power unites the Erdogan and Putin governments, Latin American leftists like Evo Morales and the late Hugo Chavez, the resurgent Right in Europe and the United States, Hungarian and Polish anti-communist parties, Podemos, the Eurocommunism of the tragic Syriza, the revitalizers of social democracy Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn – all under the same umbrella.One infers that the word is nearly meaningless, and that only the most milquetoast centrist could escape the label (think John Kasich). Indeed, Mr. Ryzak's objection to Judis' piece is that it lumps too many people together; if Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are both populists, then at very least there is a semantic problem.
But its use is not innocent, as Mr. Ryzak explains.
“Populism” has become a useful shroud for political opportunists. Every player gains from its obscurations except the Left. The so-called “center” can present itself as a necessary bulwark against the Right, while the Right itself can cloak its pathological character in either the righteousness of championing “the people” or the rebelliousness of opposing “the establishment”.Thus the effort to resurrect populism as a meaningful term. He summarizes Mr. Judis' opinion succinctly.
“Populism” has both a left-wing and a right-wing variant. The former, represented today by Bernie Sanders and Podemos, organizes the “bottom” and the “middle” of society against the “top”, while the latter, represented by Trump and Le Pen, opposes both the “top” and “bottom” from the middle.Which he then also criticizes.
Judis treats Left and Right as simply window dressing for the underlying “populism”. This has some superficial truth to it, yet it seems to me to quite a leap to say both are expressions of the same phenomenon. The character of “populists” on the Left and the Right differ fundamentally. They play completely different roles. They relate to the rest of society in different ways. We need go beyond their apparent similarities and grasp what they really stand for.Mr. Ryzak distinguishes populism from two other ideologies. While populism champions the cause of some romanticized "people," Marxism is very clear about who those people are--namely the working class. Thus Marxism replaces a vague, moral (Ryzak's term) concept with a rigorous, socio-economic category. Therefore Marxists are not populists--we can exclude the latest leftist du jour, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, from the category.
Similarly, Mr. Ryzak doesn't count "organized chauvinism" as populist. He believes right-wing movements claiming to be populist will always betray their followers. Using George Wallace's movement as an example, he writes
When the Wallace supporter became the Reagan Democrat, the union members among them got what they wanted against the deadbeats and welfare mothers, but in the process they surrendered true solidarity. They were powerless against Reagan’s anti-labor onslaught. “Right-wing populism” always ends in the betrayal of its popular constituencies. This betrayal is nothing more than the logical conclusion of a politics which emphasizes indifference to deprivation and oppression: the real masters find it easier to deprive and oppress everyone.Presumably he'd class Donald Trump's populism in this category--Mr. Trump's followers are being betrayed, and really they're just plain stupid for supporting Trump. Or, as the modern phrase has it, they're deplorable.
Finally, Mr. Ryzak concludes with a definition of populism that is really very clever.
Populism has a moralistic character which tries to awaken the pre-existing egalitarianism of the “people”. While it can have tremendous power, morality is often not enough to forge a durable politics which can construct a better social order.On the one hand, populism is defined by its vagueness--accordingly Marxism is not populist. On the other hand, populism has a moral claim--overt racism is immoral, and therefore is not populist. I like and agree with Mr. Ryzak's definition, and nothing I say here contradicts it.
Populism's "people" need further elaboration. I suggest that populism always champions the middle class--not in the Marxist sense of being petty bourgeois, but rather as upholding righteous, American values. We all know what those are: work hard, support your family, pay your debts, save money. Your reward will be a chicken in your pot, two cars in your driveway, a house in the suburbs (with a pool if you want it), all located in a neat, clean, crime-free neighborhood where you can trust your neighbors. In a word, the American Dream.
Restoring that vision is what Trump means by "Make America Great Again."
The vision certainly has racial implications--the American Dream applies disproportionately to white people (and Asians). But it's not racist: my neighborhood fits that description to a tee--and most of my neighbors are Black. A friend of mine is a recent immigrant from India--he is so determined to have his daughters inherit the American Dream that he refuses to serve Indian food in his house. He's more Trumpian than even I am!
Trump's populism opposes the "elites," or at least those who want to regulate the middle class out of existence. Be it through higher taxes, or "climate mitigation", or zoning laws, or raising gas or electricity prices (one of Obama's goals), the elites are the economic enemy of the middle class. They are also often a cultural enemy, promoting "politically correct" values that do not lead to a middle class lifestyle.
Likewise, Trumpians also distrust the lower class--people who don't support their families, engage in petty crime, have a negative net worth, vandalize public property, or live off taxpayers' largesse. The lower class (in Trump's world view) are not defined by income as much as by values--call them lumpen values. Trump is very much against lumpen values.
And that informs his attitude towards immigrants. He wants to admit people "who love us," as opposed to those who come from "shit-hole countries." The language could be more civil, but the sentiment is widely shared. Do we really want a large influx of dirt-poor, illiterate, traumatized single mothers from El Salvador? Are those people who are going to Make America Great Again? Yes, sympathy and charity are important--everybody feels sorry for those Salvadoran women. And in small numbers it's alright to help them out. But as a nation we can't routinely allow the large-scale immigration from such a population.
On the other hand, immigrants like my Indian friend are warmly received. He really loves us (maybe too much so).
Some politicians are champions of the lumpen class: Al Sharpton, Louis Farrakhan, Maxine Waters. Many others campaign on their behalf--Hillary Clinton foremost among them. After all, the Dems can't win without Lumpen support. Those candidates, by undermining middle-class values, are definitely not populist.
Mr. Ryzak places Bernie Sanders in that same class, saving his best line for last:
To remain on a level where Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump can both be described as “populist” is along the lines of saying a person is experiencing emotion without specifying whether they are feeling love or hatred.And it is true: Bernie campaigned hard on a Lumpen platform--that all problems should be laid upon the government, and personal responsibility counts not at all. But his supporters? Maybe not so much. Yes, they certainly thrilled to Bernie's message, but it seems it was only virtue-signaling. For the Bernie Bros were academics, grad students, their hangers-on, and other people from the upper middle class. In reality it's hard to imagine a more middle-class audience. Beyond which Bernie never pretended to be a Marxist.
So message notwithstanding, Bernie's campaign was as populist as Donald's, though much less successful.