Commentary Upfront Blog

After populism's bold promise

The politicians who have ridden today's wave of populist discontent to power now enter the next, more difficult chapter: governing

A crowd listened to then president-elect Donald Trump at an event in Orlando, Fla., Dec. 16.
Lucas Jackson/Reuters
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The “great man” theory of history focuses on a few larger-than-life individuals – people like Napoleon, Elizabeth I, Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan. It’s easy and popular to describe humanity’s journey by concentrating on the great and powerful. Playwrights and biographers have long told tales of kings and queens, saints and strongmen against a backdrop of the rise and fall of nations.

But while historical figures seem to “bestride the narrow world like a Colossus,” as Shakespeare said of Caesar, the more realistic view of history is that they are surfers, riding waves that were already rising when they came along. The wave that current leaders – most notably the 45th president of the United States, Donald Trump – have caught is 21st-century populism. 

Populism is a very old movement. Caesar was among many talented politicians who tapped into it, using the power of the people to outmaneuver the Roman Senate. Populism can be conservative or liberal, nationalistic or tribal. It can look like college kids with flowers in their hair or Middle Americans with red baseball caps. When a portion of the population feels frustrated, alienated, or disrespected by those they consider elite and self-dealing, populism blooms – which makes it a fairly constant part of any society. In its mild forms, populism is complaining about taxes and regulation. It gains energy when it turns into a protest movement. It takes power when enough people vote to throw the rascals out and cut government down to size.

Governments do have a growth problem. They start small but accumulate an ever-larger class of bureaucrats, courtiers, and special interests who know how to work the levers of power. The simple little church of self-government becomes a Baroque cathedral, its mission understood by those who walk its halls but baffling to – and eventually resented by – those who don’t. A leader who promises a return to simpler times taps into a strong undercurrent of dissatisfaction.

But no society can run for long on a revolutionary basis. Governments need smart people – scientists, economists, policymakers, and a legion of civil servants who know why there is a Rule 19-409 and how it should be implemented – to build highways, maintain navies, and negotiate differences among citizens.

Every few decades, a populist movement rises up and overturns the established order. Worst case: China’s horrific Cultural Revolution, which cost 30 million lives. Best case: the Czech Velvet Revolution, which said a gentle goodbye to communist misrule. People who are dominated, who feel aggrieved by circumstances and history, must be heard. A humane leader like Václav Havel becomes their voice but then steps back and lets competence reassert itself. Mr. Havel liked to quote an old saying, “Follow the man who seeks the truth; run from the man who has found it.”

The men and women surfing today’s populism promise to speak for the voiceless. “I am your voice,” Mr. Trump declared when he was nominated. Now, as our cover story explains, comes the hard part: governing.

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