The West is abuzz with reports of a populist wave: rolling through Europe, sweeping across the Atlantic, and crashing into Gomorrah-by-the-Potomac. Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States—a watershed event as unthinkable as it was improbable to many across the ideological spectrum of American punditry—followed hard on the British people’s vote to exit the European Union, a cognate popular rejection of bipartisan elite opinion.
In short order, Matteo Renzi was the next shoe to drop. Italy’s now-former prime minister, a young, attractive, politically “progressive” technocrat, darling of the European cognoscenti, had been hailed—it seemed like only yesterday—as Rome’s (or is it Brussels’s?) answer to Barack Obama. He resigned in November, though, after the Italian people resoundingly defeated his proposed constitutional “reform.” The scare-quotes are offered advisedly: Italy having been virtually ungovernable since Garibaldi forced what passes for its unification, Sig. Renzi’s reform was a scheme to end the paralysis by accreting power to himself at the expense of the legislature. Think of it as a gambit to codify U.S. President Barack Obama’s “I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone” style of centralized rule.
The victorious Trump had the populist wind at his back. Thus, efforts to caricature the real-estate mogul and reality-television star as a budding Hitler fell flat. Renzi, by contrast, ran into the teeth of that wind. The hyperbole casting him as a would-be Mussolini took its toll.
Renzi’s fall is the continental aftershock of the Brexit earthquake. The “Remain” camp’s failure ushered out David Cameron of the Europhile center-right. He is succeeded by Theresa May, who has promised to carry out the public will despite her (understated) support for “Remain.”
But that’s not all, not by a long shot.
In France, the socialist President François Hollande’s favorability rating is so infinitesimal—well under 10 percent in some polls—that a reelection bid was inconceivable. The two viable candidates to succeed him are both riding the populist wave: the virulently anti-Islamist Marine Le Pen of the Nationalist Front, and the intriguing François Fillon, the former prime minister. As Fred Siegel incisively details in City Journal, Fillon is a social conservative whose economic program is Thatcherite (sacré bleu!) and has its sights trained on Paris’s bloated public sector. One way or another, dramatic change is coming.
Is “populism” the right diagnosis for the upheavals in the West?
Meanwhile in Germany, Angela Merkel, who set Europe’s tinderbox ablaze by rolling out the red carpet for millions of Muslim migrants from North Africa and the Middle East, is suddenly advocating strict anti-Islamist measures—such as banning Muslim women from donning the full veil in public. These eleventh-hour concerns over Islamic resistance to assimilation in the West arise as she campaigns to seek a fourth term amid poll numbers that, while still fairly good (57 percent in November), have sagged. The principal beneficiary has been the nationalist, anti-Islamist Alternative für Deutschland party, whose popularity has risen steadily, coincident with a surge of domestic jihadist attacks.
Certainly, change of some potentially transformative kind is gripping the West. But is “populism” the right diagnosis for it? Count me a skeptic. Oh, it is not that the populist impulse is to be doubted; the question is whether attaching the label “populism” to the dynamic helps us comprehend the multi-layered, internally contradictory angst behind it. In recent years, the misdiagnosis of the complex grassroots surge in the Middle East, the so-called Arab Spring, led to disastrous policy choices. Oversimplifying such a phenomenon has consequences.
For one thing, turning our attention back to the American election, one might think a victorious populist candidate would win the popular vote. Fully 54 percent of Americans cast their ballots against Donald Trump. His principal rival, Hillary Clinton, outpaced him by nearly 3 million votes, slightly over 2 percent of the 137 million votes cast—about the same amount as Jimmy Carter beat Gerald Ford by in 1976. In fact, though she did not win a majority of the electorate (she garnered about 48 percent), the percentage edge by which Mrs. Clinton’s popular-vote plurality exceeds Trump’s is greater than that of ten elected presidents, five of whom won the popular vote (Nixon in 1968, Kennedy, Cleveland, Garfield and Polk), and four—in addition to Trump—who won electoral majorities despite losing the popular vote (George W. Bush in 2000, Harrison, Hayes, and John Quincy Adams).
Yes, the story of the election is a popular surge, but it is less a rush to Trump than a stampede away from Democrats. Trump performed impressively in attracting 2 million more voters than the 61 million the Republican standard-bearer Mitt Romney had in 2012. But Democrats have now hemorrhaged over 4 million voters since Obama’s high-water mark of nearly 70 million in 2008. In that same eight-year time frame, the U.S. population has grown by about 18 million.
All that said, had just 80,000 votes (roughly half a percentage point) shifted to Clinton in three tightly contested battleground states (Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin), we would not be talking about a populist revolt in the United States. We would be talking about how Americans elected a former First Lady and twice-elected U.S. senator who has been a pillar of the political establishment for a generation. Trump won by a hair, so the pillar is now a relic.
There is, in addition, more than a little irony in the fact that Trump, the populist, was rejected in the “direct democracy” sense but nonetheless prevailed thanks to the Electoral College, one of the most anti-democratic institutions created by the U.S. Constitution.
At the start of the Republic, the Framers frowned, at least for public consumption, on political parties and the notion of national campaigns. “The office,” it was said, “should seek the man,” not vice versa. The Electoral College was the constitutional contrivance by which the states, through carefully chosen electors (rather than the populace), would exercise patriotic good judgment in picking the right man—it would surely be a man back then—to lead a far more modest federal government. The functioning of the College changed in short order, and drastically over time, as the societal shift toward direct democracy made the electors more beholden to the voters. Yet the College still performs its essential role of ensuring that the presidential election is decided by the states, not by a national popular vote that would render small states irrelevant. (Note that California, a single huge state that Clinton won by a staggering margin of 4.3 million, accounts for her entire popular-vote edge over Trump.) That is as it should be. George Will sums matters up with characteristic clarity: “[T]he Electoral College shapes the character of majorities by helping to generate those that are neither geographically nor ideologically narrow, and that depict, more than the popular vote does, national decisiveness.”
Still, it is not the mechanism on which one would expect a populist to rely.
It cannot be gainsaid, though, that populism, at a certain elevated level of generality, is a significant factor in the West’s electoral tumult. The question is whether it is a quantifiable factor because the populism has evolved into a single, identifiable movement. I do not believe so.
As the prior essays in this series have eloquently related, populism is a grass-roots phenomenon oriented against the establishment. But “establishment” is an amorphous term that means different things in different places, and thus the reasons for resistance to it vary widely. As has become increasingly obvious, moreover, a single establishment can meet resistance for divergent reasons because the grass-roots are not monolithic.
The populist urge is no stranger to envy and scapegoating; it is thus comfortably at home on the political left, fueling dark narratives of exploitation, colonialism, mercantilism, and income equality when the establishment to be opposed is private wealth. It has found a home on the right, particularly in the era of Reagan and Thatcher, when the targeted establishment was statist government and its incursions into the shrinking realm of individual liberty.
What does that tell us, though, in our own age of crony socialism, an expanding combination of statist governance and private wealth, often unabashedly allied in their euphonious “private-public partnerships”?
The populist urge is no stranger to envy and scapegoating.
As the administrative state grows ever more intrusive, favored business interests extend the chasm between haves and have-nots. Small competitors, unable to keep up with the costs of regulatory compliance, are crowded out. The behemoths meanwhile bask in the glow of too-big-to-fail status, battening on the profits while their losses are socialized. The objections to these cozy arrangements between big government and big business are surely popular. Yet, they are often antithetical to each other: the left clamoring for more regulation to cut the tycoons down to size; the right demanding the dismantling of Washington’s metastasizing bureaucracy.
In today’s populism, globalization is frequently cited as the lightning rod that harmonizes the diverse populist strands. But putting aside whether a global anti-globalism can be viable, here again we encounter as much division as unity.
Crusading to save the planet from the scourges of industrialization, fossil-fuel production, and climate change, the left’s post-nationalist populists seek more muscular global governance to rein in international commerce—heedless of the stubborn fact that the welfare state, already on an unsustainable cost-benefit trajectory, is dependent on economic growth. The right’s populists see the transfer of national sovereignty to supra-national tribunals as a peril to be opposed; they want the evisceration of multi-lateral arrangements in the hope that the benefits of commerce (rising employment and wages) can be hoarded at home—heedless of the stubborn fact that international trade provides millions of domestic jobs while lowering consumer costs.
Clearly, wrath against the established order is bubbling up. To bumper-sticker it as “populism” may be technically accurate, but it is not very edifying. Whether as a weathervane or in search of a villain to blame, a bumper-sticker tells us what we seem to believe or want to believe, not why or whether we should believe it. In Liberal Fascism, his magnificent “Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning,” Jonah Goldberg recalls a proclamation by America’s proto-populist. “The people of Nebraska are for free silver,” thundered William Jennings Bryan, “and I am for free silver.” Okay, but why? On that core question, Bryan could only burble, “I will look up the arguments later.” That, in a nutshell, is populism. As a lawyer, I think it would be unseemly to look too far down my nose at the facility to argue whatever side of the question expedience (or “Mr. Green”) dictates. That facility, however, is a professional skill, not a philosophical position.
Like fascism, populism is a term often bandied about with little or no consensus about its meaning or direction. It is the callow voice of a culture that gushes about its values while its principles fade from memory. To be sure, in a democratic society, a politician who loses touch with what the public is thinking, with the angst it is feeling in threatening times, is apt to have an aborted career. One remains mindful, though, of the Burkean wisdom that “your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”
Donald Trump’s judgment has been an issue throughout his four-plus decades in the public spotlight. He has dramatically changed his business model (after multiple bankruptcies), his political affiliation (five times since the late 1980s), and even his view of “crooked” Hillary Clinton (until recently, a “terrific person,” a “great senator,” and “a great wife to . . . a great president”). Similarly elastic have been his positions on such matters as protection of the unborn (he says he is now pro-life but continues to support government funding for the rabidly pro-abortion Planned Parenthood), socialized medicine (he now says Obamacare must be repealed and replaced, but he has applauded the Canadian and British government-run healthcare systems), and the war in Iraq (he claims to have opposed it from the start, though he is on record offering tepid support before the U.S. invasion and scathingly condemns Obama’s premature pull-out).
Even on his signature campaign issues of immigration, trade, and national security, Trump has not exactly been a model of clarity—a distinct asset for the successful populist, who must never plant his feet too firmly. His quest for the Republican nomination in a talented seventeen-candidate field caught fire when he called for mass deportations and border security. “Make America Great Again” was the campaign’s slogan but “Build that Wall!” was its battle cry. Indeed, the Left’s tireless narrative, that Trump is a racist, is built on a melding of these two messages into a smear that Trump’s idea of American greatness is the absence of Mexican immigrants.
Once the gop nomination was secured, however, and the campaign shifted to the more centrist general electorate, Trump’s rhetoric softened, with traces of his history as a supporter of amnesty detectable in promises to “bring back” many of the aliens he has committed to deport—with legal status. Mark it down: there being neither the public will nor enforcement resources necessary to deport upwards of 11 million people, Trump’s actual immigration enforcement program will look much like the Mitt Romney “self-deportation” plan he once ridiculed. He will step up border security, deport aliens with serious criminal records, prosecute businesses that knowingly hire the “undocumented,” and rely on the aliens themselves to draw the conclusion that leaving—or not coming in the first place—is the best option. Simultaneously, expect to find the new president working with the dreaded political establishment to give legal status (likely, citizenship) to sympathetic categories of aliens—such as the “dreamers,” immigrants brought into the country illegally as children, through no fault of their own.
Trump professes himself a free-trader who nonetheless sees America being taken for a ride by “bad trade deals” and greedy American corporations that move operations to friendlier overseas business climes. This toxic combination, in which China and Mexico are the main culprits, has in Trump’s telling robbed the American middle class of tens of millions of manufacturing jobs, which he promises to reclaim by renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (“the single worst trade deal ever approved in this country”); torpedoing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (a multilateral agreement signed by Obama—a cornerstone of the ballyhooed but unachieved “pivot to Asia”—that has no chance of Senate approval); and slapping punitive tariffs, upwards of 35 percent, on companies that transfer divisions to foreign countries and then seek to sell their (consequently cheaper) products in American markets.
The narrative clearly resonated in rust-belt states like Michigan and Pennsylvania, which voted for the Republican presidential candidate for the first time since 1988—back when blue-collar workers were known as “Reagan Democrats.” Still, the anti-trade rhetoric sounded the Manichean wiles of left-wing populists from Bryan to Saul Alinsky, whose Rules for Radicals (Rule 12) instructed aspiring “community-organizers” to “pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.”
Contrary to popular belief, American manufacturing is up. It is manufacturing employment that has suffered. That is the fallout of robotics and other technological innovation, not trade. In recently rehearsing Economics 101 at National Review, Kevin D. Williamson illustrated that the putatively negative side of a trade imbalance reflects not a budgetary deficit but a surplus in capital—i.e., foreigner vendors, rather than using the dollars they make to buy American goods, invest in American assets. As the reality of potential ruin from tariff and trade wars sets in, Trump in the Oval Office may bear little resemblance to Trump on the hustings.
Trump’s national security positions are similarly Delphic. He has been unfairly pegged as an isolationist for rebuking Bush’s Islamic democracy project and Obama’s war on Qaddafi’s regime in Libya. In fact, Trump’s objection has been to what he regards as ill-conceived interventions, not interventions in furtherance of America’s vital interests. Nevertheless, his perception of those vital interests is not clear. He has promised to “wipe out” the Islamic State jihadist network with a commitment of “very few” U.S. troops by working closely with friendly Arab states—though he has also threatened to halt oil purchases from some of those states due to their reluctance to commit ground troops to the fight. The new president says nato will also be a key component in this effort, a departure from his campaign’s depiction of the alliance as a senescent remora, filled with fading powers that divert military dues to fund lavish welfare states while American taxpayers foot the bill for their security.
Many of Trump’s policy positions have been Delphic.
Trump has also variously vowed to rip up, rework, or strictly enforce Obama’s Iran nuclear deal (the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” between the jihadist regime in Tehran and the United States, plus its negotiating partners—Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany). His rhetoric has been alarmingly admiring of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, a “strong leader” who has “very strong control over his country”—characterizations that, while accurate, were jarring to hear from a would-be American president. The fear is that these rose petals reflect naiveté rather than vapid diplo-banter: On the one hand, Trump appears to envision a strategic alliance with Russia to fight isis and other Islamic terrorists . . . notwithstanding Russia’s ongoing, operational alliance with Iran, the world’s leading state sponsor of jihadist terror.
On the other hand (with populists, there are always many hands), Trump’s latent interest in invigorating nato and commitment to reverse Obama’s hollowing out of the armed forces would put him at loggerheads with Putin soon enough. And while vilifying Obama and Hillary Clinton for their skittishness in identifying “radical Islamic terrorism” as America’s enemy, Trump has been oddly complimentary toward Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, the Islamist strongman who has moved Turkey away from the West. If Trump follows through on a more hardheaded approach to jihadism, he will quickly find Turkey—a sharia-supremacist nato ally that notoriously supports jihadist organizations—to be part of the problem, not the solution.
It is in the nature of populism that neither supporters nor detractors can predict with confidence what Trump will actually do as president. It should come as no surprise, then, that Trump’s victory has spurred efforts to give content to his populism. Most notable of these from conservative Republican circles has been a plea by Mike Lee, the stellar senator from Utah, for the pursuit of “principled populism”—an exercise in cognitive dissonance over which I caused a minor stir (at National Review) by likening it to a call for “a sober Bacchanalia.”
The senator’s brief strangled in its own illogic, as odes to populism inevitably do. The “characteristic weakness” of populism, he conceded, is the lack of “a coherent philosophy,” which inevitably makes its “proposals” (I’d have said “careenings”) “inconsistent” and “unserious.” Well, yes . . . that is because populism is inherently unprincipled, inconsistent, and unserious, such that arguing for “principled populism” is a fool’s errand. Lee is anything but a fool. His is a clever effort to appeal to Trump—who will need cooperation from the Republican-controlled Congress—by exploiting this supposed populist moment for conservative ends. As he dilated on the subject, Lee’s “principled populism” emerged as a menu of conservative proposals “focused on solving the problems that face working Americans in a fracturing society and global economy.” The menu is highly appealing, but it is not “principled populism”; it is conservatism—or, as Lee modified it, “authentic conservatism” (the modifier seems a subtle rebuke of the progressive-lite “compassionate conservatism” of the Bush-43 years).
As I observed at the time, Lee’s entrée into the trendy populist brand was his critique of the “chief political weakness of conservatism,” which he took to be the failure to perceive problems. This is a misdiagnosis. Conservatives are quite good at perceiving problems—especially problems demagogically manufactured into crises for the purpose of rationalizing populist solutions, which historically run in the statist direction. In reality, the chief political “weakness” of conservatism—it is better to think of it as a challenge—is that modern Americans are conditioned to expect that government can solve all our problems, or must at least try to solve them. It is the lot of conservatives to resist solutions that are popular but barmy. Populism cannot change the fact that government is incapable of solving problems upstream of government—problems of culture and complexity that government amelioration efforts, however well-intentioned, often exacerbate.
There is obvious incompatibility between conservatism’s “don’t just do something, stand there” nature and populism’s demands for action that is forceful even if rash. Yet Lee managed to convince himself that populism is capable not only of ratcheting up limited-government approaches but even “anchor[ing] conservatism to the Constitution and radically decentraliz[ing] Washington’s policymaking power.” Again, these are worthy conservative objectives. They are rooted, however, in a deep understanding of why the Constitution’s separation-of-powers framework and promotion of individual liberty are, in the long run, good for society. That is not an understanding populism is wont to help along. Populism is more mood than theory, and is thus notoriously content to have big-government preening overrun limited-government caution.
It is the lot of conservatives to resist solutions that are popular but barmy.
Senator Lee deserves credit nonetheless for trying to wage conservatism by defining populism in a manner that might be enticing to Trump. The new president simply is not ideological. Neither is he a conventional politician, much less a technician steeped in policy wonkery. His learning curve will be steep.
On the positive side, Trump’s learning curve, like the America he envisions leading, is open for business. His exhilarating victory paved the way for a ritual pilgrimage to Trump Tower in midtown Manhattan by political heavyweights and those who crave that lofty status, all vying for the new president’s heart and mind.
The parade gave conservatives no shortage of appointments to celebrate. Senator Jeff Sessions from Alabama, a highly accomplished former prosecutor and Senate scourge of illegal immigration, is slated to be attorney general. A triumvirate of battle-tested former generals—Michael Flynn, James Mattis, and John Kelly—will lead crucial national-security agencies (the National Security Council and the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security). Congressman Mike Pompeo, first in his class at West Point and a Harvard Law School graduate after distinguished military service, will head the cia. Scott Pruitt, the excellent Oklahoma state attorney general who made a habit of suing the Environmental Protection Agency over its economically ruinous, Obama-driven excesses, has now been nominated to run that very agency. Rick Perry, the extraordinarily successful former governor of Texas, has been nominated to run the Energy Department, despite once famously forgetting its name in a 2012 presidential debate—which seemed forgivable since it was then an entity he hoped to abolish. Tom Price, the longtime Georgia congressman and medical doctor who has vigorously opposed Obamacare, will, if confirmed, be charged with administering it—and managing the transition away from it—as Secretary of Health and Human Services. A passionate school-choice advocate, Betsy DeVos has been nominated to run the Education Department. And so on.
But yet another “on the other hand”: For a populist who thrilled his base with promises to “Drain the Swamp”—a chant that rivaled the intensity of “Build that Wall” during Trump rallies in the campaign’s closing weeks—the new President is installing many political establishment honchos in key administration posts. Reince Priebus, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, will be chief-of-staff, responsible for who and what the President sees. At the helm of the Labor Department will be Elaine Chao, the former Bush Labor Secretary and the wife of the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the D.C. establishment personified. The administration hopes to feature at least three alumni of Goldman Sachs, the investment bank nestled at the intersection of government and finance that Trump disparaged throughout the campaign: the senior adviser Stephen K. Bannon (who is actually an anti-establishment firebrand); the Goldman president Gary Cohn as chief economic adviser; and, for Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin, Trump’s campaign finance chairman, whom the left, in grand populist hyperbole, has accused of once foreclosing on a ninety-year-old widow over a twenty-seven-cent payment error.
In what promises to prompt a tough confirmation fight, Trump has nominated another “master of the universe,” Exxon Mobil ceo Rex Tillerson, to serve as Secretary of State. A corporate titan whose diplomatic experience was earned not on the chancellery cocktail circuit but by making hardnosed international business deals, Tillerson is a self-proclaimed close friend of Vladimir Putin. He accepted Russia’s Order of Friendship medal in 2013. The following year, he opposed sanctions against Russia after Putin’s annexation of Crimea, and—against the Obama administration’s wishes—attended a petroleum conference in Moscow at which he shared a stage with a Putin crony under sanctions. At a juncture when the Democrat-media complex is aggressively pushing a storyline that Putin “hacked the election” on Trump’s behalf—an overwrought claim based on the WikiLeaks publication of embarrassing emails stolen from Clinton allies, absent any indication of tampering with the actual voting process—the Tillerson nomination risks playing into the opposition’s hands.
Another curiosity: Tillerson is also a climate-change enthusiast who supports imposition of a carbon tax and has praised the Paris Agreement on climate change. In campaign mode, Trump railed against corporate taxes and pledged to retract America’s signature from the Paris Agreement.
Trump’s position was that climate change is essentially a hoax peddled by China to saddle the U.S. with stifling restrictions on commerce. Since his election, however, the new president has told The New York Times his mind is “totally open” on this “very complex subject.” His post-election guest list included enviro-zealots Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio. There was also the Tesla ceo Elon Musk, who agreed to join Trump’s business advisory council. Though dismissive of Trump during the campaign, Musk hopes to persuade him to lead on the Paris Agreement rather than abandon it. So, evidently, do hundreds of major American corporations, 360 of which—including such heavyweights as General Mills, Hewlett Packard, Nike, DuPont, and Unilever—have co-signed a letter urging Trump to reaffirm Obama’s Paris pledge.
The Paris Agreement, which President Obama formally signed in September 2016, is a useful measure of populism’s weaknesses as a diagnosis of, and prescription for, the current political moment. We really do not know what Trump will do about it.
The pact regards the climate as a global corporate asset that must be preserved by a supra-national institution, the United Nations, to which nation-states make commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (including such ubiquitous substances as water vapor and carbon dioxide). Of course, the U.N. has no means of compelling its members to honor their commitments. Thus, the point of the multilateral instrument is to make these aspirational reduction targets politically viable and, ultimately, legally enforceable.
In theory, an international agreement may not be legally enforced in the United States absent compliance with the Constitution’s treaty process. In addition, legislation is often necessary because treaties are presumed to be understandings between nations that do not create rights and obligations for individual citizens. That means the people’s representatives are supposed to weigh in. Popular opinion is supposed to matter.
So, what does public opinion tell us? Well, the airy notion of “saving the planet” is undeniably popular. In polling touted by the Washington Post, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs maintains that 71 percent of Americans (including 57 percent of Republicans) favor the Paris Agreement goal of cutting carbon emissions, although the paper concedes that many Americans are unaware of the agreement’s terms. It is not to be doubted that support is significant among younger people educated in our universities. The Bernie Sanders populists do not engage in much economically productive activity but have been reared on green activism as a substitute for religious devotion.
Inconveniently, though, the green cause has decidedly less appeal when consideration shifts from its elusive goals to the concrete, painful means of their achievement. Notwithstanding the absence of any assurance that compliance would meaningfully decrease temperatures, the Paris Agreement calls for the United States to reduce emissions by over 25 percent by 2025. That would necessarily cause a spike in energy prices, significantly driving up the cost of consumer goods and, in turn, gutting employment as producers struggle to cut expenses.
There is a conceptual debate about global warming—the degrees to which it exists and to which human activity is a material cause—despite the alarmist left’s best efforts to marginalize climate-change skeptics as “deniers.” Still, the practical political debate, as ever, is about costs and benefits. A society that eschews the pain of balancing its budget, regardless of the obvious damage mounting debt will do to future generations, is not about to volunteer for painful economic contractions in order to achieve speculative climate benefits to be realized decades from now. Consequently, there is no way the Senate would approve the Paris Agreement—not even by a bare majority, much less the two-thirds supermajority required by the Constitution’s Treaty Clause. Nor would Congress as a whole enact legislation that would implement the agreement’s terms.
Transnational progressives have learned to circumvent democratic obstacles.
So why is the Paris Agreement an issue for Trump? Because, knowing all of this, Obama signed it anyway. He calculated that climate-change pain could be imposed without Congress’s consent—just as he unilaterally subjected the nation to the security risks of the Iran nuclear deal, another multilateral agreement that was never ratified under U.S. law but was “endorsed” by the United Nations (specifically, by the Security Council).
Alas, Obama’s calculation was shrewd. Transnational progressives have developed cagey ways to circumvent democratic obstacles to their globalist agenda. International agreements are drafted to include terms purporting that they “enter into force” when a certain modest number of nations sign them, regardless of whether this is sufficient to bind any particular signatory nation under its domestic law. The Paris Agreement, for example, is said to have “entered into force” on November 4, 2016, on the strength of acceptance by a mere fifty-five nations (out of 197 that are “parties to the convention”). Once an agreement is “in force,” international lawyers and bureaucrats begin claiming that it has created “norms” with which even non-signatory nations must comply under “customary international law.”
Moreover, another international agreement, the 1969 Vienna Convention on Treaties, holds that a nation’s signature on a treaty, even if not adequate for ratification under that nation’s law, obliges that nation to refrain from any action that could undermine the treaty’s objectives. Since the United States has never ratified the Convention on Treaties, you might think its provisions are irrelevant to our consideration. But the post–World War II web of multilateral conventions is the maddening thicket of transnational progressivism, where “the law” is whatever end progressives seek to achieve—and the principle of democratic consent is a quaint oddity. The U.S. State Department, a devotee of international legal structures despite their erosions of American sovereignty, tells us that because several other nations have ratified the Convention on Treaties, “many” of its provisions are now binding customary international law even if the treaty remains unratified. Thus—voila!—the conceit that presidents (progressive ones, anyway) may unilaterally subject the nation to international obligations, even ruinous burdens, without any input, much less approval, by the people’s elected representatives.
It thus falls to the new populist president: Does he placate the “Save the Planet” enthusiasts and “evolve” into a climate-change leader? Does he indulge the “Drain the Swamp” advocates and remove America’s signature from another statist power grab? Or is the populist’s Art of the Deal all things to all people—does he tell Americans, “We’ll always have Paris,” but he’s going to make the agreement work better and smarter?
My wager is on option three. The populist is a follower of public opinion, not the shaper of it: a reflection, not a compass. The stubborn truth is that there is no “the people” in the sense of one mind. The people may think they want the swamp drained, but few of them actually want the swamp to disappear—they just want a better breed of swamp creature. On climate change, as on much else, what they want is contradictory: a pristine earth and its exploitation for their benefit—sustainably, of course.
Though he feared pure democracy’s tendency toward tyranny of the mob, Hamilton probably did not say that the “people is a great beast.” However apocryphal the attribution, there is much to be said for the sentiment, and for de Tocqueville’s wisdom: “The will of the nation is one of those phrases most widely abused by schemers and tyrants of all ages.” The “Arab Spring” is case in point.
Legend has it that a democratic uprising erupted on January 4, 2011, when a fruit vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself ablaze outside the offices of Tunisian klepto-cops who had seized his wares. According to Western lore, the suicide protest ignited a sweeping revolt against the corruption and caprices of Arab despots by repressed populations desperate to determine their own destinies—desperate to actuate the “desire for freedom” that, in President George W. Bush’s telling, “resides in every human heart.”
It was a tragic misreading, transmogrifying a complex phenomenon in an anti-democratic culture into a relentless wave of democratic populism. This is not to say that the Arab Spring was bereft of young, tech-savvy, secular democrats. It was delusional, though, to showcase them as the face of the revolution. The claim that democracy had animated the Muslim masses was sheer projection by Western analysts, an elevation of hope over experience regarding a region whose authoritarian culture of voluntarism (conception of Allah as pure will) and hostility to non-Muslims rejects liberty, equality, and the unity of faith and reason. Looking back now at Turkey, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Iraq, and so on, it is obvious—as some of us maintained at the time—that the Arab Spring was better understood as a populist ascendancy of sharia supremacism. Its Islamist leaders were quite content to exploit democratic means (particularly, popular elections) for an end that was the antithesis of democracy’s liberty culture: the installation of authoritarian sharia governance.
By interpreting the revolt as democratic populism, Western leaders rationalized the provision of aid and encouragement to anti-Western Islamists. Support for Islamists inexorably empowered their jihadist soul mates. Inevitably, the region exploded in conflict, causing massive population dislocations. Yet, unwilling to let go of the Arab Spring illusion, Germany’s Chancellor Merkel and her allied Euro-progressives laid out the welcome-mat for millions of Muslim refugees, even though it was well known—though studiously unmentioned—that influential Islamist leaders have instructed the diaspora to migrate into Western societies but resist assimilation, to pressure the host countries to accede to demands that swelling enclaves govern themselves under Islamic law and mores. The result: European nations are under jihadist siege, and their citizens are rebelling against not only their political establishments but against a modern conception of “Europe” that bears little resemblance to a West once worth fighting for.
Sanders’s shock troops are now the dynamic faction on the American left.
Over-interpreting the latest wave of American populism would also be a mistake. It is freely conceded that the 2016 campaign elucidated a nation’s rage against the political establishment. But it is a deeply divided nation that rebels for different reasons.
Progressive populists indict the capitalist system for wage stagnation, under-employment, and the explosion of education and healthcare costs. They demand a more robust safety net (i.e., ever more redistribution of wealth) and an even more extensive, aggressive administrative state (i.e., ever less democratic choice) to tame the tumult of market cycles, “save the planet,” and impose their anti-bourgeois pieties. As much as I’d like it to be, this is not a fringe position. So stunning was Trump’s narrow victory that we’ve quickly forgotten what preceded it. Nevertheless, the other major story line of 2016 was how close the populist candidacy of Bernie Sanders, an avowed socialist, came to prying the Democratic nomination away from Hillary Clinton. It failed only because the party establishment rigged the contest for its preferred epigone. Sanders’s shock troops have not gone away; today, they are the dynamic faction on the American left.
Trump’s populist following is more difficult to read. It is dead set against big government . . . except when it’s not. It wants its wall built, but with a big door through which legal immigrants will stream in. It wants government regulation pared back, but with more tariffs and restrictions against foreign manufacturing and currency manipulation. It wants isis destroyed, but without committing American troops. There are, however, several things on which it is clear: It is proudly pro-American, ostentatiously patriotic, pro-military (without being adventurous), pro–law enforcement, and opposed to an open-door for Muslim immigration in the absence of “extreme vetting” to weed out potential terrorists and anti-Western agitators.
The left and several of Trump’s detractors on the right imputed to his “America First” rhetoric the pre–Pearl Harbor isolationists of that name, who sought to appease Hitler and refrain from war in Europe. It is unlikely, though, that Trump was even aware of the connection. His “movement,” as he came to call it, was an unapologetic blowback against the Obama left. It is because he accurately read this mood and became its vehicle that Trump emerged victorious. But the nearly implausible narrowness of his triumph and the enduring strength of progressive populism caution against construing the 2016 election as a wholesale rejection of Obama’s transformative program. For that to happen, Trump will have to govern well.
Deep dissatisfaction with the established order is convulsing the West. It is plainly fueled in part by dimming hopes for upward mobility in society’s lower economic rungs and by the aggression of sharia-supremacist Islam. The environment is a fertile one for competing strains of populism. They illuminate our unease, but they tell us precious little about how to rectify it.