Roberto Rivera

The Problem with Populism, Trump, and Sanders


Roberto Rivera

Well, the results from New Hampshire are in, and, as Douglas E. Schoen wrote at Fox News (h/t Dave the Swede), “the fed-up vote won.” Schoen explained, “We are seeing a full scale rejection of the political establishment. This is a threat that we did not take seriously enough over the past few years, as evidenced by the fact that most rejected Trump as a clown and a joke.”

Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute, appearing on the Diane Rehm Show, said that the word that captured both Trump’s and Sanders’ overwhelming victories was “populism.”

The response among Republican Party professionals and other activists, i.e., the folks most heavily invested in the political status quo, is as they say in Spanglish, is a great big freakeo. In the aftermath of the Iowa caucuses, the professionals, in particular Christian professionals, rallied around Sen. Marco Rubio only to see that come crashing to the ground in the Granite state.

(For what it’s worth, I sort of feel bad for Rubio. He was caught in a no-win situation when Governor Christie pressed him on immigration reform. The best response, at least to me, would have been: “I was a member of the ‘Gang of Eight’ but that’s because I was looking for a solution to a pressing problem. What’s your solution? These 11 million people aren’t going to self-deport; Mexico isn’t going to pay for a wall; and however satisfying saying that you don’t care what the world thinks may feel to the folks in the audience, no serious candidate for president can ignore the impact of Deutche Welle and the BBC showing videos of mass deportations, complete with armed Americans, on our standing around the world. So if you’ve got a real-world solution, tell me.”)

It’s not my place to comment on Trump’s and Sanders’ candidacy. But what I think needs to be talked about is the populism that underlies their, well, popularity. Populism, at least in its American manifestation, is morally and intellectually problematic, and we Christians have contributed more than our fair share to its rise.

It’s morally problematic because, as Pastor Christopher Brooks told John Stonestreet and Ed Stetzer on BreakPoint This Week, if we own our history (and we must), we’ll see that American populism nearly always spins off in a destructive and harmful direction. I’m not denying the legitimacy and justice of the grievances that give rise to the populism—on the contrary, I’m surprised that people “take it” as long as they do.

The problem is that sooner rather than later, the anger and resentment that give rise to populism cease to be directed towards those who would “crucify mankind on a cross of gold” and, instead, finds its political expression in folks like Theodore Bilbo and James K. Vardaman. (It is not a coincidence that the heyday of American populism coincided with what’s been called the “Nadir of Race Relations.”)

It wasn’t only Mississippi. Thomas E. Watson, one of the preeminent populists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the Great Commoner’s running mate on the 1896 Populist ticket, went from urging poor whites and poor blacks to make common cause against their common oppressor, to championing white supremacy and playing a leading role in the persecution and eventual lynching of Leo Frank.

Stated plainly, it gets diverted into a search for the “other” that is to be blamed for our current plight. A century ago, it was blacks, Catholics, and Jews. Today, it’s Mexicans, Muslims tout court, and, well, people with “New York values.” A century ago it was lynching; today it’s cheering while a politician calls an opponent a vulgar epithet while saying that, unlike his opponent, he would “bring back a [heck] of a lot worse than waterboarding.” (Strange how many fewer people seemed offended at the promise to inflict a “lot worse than waterboarding” on another human being,” than at the use of a vulgar epithet, but I digress . . . )

I’m not calling anyone’s supporters “bigots.” (I almost never call anyone a “bigot” or, especially a “racist.” It doesn’t help matters.) But I am saying that American history gives us good reason to worry about where this anger and resentment will lead us as a people.

The intellectual problem with this kind of populism is its insistence that “the people” are the repository of wisdom, goodness, and common sense—“vox populi, vox Dei” and all that jazz. Call me an elitist but that’s silly.

William F. Buckley famously said that he would rather be governed by the first 2000 people in the Boston phone book than the faculty of Harvard. But, as David Brooks added, “he didn’t believe those were the only two options.”

Angry populism does. It is contemptuous of expertise and analysis. Like Lewis Carroll’s Queen, it sometimes believes six impossible things before breakfast and insists that everyone else do, too.

Feelings of anger and resentment are understandable but they cannot be the basis for action. (See, the Bible.) Validating these feelings without pointing out this moral fact of life is irresponsible. To paraphrase our Lord, after all, social justice warriors do the same.

Of course, Christians are no strangers to a populist disdain for expertise and analysis. Mark Noll has written about the “common sense” approach to reading scripture that has defined Christianity in America since the early-to-middle 19th century. (If we own our history, folks like Matthew Vine and Rachel Held Evans stand in a long tradition.) “Common sense” hermeneutics makes your interpretation of a passage as good as anyone else’s regardless of your level of training and study or lack thereof. And forget about ecclesiastical authority.

Two words I try to avoid using whenever I write are “elitist” and “outrageous.” The former is the language of ressentiment—does using a French word make me an elitist?—and the second is intended to stir up in people emotions that, as the Bible warns us, are difficult to control and the source of much sin and grief.

This, rather than who wins what primary, is what we should be most concerned about. But, if history is any guide—and it usually is, because while history doesn’t repeat itself, it, as Mark Twain once said, often rhymes—we won’t be. Let the freakeo begin.


  • Facebook Icon in Gold
  • Twitter Icon in Gold
  • LinkedIn Icon in Gold

Have a Follow-up Question?

Want to dig deeper?

If you want to challenge yourself as many others have done, sign up below.


Short Courses

Related Content