Sound and Fury: A Tale Told by a Populist

Paul Greenberg
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Posted: Nov 24, 2015 12:01 AM
Sound and Fury: A Tale Told by a Populist

The Wall Street Journal calls it populism ("Populism Rises in GOP Race," Page 1, November 12, 2015), but you could just as well describe populism as what it has always been since it was all the rage -- and I mean rage -- as it swept the Great Plains in the wilder years of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

How begin to describe the wild mix called populism? Among its many ingredients: know-nothingism, conspiracy theories, anti-Catholic and anti- Semitic feeling, and the xenophobic, anti-immigrant, anti-foreigner, and just about anti-everything else. Except the kind of anti-Us feelings fueled by demagogues like Tom Watson back then and Donald Trump now. And let's not forget the money cranks who say their monetary theories would cure all our economic woes if only the Federal Reserve and those stuffy bankers would just get out of the way.

When a national mood is that wild and maybe contagious, its specific targets matter less than its general resentments. Think of the character Howard Beale in "Network," the movie about national hysteria, who tells viewers to push open their windows and shout at no one in particular: "I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!"

Think of populism as one of America's periodic spasms. It happens. We've had worse. It'll pass, or maybe it won't.

Much like 19th-century populism, its revival today is essentially a revolt against the modern world and all its pressures and frustrations. It can be maddening, but it can also be put to good use by a leader who can turn it around and channel the populist instinct into something more positive.

Think of the difference between a Metternich and a Hitler -- or the difference between a menace and a visionary. Think of the way a talented, even saving, political leader like Ronald Reagan or Franklin Roosevelt can appear on the scene when least expected. Someone who understood what a great people might yearn for even if they had yet to understand that yearning themselves.

Crisis is a mix of danger and opportunity. Let us pluck the prize, opportunity, from the nettle danger. It can be done and has been done before. But it requires the occasional political genius to understand what is happening and can happen,

Not just Republicans but Democrats face the same mix of danger and opportunity, as a talented agitator like Bernie Sanders (Democrat? Socialist? Independent?) faces off against the staid Hillary Rodham Clinton.

But one thing's for sure: America will always surprise you. Stay tuned. You ain't seen nothin' yet.