"It’s a fair premise that nobody ever had his or her mind changed by being made to feel stupid," writes, incorrectly, the NY Times' Roger Cohen in "It’s Time to Depopularize 'Populist.'"
As a teenage, German-language-learning college student who lacked even a high school education, I was made to feel by my first-year college professor — in class — as stupid as Louie Gohmert. To oblige, I once vocally butchered, in English, the conditional future and subjective tenses of If I was him, I'd…."
My professor's thoughtless brutality that so assaulted my vast stupidity-and-or-otherwise-ignorance was however perhaps the finest pedagogic gift I ever received. It changed my mind about what I knew and didn't know — i.e., it shook my intellectual complacency — and inspired personal improvement. My German professor was himself a giant ass of unlimited hubris, but I owe the man a tremendous debt. He slapped me into a recognition of my adolescent vapidity.
Which is to say, I was then where so many Trump voters are today: in a sewer of abysmal subliteracy — in their case, not about the English language but about politics and governance and domestic policy and foreign affairs and human decency, the whole enchilada. But rather than preach to the right the inestimable value of adult education and self-improvement, Cohen chastises the left:
"[Its] resort to the populist label is synonymous with dismissal. It reflects the superior view that the deluded plebes … have got it wrong," which they so obviously do, for Christ's sake. "It flirts with disrespect of democracy," says Cohen, as though I — we — would shriek in horror about some anonymous somebody's flirtation with patriotic apostasy. Oh my.
Cohen concludes that "in the name of freedom," let us dislodge "populism" from its too-comfortable nesting in our political lexicon; it's a "blanket term that insults the differences through which democracy thrives" — or, in our contemporary case, dies. "Populism," determines Cohen, "is a dismissive term for everything metropolitan elites can’t quite find the energy to understand."
Therein is a dismissiveness that itself startles, and this is where I and Roger Cohen, whose superb writing and political meditations I very much admire, part intellectual company. It's not the word "populism" that insults democratic diversity. It's Trump. It's Trumpism. It's Trump's voters — all of whom insult not only "the differences through which democracy thrives," but intend on killing the very thing upon which the United States was founded: differences themselves.
And now to the grim, gruesome, inescapably nauseating nut of it all.
Last week at a Great Falls, Montana, Republican-Nazi-American Bund rally, Trump bellowed this about American Democrats: "[They] want anarchy, they really do…. [But] they don’t know who they’re playing with, folks."
To my historian's ears, those Trumpian words were the most bone-chilling yet. They duplicated, almost verbatim, what Herr Hitler shrieked at a party rally shortly after his Trumplike, undemocratic rise to the German chancellery. Let the insidious Jews mock and belittle us real Germans, bellowed the remarkably banal Austrian in 1933. They — the Jews — don't know whom they are playing with, he reiterated. Aber Volk, they would soon find out, said Hitler.
Of America's buffoonishly undemocratic arc of injustice, there is no question. Of America's almost laughable authoritarian bent, in which an oddly coifed Boris Badenov plays the characteristically presidential heavy, there is also no question. And of America's superpower decline under the philistine tutelage of bourgeois ignorance, there is, weirdly, almost no peep of Enlightenment inquiry, anywhere.
We're a titanic power going down with bubbly champagne and sweet, melodious, Mozartian violin music. But I feel less disconcerted than Fitzgeraldian. Tender is the Night? Let us hope. Because Trump's daytime discordance is itself pretty damn rough.