Populism, Left and Right Why the establishment hates it

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The rise of an often militant right-wing populist movement — the tea partiers, the Ron Paulistas, the tenth amendment restorationists and the regionalists — has the powers-that-be in a tizzy. On the "progressive" left, we have Rachel Maddow sounding the alarm about hordes of armed militia types supposedly marching on Washington, in a populist version of Seven Days in May. The "brown scare" now energizing those who call themselves progressives is no longer limited to the familiar precincts of MSNBC and the Obamaite/limousine liberal wing of the blogosphere: now we have Bill Clinton giving voice to the Bizarro World McCarthyism that inspires the "left."

McCarthyism was the offspring of Senator Joseph "Tail-Gunner Joe" McCarthy, who carried out a campaign — some would say a witch-hunt — against employees of the US government he accused of being Communists or fellow travelers — that is, people who believed the government should run everything. Not just the insurance industry, and the auto industry, and the banking field — everything. While less than judicious in his accusations, by accusing a whole lot of people, McCarthy was often right, as the Venona revelations and other surprises from the KGB archives later proved.

I have long been of the opinion that the 9/11 attacks impacted with such physical and psychological force that they caused a rift in the space-time continuum, and the Bizarro-McCarthyism that has maddened the progressive left provides yet more validation of this theory. In Bizarro World, where up is down and right is left, we have witch-hunts against those suspected of harboring "anti-government" sympathies: that is, they are in favor of freedom — an obviously subversive concept, which must be ruthlessly exposed and suppressed.

A similar reaction is taking place, to a lesser extent, on the establishment (i.e. neoconservative) right. David Frum, the Bush speechwriter and co-author of the "axis of evil" catchphrase, has become the liberal establishment’s favorite interview subject because he now spends all his time attacking "right-wing extremism," most especially the explicitly libertarian elements of the tea party movement. He has set up his own movement, which might be called the "Scoop Jackson Republicans," and a Web site where one can go for regular denunciations of the tea partiers and pleas for Republicans to moderate their message — except when it comes to foreign policy, naturally enough. In that realm, it’s the same old Republican invade-the- world globaloney: Iraq was a "victory," Afghanistan is a necessity, and Israel must be defended and succored no matter the damage to demonstrable American interests.

This ostensibly conservative hostility to the latest expression of American populism is hardly surprising. One of the founding myths of neoconservatism is that populism, in all its forms, is always dangerous, as it is invariably a carrier of the anti-Semitic virus. All that constant guff we hear about "the "paranoid style in American politics" comes directly from the neocons in their earlier, "liberal" mandarin incarnation. The "paranoid" theme was popularized by the historian Richard Hofstadter and a claque of neoconservative sociologists back in the mid-Fifties and Sixties, who, in their classic anthology on The Radical Right, and other works, applied the sociological theories of the Marxist theoretician Theodor Adorno to the "problem" of fighting "extremism" in the postwar world. Adorno and his disciples took the classical Marxist theory of fascism as a phenomenon attributable to "the enraged bourgeoisie" and gave it a sociological-Freudian gloss.

According to these geniuses, all expressions of popular opposition to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal were merely symptoms of repressed hatred of the father and inspired by the desire to kill him. The "reactionary" subjects of their solemn sociological examinations were invariably antisocial misfits, possessed of an "authoritarian personality," and the clear implication was that these types represented a threat to the social order, which it was in society’s interest to suppress.

These same leftist professors who had found their place in the postwar economic and political order, and were firmly ensconced in their comfortable university chairs, had furthermore decided that we had come to "the end of ideology," the title of an essay (and later a book) by one of their number. The old revolutionary spirit of the 1930s had dissipated and proved to be an illusion, and on the right there were merely reactionary tics, or as Lionel Trilling, one of their big heroes, put it , "just irritable mental gestures." In shoring up the defenses of the postwar Welfare-Warfare State, and the rising power and prestige of the American empire, these former revolutionaries sought to defend the status quo against all comers, who were to be banished to the fever swamps of the "far right" and the "far left," exiled to the Coventry reserved for "extremists." (For a wonderful debunking of the entire "anti-concept" of "extremism," see Ayn Rand’s scintillating essay on the subject.)

In its contempt for the hoi polloi, Trilling’s remark fairly sums up the liberal/neocon elite’s reaction to the current tide of right-wing populism — or, indeed, any sort of populism, including the traditional left-wing variety.

Which brings us to the question of why is this suddenly happening — this volcanic eruption from the subterranean depths of the American political landscape? And why are the elites so alarmed?

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Justin Raimondo [send him mail] is editorial director of Antiwar.com and is the author of An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard and Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement.

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