Does Steve Bannon’s Firing Mean the End of Populism?

Steven Bannon has left the building. The Trump Administration announced his firing today. Of course, it’s not called a firing, but it almost certainly was. And it’s a shame for one reason: The leftist media, who falsely portrayed Steve Bannon as a white supremacist because he’s not a leftist, will claim it as a victory. Their ultimate endgame? To impeach Donald Trump. They’re not stopping until they get there, and one of his key, core advisors is now gone. “You’re welcome”, you can hear CNN, MSNBC and all the other propaganda machines parroting already.

His own Breitbart called Bannon a “populist hero”. Does his exit mean it’s the end of populism in Trump’s presidency?

To me, that’s not the interesting question. The interesting question is, “What is populism”?

I looked it up. Here’s what I found: support for the concerns of ordinary people; the quality of appealing to or being aimed at ordinary people.

Populism is just another way of stating “what the majority want”. The implication is that if the majority want it, it must be a good thing. But why is that necessarily so? Just as an individual can be right or wrong, a group of individuals can be as well. The popularity of an idea has nothing to do with its truth or falsehood.

Take socialism. Socialism, as concept, is not especially popular in America, even today. When you say the word “socialism”, a majority of Americans probably still reject the idea. But when you advance specific ideas or proposals like, “Health care is a right” or “We should tax the rich to pay for those who have less” (Bannon’s proposal) and “Government should make sure we all have a living wage” (whatever that means), you won’t have a hard time gathering a majority. Does that make it right? Does that make it fair to transform a free country with private property rights into a country where once you make a certain amount of money, you no longer own it? And where people who have already made it cannot provide you jobs, loans or other opportunities because they’re so burdened with taxes  and regulations?

Some people thought Steve Bannon was good for the Trump White House because he had populist credentials. But I find the majority to be contradictory. Most people want government to maintain and even expand most of the things it already does, even if those functions turn some people into servants of the state and are mentioned nowhere in the Constitution.

Generally we’re given a false choice between “populism” and “elitism”. Populism means it’s what the average person wants, and is therefore good. Elitism means it’s what a minority want, often a minority who’s better off in some way, and it’s therefore wrong and bad. Populism is grounded in envy and paranoia as much as anything else. The same goes for nationalism, at least if nationalism means replacing the value of the individual with the supposedly higher value of the nation-group.

Populists smuggle a value judgment into their unstated claim that what the majority wants is good. It’s true that a majority voted for Donald Trump in the last election, at least outside of California, and probably in the country as a whole if you root out the voter fraud. But that same majority voted for Barack Obama in the last two elections. You can’t say populism is great when the majority votes your way, but it’s a terrible idea when the majority isn’t with you.

I don’t want what’s popular. I want what’s morally and practically good. Liberty, individual rights and private property are, in my view, morally and practically good. I’d love it if those became more popular. For most of history, a majority have not favored these ideas. People do not always know what’s good for them, because what’s good for them requires a level of independence and self-responsibility many find too frightening to contemplate. That’s where America is.

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