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Perspective: Is populism worth the soul of conservatism?

By whispering nostalgia into the ears of the public, populists like Donald Trump gain power, but at a societal cost

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Former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Ohio.

Former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in support of the campaign of Ohio Senate candidate JD Vance at Wright Bros. Aero Inc. at Dayton International Airport on Monday, Nov. 7, 2022, in Vandalia.

Michael Conroy, Associated Press

On March 22, 1775, Edmund Burke, a member of the English Parliament, rose to speak on the most pressing issue facing the British Empire: The possibility of violence in the North American colonies. 

Burke, a Roman Catholic in Ireland, was no stranger to political and religious oppression in the name of the divine rule of kings. He offered a biting criticism of the policies of King George III and Prime Minister Lord Frederick North. 

Burke argued that the king had violated the natural rights of their fellow Englishman by taxing them without representation. The king should immediately enfranchise the Americans, apologize and ensure a form of sovereignty. He declared, “Let the colonies always keep the idea of their civil rights associated with your government — they will cling and grapple to you, and no force under heaven will be of power to tear them from their allegiance.”

Thus, a new form of conservatism was born. While the European conservative vision was to preserve monarchy, the American brand was nurtured in the soil of the Enlightenment, instead of kings who would give their subjects rights by royal whim and grace. Burke — with other philosophers such as John Locke and Adam Smith — proposed that each individual was endowed, whether by Providence or nature, with basic human rights. These citizens would then be free to consolidate those rights to a sovereign that would be answerable to the voters, not vice versa. Thus, limited government and rule of law through a ratified Constitution balanced liberty with common defense, public goods and protection of property rights.

This conservative project also recognized that human nature is fixed and that each of us has the potential for both good and evil. The propensity to flourish is accompanied by a lust for power over others. Thus, James Madison wrote in Federalist 51, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal control on government would be necessary.” The American founding was an exercise in Newtonian physics. Balance between equal and opposite reactions of human nature was the only way to separate republican democracy from the chaos present in Paris during the French Revolution. If individuals could not be trusted with power, then checks and balances, markets, and freedom of speech, press and conscience would be premiere to avoid a Caesar or Napoleon.

Populism, however, has warped modern conservatism from any resemblance of its founding. Populism seeks to divide the “people” from the “elites” — never mind that the people elect the elites. Since small “l” liberal democracy won’t give the populist what he wants when he wants it, then grievance and victimhood must replace prudence and moderation. 

Populism is a reaction to cultural and economic change (as if governments could control culture or economics). The populist whispers nostalgia into the public’s ear, telling people that times have never been so poor and America could be restored to its previous glory if it dealt with the source of all our country’s problems: A Mad Libs exercise of nativism and protectionism. Our complex problems are simply solved by giving the populist power.

As Michael Strain from the American Enterprise Institute points out, “That message is unfair to the people who are receiving it precisely because it is wrong. The message helps to create the very problems its advocates argue exist.”

Populism is the antithesis of conservatism. It replaces “shining city on a hill” with “I alone can fix it.” Such voices look to divide citizens and sell them on the charade that our republic is a zero-sum game. They (and those willing to acquiesce as moths to a lantern) pitter away our birthright for a pot of populist porridge. Destruction of the lifeblood of immigration, innovation, equal opportunity and markets (including trade) will rot the economy and our national vibrancy.

The 1966 film “A Man for All Seasons portrays the trial of Sir Thomas More. Moore refused to recognize King Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine and the king’s supremacy over the church when the pope refused the divorce. Moore’s former student, Richard Rich, betrays him with false testimony that Moore slandered the king. 

When Moore, noticing the new chain of office around his student’s neck, asks him how he received such an honor, Thomas Cromwell informs Moore that his student was recently appointed attorney general of Wales in exchange for his testimony. Moore quips, “Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world, but for Wales?” 

Now is a good time to decide if populism is worth the soul of conservatism.

Michael S. Kofoed, @mikekofoed on Twitter, is an associate professor of economics at the U.S. Military Academy and a research fellow at the Institute of Labor Economics. A Utah native, he holds degrees in economics from Weber State University and the University of Georgia. These opinions are those of the author and do not represent the U.S. Military Academy, the Department of the Army or the Department of Defense.