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Voices from Philistia

A populist in tuxedo — Huey P. Long of Louisiana, the ‘Kingfish’ — in 1935 (Harris & Ewing / Library of Congress)
Notes on the politics and rhetoric of populism: then, now, and always

Editor’s Note: Below is an expanded version of an essay we publish in the current issue of National Review.

In the last several years, I’ve heard the word “fancy” a lot — as in “you people with your fancy books and your fancy degrees and your fancy music and your fancy parties and . . .” Fancy, fancy, fancy. From time immemorial, populists and demagogues of all stripes have inveighed against the fancy. (And sometimes the fancy are guilty, true.)

The president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a left-wing populist, ridicules “la prensa fifí.” Great phrase, right? You think of a French poodle, being walked by a dowager. “La prensa fifí,” the fancy press (i.e., the press that bothers to hold the president to account).

No one can do populism like Latin Americans. In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing populist, said, “I am sorry about the deaths,” meaning COVID deaths. But “we are all going to die someday.” And “we have to stop being a country of maricas” — that last being a derogatory word for gay men.

Division is the name of the game: us ’n’ them. In 1995, Bill Bennett was talking to The New Yorker about the politics and rhetoric of Pat Buchanan. “It’s a real us-’n’-them kind of thing,” he said. But his words were mistranscribed, so when they came out in the magazine, they read, “It’s a real S&M kind of thing.” The mag had to run a correction (to the enjoyment of us all).

For many years, conservatives faulted the Left for a politics of envy, a politics of resentment, a politics of grievance. “Class warfare.” But the Right is heavy into this game these days.

“The uniqueness of this party today is, we’re the workers party,” said Kevin McCarthy, the leader of the GOP in the House. His fellow GOP congressman, Jim Jordan, said, “The Republican Party is no longer the wine-and-cheese party. It’s the beer-and-blue-jeans party.”

Ah, the politics of food and clothes! It was a specialty of the Left when I was growing up, in a university town. There was also a slogan: “The personal is political.” Everything was political: what you ate, what you wore, the music you listened to, the words you used, the friends you made.

I thought that was nonsense, and souring of life. It was one of the reasons I rejected the Left and found myself a conservative.

Back to wine and cheese, as in “wine-and-cheese party” (boo). William F. Buckley Jr. poured a glass or two of wine. (Ate some cheese, too.) In 1975, a populist Republican went after WFB in an article about public television:

Most of it is liberal in tone, but there are a couple of “conservatives” on tap, people who share Establishment cultural chic. Only a few weeks ago, one of them, Wm. F. Buckley Jr., announced that he was loading his yacht with vintage wines for a transatlantic voyage, which makes him just right for PTV.

Did you note the quotation marks around “conservatives”? WFB got a lot of that, from the clownish and feral Right, though this is little remembered today.

He responded to this particular critic in a column he headed “A Voice from Philistia” (classic Bill). He wanted, among other things, to “warn those who might be misled on the subject that one should never take vintage wines on a small sailboat.” A wine of this sort, he explained, can’t take much “pitching and tossing.” (Again, classic.)

Huey Long was maybe the outstanding populist and demagogue of the 20th century in America. George C. Wallace was not far behind him. There was a time, believe it or not, when briefcases were considered fancy. They were new, and newfangled — and excellent fodder for Wallace. Listen to him, rilin’ up the crowd:

“Up there in New York City, they walk around with briefcases, as if they had somethin’ impo’tant in them. You wanna know what’s in those briefcases? Why, nothin’ but a peanut-butter sandwich!”

John Kennedy is a current senator from Louisiana. Republican. He has a gold-plated pedigree: Vanderbilt University; University of Virginia Law School; Magdalen College, Oxford. Partner in a New Orleans firm. But, man, can he talk the talk — the populist talk.

The other night, he was on Fox News, talking to Sean Hannity. Listen to him:

“I think the American people are so tired — so tired — of being lectured by the managerial elite: the politicians, the media, the academics, the corporate phonies, the tuna-tartare crowd who live in the expensive condos with the high ceilings and the imported art on the wall, who think they’re better than the American people.”

On one side, the American people. On the other, non-Americans (apparently) who . . . well, you heard the man. But on the point of tuna tartare: Would the senator from Louisiana give a pass to crawfish étouffée?

I don’t remember seeing Bill Buckley eat tuna tartare, or crawfish étouffée (though his mother was from New Orleans). He did like caviar — called it “cav.” He also had some pretty high ceilings, and lots of art on the walls. Both foreign and domestic, as I recall.

And talk about art on the walls! (Foreign art, at that!) WFB filmed episodes of Firing Line, his “PTV” show, in the Sistine Chapel. (His guests were Princess Grace, Malcolm Muggeridge, Charlton Heston, and David Niven.)

All through his life, WFB was tagged as “effete,” “cosmopolitan,” “elitist,” and worse. He did not especially care. He prized culture, high culture in particular. He saw a connection between culture and conservatism. What are you trying to conserve? Above all, he loved music, and Bach first and foremost. WFB played the harpsichord from his youth until his last breath.

He was happy for you to be you, and me to be me. He wished everyone nothing but the best. But he was unabashed about what he valued and who he was.

On Firing Line one day, he had a guest who worked for a Wall Street bank. The “examiner” on this occasion — the examiner being a person who asked additional questions toward the end of the show — was a populist Republican. Said the populist to the banker, “Is it true that you are chauffeured to and from work in a limousine?” WFB would have none of it, giving the examiner a fearful rebuke. Means of transportation had nothing to do with the issues at hand.

Watching at home, I felt sorry for the populist. Cringed for him. But WFB had made a good point, and taught a good lesson.

Speaking of limos: WFB wrote about his own in his 1983 book Overdrive. Almost every critic fastened on the limo, hooting about it. (WFB claimed that the limo bought him time, more than anything else: allowing him to read and write more, for example.) (Furthermore, once you had ridden in a car driven by WFB, you did not necessarily want him driving at all. You were happy for him to be chauffeured.)

WFB also wrote of his indoor swimming pool: “the most beautiful pool this side of Pompeii,” he said. There was much hooting about that one, too. The author responded that he was merely expressing appreciation “for the artisan,” and was grateful to own the pool.

Many years later, seeing it for the first time, I said, “Is this the most beautiful pool this side of Pompeii?” Bill grinned. (The pool, truth to tell, had seen better days — like Pompeii, in fact.)

Within every conservative is a streak of libertarianism, WFB would say. I believe that there is a streak of populism in us too — within everyone, really. Buckley had such a streak.

Do you know his two most famous sayings? (1) “I am obliged to confess that I should sooner live in a society governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the 2,000 faculty members of Harvard University.” (2) “Demand a recount.”

The first statement, he made in a debate with Robert Maynard Hutchins. The second, he made when asked what he would do if he won the 1965 New York mayoral race.

He winced every time someone brought one of these sayings up (which was often). He referred to both of them — whichever was discussed — as “my Prelude in C-sharp minor.” The reference was to Rachmaninoff’s most famous piano piece. The composer came to regard it as an albatross around his neck.

In any event . . .

I once had a wide populist streak. I was very good at the rhetoric: the “elites” lording it over the “common man” and all that. Starched collars versus working stiffs. In many instances, I was right — but you can overdo that sort of thing.

When I was growing up, the word “obscene” was routinely attached to wealth: “obscene wealth.” He is “obscenely wealthy.” We scoffed at people who rode around in the summer with their windows rolled up. That meant they had air conditioning.

Who was so fancy and prissy as to need to ride around in a refrigerator during the summer?

There was a joke I told, when I was about 16. I thought it was hilarious. A man from the Midwest arrives at Harvard. To a passerby, he says, “Excuse me, sir, could you tell me where the library’s at?” The man says, “Yes, but, here at Harvard, we do not end our sentences with a preposition.” The Midwesterner says, “Let me rephrase that: Could you tell me where the library’s at, a**hole?”

It was Bill Buckley, more than anyone else, who talked me out of populism — certainly of the reflexive, rhetorical, or boobish sort. He talked me out of other things too: such as “real Americans” and “real people.” They’re all real (whether we like them or not): rich and poor, urban and rural, fancy and unfancy. Prick them, and they’ll bleed.

I met people of various sorts at Bill and Pat Buckley’s table. One night, there was Happy Rockefeller and an English friend of hers, “Sir John.” (I don’t recall his last name.) We’re talking about people, having human experiences, happy and un-.

Chances are, you’ve heard of the “cocktail-party circuit.” For eons, populists, or people playing at populism, have accused others of holding or expressing the views they do because they covet invitations to cocktail parties. It’s a trope that will never die.

Announcing a new run for the Senate the other day, Josh Mandel in Ohio spoke of politicians who “are more interested in getting invited to the cocktail-party circuit than they are in standing up for the Constitution.” George F. Will noted the candidate’s “stupefying unoriginality.”

May I tell you a secret? Most of the cocktail parties I have ever been to have been conservative or right-wing affairs, where people get within inches of your face, breathing wine and populism at you.

I recall a piece of mail I got in 2016. A reader, mad at my criticisms of Donald Trump, said, “You just sit in your penthouse apartment, having wine and Brie.” I thought, Does he know I’m a magazine staffer? Does he know that his candidate is a trust-fund baby who lives at the top of a tower on Fifth Avenue named after himself? 

It was so . . . weird, yet so typical. The populist reflex. The class resentment, the chip on the shoulder, the “wine and cheese” trope (with a specific nod to Brie, an extra-sinister cheese, apparently).

(Not to go too much further into the politics of food and drink, but I have never been a wine-drinker, though I do like cheese, especially grilled in a sandwich, or baked with macaroni.)

I have been on a Buckley jag, as you can tell, and have been perusing the archives. WFB critiqued the populism of George Wallace, Ted Kennedy, George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Mario Cuomo — many more. A sample: “Senator Kennedy’s public life and attitudes are dominated by all the reactionary slogans of populism.” Also in that column, Buckley wrote that “we will always have with us somebody who believes Rothschild and the Banks are responsible for American foreign policy.”

Oh, yes.

One of the last columns WFB ever wrote — in December 2007 — was headed “Populist Hour.” It focused on John Edwards, the ex-senator from North Carolina, who was again running for president. Almost the entire shtick of Edwards was “the people versus the powerful” (as it had been with John Kerry and Al Gore before him).

“Mr. Edwards is already declining in the polls,” wrote WFB. “That is one up for the sophistication of the American voter. Indeed, throughout the 20th century we rejected populist assaults on reality.”

In thinking about John Kennedy — the Louisiana senator — I think about Louisiana. It is a state loaded with problems. It is the third-poorest in the nation. How does the rhetoric about high ceilings and tuna tartare and all help the average Louisianan? It doesn’t, but it may stoke his resentment — which is a lousy thing to do to someone. It is also a perpetual li’l vote-getter.

I smiled at something that Scott Lincicome, the free-marketeer and journalist, wrote recently:

What if the Real Populism is robotically investing a reasonable share of your monthly pre-tax income into ultra-low-fee index and/or age-based funds and never touching them again until you retire?

There is more helpfulness in that than in all the snorts about tuna tartare in the world.

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