Utopian Nostalgia and the Radical Right

One of the core components of a populist’s view is that things are the way they are—bad, unfair, and getting worse—because they won’t let us have the good things and live the good life. 

Who they are depends on your flavor of populism. If you’re a right-wing cultural populist, they are likely to be individuals and institutions in education, entertainment, corporate America, and the news media whom you see undermining traditional values, imposing woke pieties, and obliterating the existing culture through immigration and anti-white policies. If you’re a left-wing cultural populist, they are individuals and institutions whom you see imposing racist and sexist modes from their positions in law enforcement, business, popular culture, and religion in order to deny non-males and oppressed minorities their due. If you are an economic populist, they are bankers and plutocrats who hoard money that could otherwise alleviate the suffering of the poor.

In every case, the premise is that we, the virtuous and afflicted people, are being kept from our natural place of prosperity and prominence by them, the selfish ones who are keeping it from us. This is why populism and authoritarianism are so closely linked. One of the most valuable deceptions of the strongman is to say that the only reason we don’t have the things we want—endless prosperity, military dominance, the eradication of crime, the correct social order, etc.—is that the people in power are too weak to do the hard and unpleasant things necessary to deliver the good life … at least for us. 

Whether it’s Hugo Chavez, Elizabeth Warren, Viktor Orbán, or Josh Hawley, a necessary idea is that the bad people have the means to allow us to be happy and live the good life, but will not allow it to happen for their own reasons—selfishness or maybe just spite. It isn’t that the people who disagree with you are sincerely mistaken, even that they see the world much as you do from the opposite direction. It is that they are wicked and need a powerful force to end their reign.  

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