"We Shall Meet Again in Other Boulangisms" The Right's 150 Year Fascination with Demogogues
The Trump phenomenon on the American Right has confused and befuddled many, including a large portion of the American political class, and its staying power has frustrated academics in the field of Political Science who have repeatedly predicted his demise. But it really shouldn’t. Trumpism is a perfectly normal phenomenon on the Right since the age of widespread suffrage and it is a testament to how the transformation of the study of politics into a “science” divorced from historical understanding has left all but a few Marxist holdouts detached from the reality of their field, and the latter merely wrong.
The basic theory of political science is the “Medium Voter Theorem” which presumes that parties will be incentivized to fight over the voters in the middle, and hence in a normal system they should gravitate to the center. If one does and its competitor does not, then the former should win until their foes also move to the center. But the premises of this theory are two-fold; first that voters are positioned in a linear spectrum from right to left, and secondly that parties are homogeneous entities. Both problems have been recognized, but the remedies, to divide issues into “axis” on libertarian and right/left lines as well as to create fictional entities called “party elites” who are then invested with behind the scenes power that would have embarrassed the authors of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion do nothing. Because ultimately electorates are fragmented beyond remedy, which in turn has the ironic effect not of making parties representative of that fragmentation, but instead of making them prisoners of some but homogeneous minorities.
Effective parties are ideologically minority concerns for the simple reason that politics, even in the age of universal suffrage is a minority concern to most voters on most issues. Hence those willing to involve themselves in politics are an unrepresentative minority, and usually driven to do so by unrepresentative views. The Republican party is dominated by a hard-right group of conservatives because they genuinely believe they are right and their foes wrong, and that mitigates against any compromise with harmful and wrong policies, a situation occasionally mirrored on the left.
Hence the art of politics is not to move one’s policies such that they are in line with the median voter, but rather to find a way to enforce a minority policy platform on an uninterested or unwilling population. It is here that the Left and Right diverge. The Left has looked for the answers in ideas, not in terms of making concessions on them, but in arguments of historical and scientific inevitability. When Jon Stewart mocks Republicans stating that reality has “a well-known liberal bias” he is the intellectual heir of the Marxists who talked in terms of historical cycles and inevitability. It does not matter that the vast majority of those on the Left who invoke the “science” of global warming, the self-evident nonsense of religion, or even “facts” such as the idea that the CIA’s “overthrow” of Mossedeq somehow defined modern Iran, do not actually have the slightest clue about any of these subjects. Or that the “factual” assertions they so boldly announce are not in fact accurate representations of the position of their side. They are entitled to rule by science, and their failure to take power is the result of lies. Hence there is a tendency towards authoritarianism on the Left; they are factually right, and facts should not be subject to majority vote or debate, but rather to the adjudication of an arbiter whose judgement should stand. Hence the obsession with the use of Judicial power, which is vital to civil rights except when it is wielded against them, as on guns or campaign spending, which case it is the result of a hijacking of those bodies by their enemies.
The Right has not had the luxury of such reliance on institutions, having been functionally out of power for most of the last 150 years in the Western world. At first this might seem like an absurd statement; conservative parties have been in government for the vast majority of that time in the vast majority of countries. But if one were to look at the causes the Right has championed, monarchism, clericalism, nationalism, traditional morality, it has all too often found itself in office but out of power. The reason is simple; at any given time, the full platform of the Right tends to be highly unpopular. In the France of the 1870s and 1880s, it was hard to mobilize working-class support for the restoration of a Catholic Monarchy. Nor is it easy to tell couples they cannot divorce, women that they should raise children, or gays that they should remain invisible to society. As a consequence, the Right has won either when it has allied with the center, tenures that end with accusations of betrayal, or when it, like the far Left, can bypass democracy.
Ironically, it was the French Monarchists, rarely the most politically adapt or skilled of operators, who first stumbled upon the favored solution. In the 1880s they had lost five elections, were watching as their social base evaporated, and were engaged in task which seemed hopeless. Most of all, the Republic seemed in danger of falling into the hands of demagogues, such as the popular Minister of War, General Georges Boulanger, who nearly provoked a War with Germany, and expelled members of the royal family from the army. He was also a buffoon, much as Trump was. When the Duc D’Aulmale, one of the princes he dismissed produced a series of letters Boulanger had sent begging him for promotions after Boulanger had called them forgeries, he seemed dishonest.
Dishonest he might be, but he was popular. And as he began to fight with his Republican allies the desperate monarchists thought they had a chance. They began bankrolling a series of political campaigns in which Boulanger won by-elections by landslide margins on a platform of “constitutional revision” which he privately assured them would lead to a restoration of the monarchy. With no hope of attracting working-class voters themselves, the monarchists invested their money and reputations in the dream that a demagogue would help them.
In the end the effort backfired. The move to back a general who they had been warning constituted a mortal threat to France only months earlier scared the conservative classes, especially those who were monarchist because they valued order more than a throne, and had backed the latter only because it seemed a path to the former. Suddenly an alliance with conservative republicans looked more attractive. Boulanger’s own behavior scandalized them. He challenged the 77-year old President of the National Assembly to a dual only to end up wounding himself at which point his opponent fired into the air. He missed a chance for a coup as he was in bed with his mistress. And when the French government moved to arrest him, rather than fighting he fled the country. In the 1889 general elections, the Boulangist-Monarchist alliance did worse than the latter alone had done in 1885. Worse, it discredited them. Once middle class and business interests had made their peace with the Republic they had no more need of a monarchy which would hop onto any fad popular in the streets. Finding their electorate gone, their fundraising dried up, and their party dissolving, one Monarchist remarked to a colleague “We shall meet again in other Boulangisms”.
And so they did. Deprived of hope, or the support of the economically conservative classes, the French right embraced one populist cause after another. Antisemitism with the Dreyfus affair, the cause of Petain and Laval after 1940, De Gaulle in 1958, and his pale imitation, Sarkozy in 2007. Victory would come through locating a partner who could deliver working-class votes to put the right in power at which point they would be disposed of, and the right could proceed to set things right in society. The French may have been innovators of this art, but the German monarchists took the prize for walking delusionally into disaster. Seeing in Adolf Hitler a way to capture the socialist electorate for a restoration of the empire lost in 1918, they found themselves out in the cold within months and created the instrument that would bring about their destruction in 1944. Their belated plot that August revealed the bankruptcy of an elite political movement made up of officers who could not even command the loyalty of their troops.
The British Conservatives, befuddled by expanded suffrage, rejected the positive efforts of Robert Peel and Benjamin Disraeli to build a modern party in favor of throwing in their lot for two decades with Joseph Chamberlain, a radical liberal converted to the Tory cause by an affection for empire and hatred of papism. The result was for the Conservative party to embrace a vulgar and sectarian Protestant "Unionism" which destroyed the Union and Episcopacy, forging divisions that almost drove Britain to civil war and did drive Ireland there, only for those divisions to last a century. Abroad, Chamberlain subordinated British interests to those of another ex-Liberal charlatan, Cecil Rhodes who managed to accomplish in South Africa at the cost of enormous lives and treasure what Chamberlain had achieved in Ireland. One can only be glad that Chamberlain failed in his quixotic quest to for an Anglo-German alliance lest Europe had been gifted into the hands of Wilhelmine Germany.
While the American right has never been fully immune to the sound of the trumpets, by and large they have stood out for their opposition to Caesarianism, a record of un-strategic political principle to which the American system owes not a small bit of its historical success. Even if for the first century of American history they defined themselves in their Federalist and Whig varients through their efforts to exclude populism from public life, albeit at the cost of also by and large excluding themselves. The list of Federalists, Whigs, and Republicans who preceded Nixon reads like a long list of sleeping aids with the accidental exception of Theodore Roosevelt, an error that was soon corrected in 1912. But in the chaos of the 1960s, American Conservatism suddenly found itself facing the same challenges which had bedeviled its European counterparts since the 19th century. The defection of the children of the elite to the radical causes of the 1960s was almost as devastating as the defection of the elite institutions - the professional associations, the bar, the courts, the universities. Deprived of their elite base, American Conservatism had to bid for the street. The early practitioners were conservatives playing at demagoguery like Richard Nixon. He was followed by a liberal repulsed by radicalism in Ronald Reagan. But after a brief interlude of traditional Federalist-Whig rule under GHW Bush, the party became captive to whatever backlash it could locate and whatever figure it could find who could seem to harness it. The second Bush was a prisoner of charlatans who promised glory in pet economic, cultural or foreign policy issues. McCain was a desperate effort to embrace a demagogue of the middle. Romney the last effort to master such forces from on-high, his failure, revealed in the demographic reality that even with Ronald Reagan's 1984 percentage of the white vote he was doomed, the party needed to find a way to appeal to one of the two groups repulsed by their policies - non-whites or some of the remaining 40% of white voters. Trump offers the answer. Forget what he says. Somehow he can appeal to voters who disagree with the party platform even when they disagree with each other.
Republican elites universally perceive Trump the man with horror. He is a liar, a crook, a buffoon, and quite possibly opposed to every position they hold dear. But what cannot be ignored is that he appeals to voters that Jeb Bush cannot. In fact, he appeals to voters even Marco Rubio, their own effort at a personalist overture to the electorate, leaves unmoved. These are not just angry white men in the South. Trump does best with moderates, and polls far better with them than the ostensibly establishment Rubio or Bush. His strength among voters the party lost in the Bush years, on foreign policy, on social issues, and even on general anti-intellectualism defies logical analysis. Hence while their brains are telling them to stay away from a phenomena they do not understand led by a man they grasp all too well, more than a few small voices are expressing the view that maybe, just maybe, there is something to work with here. This was evident in the support Trump received against Ted Cruz in Iowa, and suggestions that he could be “managed” or “educated” once in office. And if he could solve Mitt Romney’s greatest problem, the perception he cared only about the rich, or the great challenge facing a Republican party which cannot appeal to African Americans while maintaining its base, namely how to get whites to vote more like other ethnicities and to win more than 60% of them, then he could be the answer to their prayers.
They will almost certainly be disappointed, most likely in the general election, after which National Review articles predicting a Trump landslide in October based on rally size will be followed in November pieces bemoaning the stupidity of the entire enterprise and pointing out that they had come to that conclusion first, and published it at some risk to themselves. Their coming onboard later will of course be framed as taken against their better judgement.
Even if Trump were to win, something that a small voice in the back of my head cannot reject out of hand when it ponders Hillary Clinton’s numbers or Bernie Sanders as President, it is doubtful the Washington elites would find much to like. Trump built an empire on cronyism and petty vengeance. He would have no interest in promoting a political patronage network that opposed him and would turn on him if it had a chance. His power in office would come from his appeal to the electorate. Elite loyalty would last only as long as his wider popularity did. Why placate elites at the risk of his real powerbase? More likely Trump, like all authoritarians brought to power by similar elite-populist coalitions, would rapidly seek to destroy the influence of the former, throwing them to the lions to placate the latter. That is the path his idol, Vladimir Putin has taken, as has Hugo Chavez. The result would likely be a combination of left-wing economic policies to placate and reward his supporters at the expense of the elites that opposed him combined with social conservative assaults on those elites. He probably would not touch gay rights or abortion, but deliberately targeting “Dreamers” for deportation would directly provoke student protests, always a perfect foil for a demagogue, and send the elite supporters of reform into apoplexisms of rage.
One might hope such a regime would be a political disaster, and it would be with the political elites among whom it would be the most hated government in history. But a political movement based on war against the social, intellectual, and(some carefully selected) economic elites can manage substantial mileage in an electorate where only a small minority are elite, and where the alternative they offer is for power to be returned into their unreformed and unrepentant hands. It took 17 years in Venezuela, and in much less stable Italy, Berlusconi ruled for 11 of 13 years, being ousted by the EU and IMF rather than the voters. Erdogan in Turkey appears more secure than ever.
Anyone observing the Bush Presidency, the reverence with which Reagan is treated, or the behavior of conservative periodicals such as the Weekly Standard or National Review during fall campaigns cannot help but not note the inroads the "fuhrer principle" has made into the psyche of the American right. Figures of decades standing became liberal Democrats overnight when they opposed the war in Iraq or attacked the administration. The irony is that now that the principle of absolute loyalty has been drilled into activists taught that they are the foot soldiers of an army rather than its proprietors the elites have suddenly found themselves in the position of seditious outsiders preaching mutiny to restore their privileges.
A failure of Trump in the general election will not mean an end to Trumpisms. The Republican Party’s activist base is committed to further Trumpisms if not Trump by its' very ideological homogeneity. As long as they cannot win an election they will need to find someone else who can. Even a disastrous and authoritarian Trump presidency would likely be written off within a decade on the right as a failure of a man rather than of a movement. Self-interest dictates as much.
Trumpism is merely “Boulangism” or “Gaulism” in a new guise, much as Sanders crusade is a traditional leftist act of retreating into a self-contained world where objective facts govern the world instead of votes. The irony of this year is that we are seeing both phenomena at once. It will be a genuine irony if they end in the same place. One where Trump, running as the champion of the elites, defeats Bernie Sanders only to adopt his platform. It would not be the first time. Or likely even the last.