by A. James Gregor
Disclaimer: The present contribution was delivered to us by Professor A. James Gregor. The article is being published posthumously, given the recent passing of the professor on August 30, 2019. We take this opportunity to express our condolences for the departure of a great scholar and a friend of “Historical Thought” since its inception.
“Populism” has become a favored expression in dealing with contemporary politics. We are told that “populism” refers to a political strategy calculated to address the felt needs of the general population as distinct from, and usually opposed to, the settled preferences of the “establishment”. Donald J. Trump, who became President of the United States in 2016, was accused by the media and political opponents of being “fascist” and/or “populist”. This essay suggests searching for traces of populism and fascism in other political realities rather than in Trump’s politics.
“Populism” has become a favored expression in dealing with contemporary politics. Like many of the terms employed by political journalists, it has no specific definition. Unlike the formal sciences, political and social science invoke and employ terms having only tentative discursive or lexical definitions — usually framed as criterial definitions in which some properties are advanced as definitive of the concept. Thus, we are told that “populism” refers to a political strategy calculated to address the felt needs of the general population as distinct from, and usually opposed to, the settled preferences of the “establishment”.
Such a definition is so loosely framed that it can be applied to almost any significant variation in customary politics. Thus, we are informed that V.I. Lenin, Benito Mussolini, and Adolf Hitler all were “populists” — as were Mao Zedong, Fidel Castro, and Pol Pot. As such, the term means little more than “revolutionary”. We are now told that the current president of the United States, as a populist, is somehow a member of such a list. We are assured that like Mussolini, Donald J. Trump is a “fascist”.
Intelligent persons tell us that all this is very serious — but fail to offer a supporting analysis. At best, such a claim is preliminary, heuristic, and research suggestive. What is needed is an “unpacking” of the concept “populism” — to demonstrate the substantive similarities between the populisms of Mussolini and Trump. That minimally requires the provision of an applicable historic context and measurable specifics.