In a 1933 speech in Madrid, on the occasion of his perhaps too optimistic founding of the Falange Española de las JONS, José Antonio Primo de Rivera made the following remarks, “it is not only the construction, the political architecture, we must aim for. We must at every moment of our life, in our every act, adopt an attitude that is truly human, profound and complete. This attitude is a spirit of service and of sacrifice, the ascetic and military conception of life”1.
Men who have arrayed themselves with all sincerity against the crisis of our age, rejecting the false dichotomy which our established democratic conventions provide, would find much to agree with in considering Rivera’s philosophy. He rejected both the ideological destructiveness which animated the socialists in interwar Spain, as well as a fossilized and false ‘conservatism’ which had come to fully embrace a devil’s pact with the bourgeois left of yesteryear against this potent red menace2. In some senses, one could say that Rivera’s rejection mirrors that of today’s American dissidents who have at once scrapped both the New York Times and National Review.
Despite this, however, there is an aspect to this line of thinking which, for good reason, does not sit well with those on the right. Populism, while beneficial to us in times where every man chafes under a comfortable liberal order, is inherently anathema to the natural elitism of liberalism’s right-wing critics. Popular will is effectively plebeian tyranny, and “every plebeian tyranny is by its very nature impetuous, insulting, and ruthless”3. It is very clear that Rivera was, more so than perhaps any other interwar agitator, attempting a populist appeal by rejecting the aspects of both sides of a binary political climate, those which were broadly unpopular, but remained planks of each party for reasons of fanaticism or finance. This sentiment is not entirely alien to the United States, even in recent memory. A Chicago Tribune piece pondered a third option last year, noting an opening for politicians who were “socially liberal” and “fiscally conservative”. Their evidence included polling which showed self-described social liberals making up a record high 31% of the electorate, while fiscal conservatives were twice a prevalent as fiscal liberals4. Oversimplified, Rivera’s gambit was on the total reverse of those statistics in interwar Spain, yet the principle is the same.
But, did Rivera’s populism resemble Trumpian populism? Not quite. The bizarre Trump phenomenon of 2015-2016 certainly had elements of this idea of populist double-rejection. After all, Trump’s rhetoric denounced the radical left’s open borders madness with a refreshing ferocity that was unprecedented in living memory, but with the same ferocity he rebuked George W. Bush’s obvious lies about the Iraq War as well as making virtually no commitments on fiscal restraint. However, despite this, we know well enough at this point that the current president essentially winged it, and in some sense merely stumbled upon his willing ‘third-way’ electorate. His ideological balustrade (Steve Bannon among others) was promptly jettisoned once the campaign was finished, and Trump has since surrounded himself with men who define the words “old boss”, much to the glee of neoconservative goons whose hand-rubbing could produce enough friction to start a forest fire. He himself defines a rule of politics with its finger in the wind, and this is a populism worthy of contempt. There is no desire in Donald Trump to actually steer the country in any direction, but only to follow the passions of his disenfranchised voters. He was convinced Republican support for the Bush administration was overstated and was correct, but in office he was also convinced that Americans cared about the latest images put out by the ‘white helmets’, and decided to continue the foolish campaign against the Syrian government, punctuated most recently by the war crimes in Deir Ezzor5. This form of populist is indeed utterly useless and should be discarded.
Rivera’s populism played on the people’s dissatisfaction with the present elites at the time, both their strong dislike of economic exploitation in the post-feudal economy as well as their inherent social conservatism bound up in their Roman Catholic faith, but as he said, the party elite which he wished to become the nation’s elite were to undergo a personal transformation. It was not enough to aim at seizure of the political architecture with appeals to the forgotten citizens of a nation in its death throes. The new elite would be just as despicable as the old if this turn at the control panel was their only goal. He describes in his own words that a new elite would have to recapture the ‘ascetic and military’ vision of life, even while they maintained a populist program as part of their appeal (program here should not imply specific policy prescriptions, as such minutiae was condemned by Rivera as meaningless).
While liberals have correctly assessed that since the turn of the century, a growing contingent of the United States is socially liberal and fiscally conservative, the black and white nature of this assessment should be challenged. This may not be the only way in which the electorate is changing, and indeed, it clearly isn’t. Observe the collapse in respect for mainstream conservative outlets, with the much-deserved mockery of never-Trumpers who protest people like Marion Maréchal-Le Pen on the grounds of ‘fiscal conservatism’6. Observe the strong backlash against snowflake effeminacy and the decline of New Atheism as a potent cultural force.
There is undoubtedly an electorate waiting for a leader who wants gay marriage and low taxes and judging by recent content, Prager/Benson 2020 may be just that ticket7. But there is also a coming electorate for a leader who wants a rigorous crackdown on those behind the lethal opioid epidemic in addition to the nationalization of Twitter. It would be very difficult to convince the youth of today, especially the white youth, that Zuckerberg’s dream of global labor transfer and the spiraling/extortionate cost of higher education is good for them, but convincing them that in fact the libertine dildocracy of the current generation is harmful and needs to be stamped out, that might not be so difficult. Flawed as he is, there is a reason teenagers are drawn to the Canadian academic, Jordan Peterson. They are looking for somebody to outline to them a vision of life which rests on heroism and spirit rather than gender pronouns and chlamydia. Such a search for meaning is inherent to being male. Further, while men in their 20s may fit the Chicago Tribune's characterization, most of them are the flabby cold cuts of the Nickelodeon generation, before terror attacks became normal, and before the effects of Boomer profligacy and mass migration could truly leave them with nothing to look forward to. It is the generation currently in their teens who could bring about a new national consciousness, given the right agitation. The real right can present a popular solution to both the youth's justified economic pessimism and their social dislocation, but at heart, such a vanguard must retain the core understanding that once some measure of power is obtained, it is to be used to guide, not as a comfortable wagon to sit in and be pulled hither and yonder by the neighborhood stray.
Populism, when conceived of as an ideology, is always negative, but when conceived of as a tool, as a means, it is not necessarily so. It can be the given justification for the formation of a new elite to come. Perhaps we cannot afford to be too elitist when in truth, nobody of our persuasion actually forms part of the realpolitik elite. Let that come later. Not everything which has a populist root must ultimately succumb as the dunderheaded president has done, to finger-in-the-wind politics. The United States does have room for a third party, so long as that third party is not totally invested in the impossible task of gaining power through ballots cast in an urn. If its task instead be the radicalization of the youth against the sickness of the prevailing political culture of America, which is as predatory on the youth as it is upon the victims of its disastrous foreign interventions, then it may just break apart not only one of the most malignant catastrophes of our time, but the very concept of what it is to be an American.
I leave you as I began, with a quote from Rivera, who was martyred by the Republicans (isn’t that fitting?) in 1936. He reminds us that our task is not to win by the rules of the oppressive racket which dares call itself the state but to breed the political soldiers qualified to be its executioners.
“I am a candidate, yes, but I take part in these elections without faith or respect. And I say this now, when so doing may cost me every vote. I couldn’t care less. We are not going to squabble with the establishment over the unsavory left-overs of a soiled banquet. Our station is outside though we may provisionally pass by the other one. Our place is out in the clear air, beneath a moonlit sky, cradling a rifle, and the stars overhead. Let the others party on. We stand outside vigilant; earnest and self-confident we divine the sunrise in the joy of our hearts”8.
Primo de Rivera J. Selected Writings. 1st ed. New York: Harper & Row; 1975:56. ↩
Maistre J. Considerations On France. 1st ed. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press; 1974:144. ↩
Reed C. Fed up with Democrats and Republicans? Here's a third option. chicagotribune.com. 2017. Available at: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/commentary/ct-perspec-third-party-candidates-20171211-story.html. ↩
Kravchenko S, Meyer H, Talev M. Exclusive: U.S. Strikes Killed Scores of Russian Fighters in Syria, Sources Say. Bloomberg.com. 2018. Available at: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-02-13/u-s-strikes-said-to-kill-scores-of-russian-fighters-in-syria. ↩
Greer S. Marion Le Pen Makes Sense For CPAC. The Daily Caller. 2018. Available at: http://dailycaller.com/2018/02/20/marion-le-pen-cpac/. ↩