For a lot of people, the term, “populism” has negative connotations. What explains the popularity of leaders like Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Narendra Modi, and Boris Johnson?
In this episode, we sit down with Ryan Girdusky, co-author of “They’re Not Listening: How The Elites Created the National Populist Revolution.”
This is American Thought Leaders 🇺🇸, and I’m Jan Jekielek.
Jan Jekielek: Ryan Girdusky, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Ryan Girdusky: Thank you for having me.
Mr. Jekielek: You’ve written a very fascinating book, which I’ve finally been reading. I had a chance to read from start to finish, and the title is, “They’re Not Listening.” Actually, I’ll let you tell me who’s not listening and why aren’t they listening.
Mr. Girdusky: Well, the book is centered around the neo-liberals and the post-Cold War consensus that was created after communism ended and the USSR fell into a dozen plus nations. The consensus, as Francis Fukuyama believed and the elites believed, was that Western liberalism was the dominant philosophy, governing philosophy of humans forever, and it needed to be promoted either through trade, as in the case with America, which was promoting free trade with the CCP in China. It needed to be promoted with mass immigration, because we had magic dirt in Western Europe, or in Western Europe and in America, where anyone would just become an American instantly as part of stepping their feet into our country. And then through war, through invading and over toppling nations and countries forever.
And it basically said that the will of American people would be secondary to the demands of the elite and their governing philosophy. And it’s those same elites—it’s the John McCain’s, it’s the George Bush’s, it’s the Hillary Clinton’s, it’s the Barack Obama’s—that hate Donald Trump, and their ilk who hate Brexit and Bolsonaro and Modi and Le Pen and Salvini who are the biggest culprits of their creation. They created the thing that they hate the most, and it’s their governing philosophy, and rather than sitting there and taking a step back and saying, “How did this all this happen?” they have seemed to double down and push even stronger for it.
Mr. Jekielek: Basically, you’re postulating here that—are you saying populism is a positive phenomenon or is a negative phenomenon? Or are you just simply observing from the outside?
Mr. Girdusky: Well, there’s two different types of populism—there’s left-wing populism and right-wing populism. I’m just focusing on right-wing populism and national populism specifically. Populism is a class struggle. That’s basically the textbook definition.
Nationalism is a struggle against international organizations for the benefit of sovereignty in the nation state. The economic struggle, the struggle with populism for many people, especially those who lived in megacities, those who live on the coasts, in America, especially the West Coast or the East Coast, saw the last 30 years with levels of prosperity not imaginable to maybe their grandparents.
But life expectancy in the other parts of the country declined from 2010 to 2016. Deaths of despair exploded. We had in a nation, the richest nation in the history of the world, [yet] there was actual despair going on to the point that people were just killing themselves. You saw half a million people die of an opioid epidemic that was fundamentally ignored for 20 years. If you were born, and I say this constantly, if you were born white in Appalachia, black in the Mississippi Delta or Native American in South Dakota, you’re going to die 20 years before someone born in the suburbs of Denver, Colorado. That is really why we’ve seen a rise of anger and outburst from many parts of this country that kind of just sat there and took it for decade after decade.
I’m not necessarily saying it’s a good thing, but I’m saying that there’s opportunity in national populism that there isn’t in both traditional conservatism or libertarianism or liberalism or socialism. Many of those philosophical ideologies, when it comes to governing, really have a principled approach towards the process. So for instance, libertarians would say the free market will provide you with the best outcomes 100 percent of the time, or socialism will say the government will provide you with the fairest amount of the outcomes 100 percent of the time, and a lot of populists and national populists say, “Just get the best outcomes.I don’t really care about the method of how it happens.”
We have a lot of underlying problems in our country right now that aren’t even being tackled. And the solution, sitting there and stipulating, “Oh, we’ll just leave it up to A, B and C, and we’ll figure it out,” is not a good enough answer for a lot of people anymore.
Mr. Jekielek: What are the big issues that have been in the popular consciousness that have just not been listened to?
Mr. Girdusky: Well, in America, certainly, you have several. You have mass immigration. We bring in 1.2 million legal immigrants per year, nevermind all the illegal immigrants. You have trade deals which have crippled many millions of jobs in the country and decimated whole areas. You have endless wars where people are fighting now and patrolling streets of nations that we were invading when they weren’t born. And you have, I think, a problem with our corporatism going on in our country where you have a mass amount of wealth being created on the coasts, and you have deaths of despair climbing in the center of the country.
And there’s other things that trickle on into that. The problem of the cost of college is part of that, or the rising cost, the rising number of Americans not having children and not getting married anymore. That’s certainly a problem. It’s not good for our culture when that happens at such a high level. But all those start with, I think, probably those four or five issues, which are foreign policy, mass immigration, free trade, deaths of despair, and the rising wealth gap between the coasts and the center of the country.
Mr. Jekielek: These are all very big issues, obviously, right?
Mr. Girdusky: Right.
Mr. Jekielek: In fact, I think in the book, you mention how I think it’s the last four presidents prior to President Trump campaigned on, for example, peace or reducing the overlap.
Mr. Girdusky: Right. Peace dividends, yes. George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump all campaigned on reducing foreign intervention, reducing foreign obligations, bringing troops home, and spending some of that money domestically.
George H. W. Bush cut military spending but did not reduce American global presence. Bill Clinton, the same. Cut spending, there was no peace; they cut Pentagon funding, but did not bring any peace dividends home. George W. Bush campaigned on a humble foreign policy, no foreign nation-building. That obviously didn’t work. And then we have Barack Obama who was the “Prince of Peace”, and we were over-toppling nations in Syria and Libya. And then Donald Trump campaigned on calling Iraq a stupid war.
So this is now the fifth president. I know Donald Trump has been announcing he’s going to have troops home out of Afghanistan by the end of the year. But it’s now five presidents. We’re talking over 20 years of the same people promising the same things over and over again, and never delivering, not once.
That would be a perfect example that we have the sons and daughters of Iowa and Ohio dying for the borders of the provinces in Afghanistan. It’s bizarre, and no nation in I think history has ever—these are not our territories, these are not our colonies. This is a bizarre relationship where we are literally policing the entire world, and we’re expending our future for their future. It makes no sense. A lot of people are very angry about it. And they’re often very forgotten in these never-ending trillion dollar foreign policies..
Mr. Jekielek: You mentioned that immigration is actually one of these core issues that was really ignored over a very long time. You provide hundreds and hundreds of references to studies and observations and so forth. I think that’s a very valuable part of the book, actually. But tell me about the role of the reality of immigration in the neoliberal ideology and how that intersected with what people in many countries actually wanted.
Mr. Girdusky: Well, in 1965, the United States fundamentally altered our immigration system to being a family reunification process, opening the doors to a million plus people a year, which is what we take in now.
Mr. Jekielek: What was it before out of?
Mr. Girdusky: Around 200,000.
Mr. Jekielek: Okay. So a five times increase?
Mr. Girdusky: Five times increase over the course of four decades. And under the previous system, you were allowed to bring in immigrants in proportion to their historic population in the United States, which many deemed as racist because obviously there were certain communities that didn’t have a large presence in the United States for decades. It was sold in 1965 as being that it would not fundamentally alter the demographic of this country. That was obviously a lie by Senator Teddy Kennedy.
And when asked in 1965, “What kind of immigrants do you want in this country?” a lot of people sat there and said, “Canada, England,” traditionally historical United States, American populations. When we’ve opened the floodgates, a lot of positives come with mass immigration, but at the same exact time, there also needs to be a cooling. In the 1920s, we did this. In 1928, or maybe 1924, President Calvin Coolidge brought immigration down to historic lows after the wave of Southern and Eastern Europeans flooded into America.
And over this course of 40 some odd years, 50 some odd years, Americans assimilated. And assimilation really brings—we went through two world wars together, the mass American culture, and all of those people who had come through those decades, their children and grandchildren were more fully American. We do not do that now, and nor is it a condition to try to become fully American. In fact, to the left, it is extremely, it’s considered racist to sit there and demand someone to become fully American and assimilate into a coherent culture, a singular language.
We’re told constantly to remind yourself of your differences, not of any of your similarities. And immigration, while it has its benefits, and while immigrants do bring benefits to them, not all immigrants are the same—which is a conversation we cannot have for some reason in this country—and we seemingly have this idea that if we just open up the floodgates, only the good ones will come. The bad ones are small and minute. And we kind of attach ourselves to slogan politics, which is “diversity is our strength” and “mass immigration is good.”
None of that is true. It’s been studied over and over again that mass diversity is not a strength. It’s actually a terrible weakness. Over long term, once people have assimilated, it becomes a strength. But in the short term, in the initial thing, people’s social capital depletes because of mass immigration and mass diversity. And not only are people willing to trust people that look different than them less, they’re willing to trust people who look the same as them less. And they’re willing to invest less in social institutions.
The group of Americans that have the least social trust right now are Generation Z, which is also the most diverse generation. That’s not the only reason why, but that is certainly a reason why. And Americans were demanding for decade after decade, “Please reduce legal immigration.” Not just illegal, but legal immigration. And it was just completely ignored. In the 1990s was the last real attempt with Congressman Barbara Jordan, a Democrat, black Democrat from Texas—I think the first black female elected in Texas—and Bill Clinton, a Democrat, and they put together a bill and the people who stopped it were mostly Republicans because it harmed their mega donors, their corporate donors who wanted easy, cheap labor to sit there and work at their hotels or work their fields or just undercut American workers.
And Bill Clinton, he just allowed the bill to be watered down to basically nothing besides illegal immigration. And that was the last time, but it’s been demanded for decades. Had that happened in the 1990s, had the Barbara Jordan bill become law on legal immigration, and legal immigration was reduced to, I don’t know, 250,000 in the ’90s, it is a very likely chance that Donald Trump would have never become president in 2016.
Mr. Jekielek: This idea that diversity isn’t just excellent, let’s say, right?
Mr. Girdusky: Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: When I hear that being said, it almost sounds like something that’s a taboo thing to say.
Mr. Girdusky: But it shouldn’t be because not all immigrants are the same. And the problem is because the left has become so woke on race in this nation—and we detail that very heavily in the book—they’ve also become woke on immigration. So if you believe that it is problematic and America is not more diverse, of course you sit there and want higher levels of legal immigration. And that is really where the national populist argument comes in.
We are not the world’s policemen. We’re not the world’s charity. We’re not the world’s orphanage. What is good for the native American, native-born American, what is good for a poor black family on the south side of Chicago? What is good for a poor white family in Appalachia or a poor Hispanic family living for generations near the Rio Grande? We are never looking at their interests ever because we’re constantly attaching ourselves to these illusions over and these bumper sticker slogans over what mass immigration does.
Mr. Jekielek: A number of the ideas that make up national populism are things that you would expect any government to look seriously at. And for some reason, they haven’t been. What is the agenda? And how does it work? And how can it change things?
Mr. Girdusky: Well, I think in every country, it’s a little different, so we’ll speak in the American context. In the American context, I think the most primary things you need to note if a national populist president or in Congress were to arise, raising the living standards of the working poor would be primary and essential. And I think it’s also essential to have a national vision, which is the difference that I think most politicians, especially on the right, do not have.
So for instance, we could talk a lot about, recently since the coronavirus, about bringing home medical supplies and the supply chain and like manufacturing when it comes to military, things that were shut down overseas. But it’s not just enough to bring them home. How do you bring them to communities that have been disadvantaged because of the free trade system that was perpetuated by neoliberals? If you leave it to the free market, they’ll go to the Sunbelt, or they’ll go to California, they’ll go to Arizona, they’ll go to Texas.
Newest infrastructure, newest machines, newest everything. You would need the government to invest heavily in infrastructure programs, especially in the Midwest, that are advantageous for manufacturing, especially on the supply chains to come to those areas. How do they go to Youngstown? Or how do they go to, I don’t know, Cleveland? You build the infrastructure so it accommodates those needs and what’s necessary. I think that would be part of it, to look at things like that, structurally like that.
How do you create a more unified country? Promoting a curriculum, an education curriculum that says, “Yeah, America isn’t a perfect country, but it’s a great country. Our heroes were good and virtuous men and women.” I think that you would need to reduce legal levels of immigration. You need a cooling down period. And maybe it’s a long period, maybe it’s 50 years, 60 years, but you need everyone to assimilate into a common American culture.
You need to bring our troops home from these endless wars that at this point will never end. We’re never going to make Afghanistan turn into Virginia. You’re never going to repair these broken societies. You’re never going to impose liberalism on a nation and a people that don’t want it.
And counteracting a lot of the managerial decline of the United States that’s been acceptable for the last 30 years. I think we’ve accepted that idea that we are okay declining. But we’re not. What comes after the United States? It’s not going to be pretty. I think that we haven’t had a recent memory of a non-Western … nation, not in control of the world of being the leader of the world. But if it is the CCP, if the communist Chinese Communist Party, controls the future, it’s a very dark future. It’s a very dangerous future. And I think that in order to regain America’s footing all over the world, you need to regain America’s footing at home.
And those are the major, I think, essential and vital things that you need to create right now: raising the living standards, rebuilding our infrastructure, rebuilding our supply chains, reducing legal immigration, bringing our troops home, and handling the managerial decline of the United States, handling back what has been accepted, when Barack Obama said that these jobs are never going to come back, this life’s never going to come back, handling those problems in those areas. Because there’s just a lot of people who’ve just given up hope and the nationalism part is the belief that the nation-state can and will help people and as long as they have their ownership of their sovereignty, and that they are the decision makers on a global institution, or not a global hegemony, but the nation as itself.
Mr. Jekielek: You talk a lot about both neoliberalism and woke progressivism in the book and how they affect society and so forth. And it’s very interesting because there is a kind of a marriage of convenience of sorts between these two ideologies, and that becomes very, very apparent. But they’re not the same.
Mr. Girdusky: No, they’re not the same, but they benefit each other substantially. So you have Michael Bloomberg, who this last week donated 100 million dollars to black medical students. And that’s great. We need more doctors, need more nurses. Nurses, I’m sure they’re underprivileged, and they can need the help. One hundred million dollars to Michael Bloomberg is nothing. It’s like $5 to me. If I lose, I lose it. I’m not going to remember it a minute later.
The problem is greater than that though. One, he ignores entire groups of people who just happen to not have a different skin pigmentation, even though they may be as economically depressed.
The second is the institution as a whole. Michael Bloomberg, if you want to help black Americans out, or just poor Americans out, or any Americans out, why is your company and all the companies that you’ve have a substantial stockholding in, why do they outsource labor constantly? Why do they outsource manufacturing? Why do they outsource and import cheap labor from abroad in your H-1B system?
Why don’t we have more of a German model of education where people are plucked from high schools and learned, and brought into companies to learn practical things rather than going to college as an alternative to college if your brain doesn’t work for college? Why aren’t you working for any of those things? You are one of the wealthiest people in the world. You have a level of power and influence very few human beings in the history of the world have ever had.
But what can he do? Instead, he can sit there and his idea of philanthropy, as many billionaires’ ideas of philanthropy are, is these organizations where the majority of their money goes to salaries or lawyers or consultants. And he can say the right things and talk about Black Lives Matter or any woke line that he has at the moment or gun rights or whatever, or not gun rights, but gun confiscation.
And at the same time, the institutions that enable him, that make him wealthy, they’re all fine. They just go as is, and nothing will ever be affected because of that. You cannot sit there and say you are a revolutionary if you’re being sponsored by corporate America. Lenin never got sponsored by Coca Cola. That is problematic, the idea that you’re running a revolution and you’re being sponsored. I always question whenever somebody sits there and says they’re a revolutionary, and they have a corporate sponsor. My guess is no.
Mr. Jekielek: So we are talking about the national populist revolution.
Mr. Girdusky: Right.
Mr. Jekielek: But you’re talking about a different revolution right now.
Mr. Girdusky: That’s the left-wing. That’s the left-wing populism, which has a lot of overlap with right-wing populism in the sense that they believe there’s an economic problem with the wealth creation, existing on the coast. In the book, we cite a political philosopher and say there’s a difference between those who live somewhere and those who live anywhere, those who could live in any liberal Western city, and they could fly anywhere, doesn’t really matter to them because they’re never actually investing in the institutions of that community.
And those who live somewhere that they’re more likely rooted to, they’ve probably been there for generations. The way it used to be in this country, when wealthy people—I don’t think they were billionaires back then—but wealthy people in the top 1% were kind of fixed into locations. They built institutions and infrastructures into local communities that kept those communities alive for decades and decades and decades.
Western New York had the Kodak family forever, who invested heavily into that region. Mr. Rogers, of Western Pennsylvania, the famous Mr. Rogers, his mother was a wealthy woman who would regularly pay for all the unpaid medical bills of everyone who was ill in the area. It was not uncommon for wealthy people to do that, to fund and work in the institute and build institutions within their local communities to make them better.
Now, you don’t have to do that. You can just give a check to a philanthropy to save the rainforest, or stop the, I don’t know, stop this thing or that thing, or anti-guns or pro-gay rights or pro-women or whatever. And most of those organizations are just groups that pay their CEOs and the heads of their organizations large salaries, they pay all their lawyers, their PR, they do media, and maybe 10 percent or 20 percent actually goes to funding the project. And everyone feels good about themselves. But really, nothing fundamentally happens.
And so there is a divorce between the wealthy of this country and the working class that hadn’t been in the past because there was a certain level of respectability because they were investing in institutions to keep those communities alive and oftentimes it wasn’t so uncommon that a wealthy person would send their child to the same school as a non-wealthy person. It was just different. The great sort as Charles Murray hadn’t occurred.
And so that’s why left-wing populism and right-wing populism have similar concerns over economics. The difference is, when it boils down to it, is that left progressivism is woke on subject of race. So Michael Bloomberg will give 100 million dollars to black medical students. I’m not saying that’s [not] a great thing. They probably need the money. He will never give 100 million dollars to white kids from Appalachia. And if he did, that’s racist, how dare you? How dare you sit there and give an advantage?
So because they are so woke on the subject of race, where they believe so heavily that if you are white or male or Christian or privileged in any sense of the word, you are—and now even Asian. If you’re Asian too, you’re privileged in the institution of white nationalism or whatever they’re talking about because Asians do well on standardized tests and Asian communities typically do what Asian students do. And they go to, they have higher levels of seats in Harvard and all the greater education institutions.
There was one study done that’s cited in the book—I forget who did the study—but if a black person looks at another black person, they will have a feeling of warmth. Same thing with Asians, same thing with Hispanics, same thing with non-liberal whites. White liberals are the only people who will look at a person of their own race and have a negative bias against them immediately. It is extremely bizarre. It is almost like a level of Charles Manson brainwashing going on, where they are just ignoring groups of people in this country simply because they are of the same skin pigmentation. We would never stand for it if the races were reversed.
Mr. Jekielek: Do you think that this, let’s call it marriage of woke progressivism and neoliberal ideology will last?
Mr. Girdusky: It’s hard to sit there and say because I don’t think you can have fundamental change while you are enabling a neoliberal order. Nancy Pelosi, back 15 years ago, was considered one of the most progressive people in this country before the AOCs and the Ilhan Omar’s and the Rashida Tlaib’s of America ever saw anything, that was where the line was.
And now the line has moved, and 15 more years, we may be looking at AOC and saying, “Oh, you know, you’re a moderate.” Maybe. It depends how long I guess they think they can keep the monsters in Pandora’s box and put them back in there. It’s very hard when you’ve let out certain ideas into the ether for you to believe you can control them. I mean, how many professors, college professors, sat there and said, “I’m scared of my liberal students.” There was an article written or an op-ed written, signed by all these great literary thinkers and academics. JK Rowling signed on to it about freedom of speech, freedom of expression.
You created this. You all created this monster, and now you can’t control it, and it’s scaring you because they’re trying to cancel you. How long until woke progressives can cancel neoliberals. The strength that neoliberals have is they control almost every institution and they can basically pull the plug on anything that is, financially pull the plug on anything that they don’t, that is an actual threat to them. I don’t think that they view Black Lives Matter as an actual threat to them because they fund them. And you cannot be a revolutionary force if the people propping you up are the organizations or are the institutions that you insist are keeping you down.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, so let’s talk about this a little. Over the last several months, we’ve seen a lot of protests, some peaceful protests, some very violent protests, which are characterized often as peaceful.
Mr. Girdusky: Right.
Mr. Jekielek: And there is this question actually, I see this question asked a lot in various, numerous social media channels.Is this monster, as you call it, is it something that can be controlled? Is the genie out of the bottle? Actually, I was just watching a video of people that were chanting “Death to America” on the streets of New York.
Mr. Girdusky: Well, there are some people that do it for the Instagram likes. Certain people are just going along with the flow because it’s popular in their idea. How many times, I don’t know if you saw the videos of young white girls going in front of broken windows with a fist up and then taking a picture and then leaving immediately. It’s all for social media. That’s part of it.
So I wouldn’t be too seriously concerned. Although it is concerning, it’s not as serious as the true radicals who want to go and blow up a building or set up—in Portland, they tried to burn a police building down with a police locked inside of it. That is the concerning part, the revolution, the CHAZ [Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone]. That kid in Wisconsin who killed those two men, those two men were, one was a wife beater, one was a child molester, I believe. Why was it that both people you shot seemingly had criminal records, nefarious criminal records? Is it because your organization attracts those kinds of people? Or are your events attracting those kinds of people?
I think that’s a really open question when it comes to who are the people who are simply just marching because it’s what you’re supposed to be doing, what a good person is supposed to be doing. And then who are those who are radicalized to the point that they want to have “Death to America,” or violently attack somebody, or in the case in Seattle, they shot and killed that one Trump supporter because he had pepper spray in his hands. And then he ultimately killed himself when the cops came for him. Not before doing an interview with Vice, though. That was interesting.
I question how much of the radicalization is there. And obviously, it’s much more organized now than it was in the 1970s and ’60s. The DSA and Antifa are far more organized and well-funded than the Weathermen Underground back 50 years ago. It’s concerning for sure, though.
Mr. Jekielek: So as I was reading, a number of times, I thought of the Cloward-Piven strategy, which I’m sure you’re very familiar with.
Mr. Girdusky: Yes, I’ve heard that before.
Mr. Jekielek: There’s this kind of disregard for realities, which you describe, which I think you make the cases very real over quite some time. And I found myself wondering if some of the people involved in this,—maybe this is the kind of conspiracy perspective, I don’t know if you’ve considered this—could actively be interested in creating the chaos.
Mr. Girdusky: Certainly right now, there are certain actors that are interested in creating chaos. I think that it is more accepted that when it comes to the broader picture of the managerial decline of the United States, I just think that some people are living in a bubble. 52 percent of our nation is working class, 10 percent of our city councilmen are working class, 4 percent of our state legislators, and 2 percent of our Congress. They are totally underrepresented as far as a demographic group in the governing portion of our country.
George Will, a conservative writer, George Will who has advocated for everything from open borders to mass immigration to endless wars and endless free trade—he lives in a neighborhood in Maryland where the average house costs about $3.2 million, 96 percent is white, and they have some of the best schools in the whole country. He lives like it’s 1952. He lives in a great place. Better than 1952 with the better technology and all those cables and all the TV channels you want. So it’s wonderful for him. He gets an extra Mexican restaurant a couple miles away, but he’s completely closed off from what’s going on in the rest of the country.
He’ll never have to worry about—2016, there was a great story in the Los Angeles Times about a Hispanic street gang that was targeting black children and black households in Southern California. And one night, they started throwing Molotov cocktails in the bedrooms of those black children’s bedrooms. It’s a big story in the Los Angeles Times. I wrote about at the time for when I was at The Washington Examiner. Almost no major media coverage whatsoever outside that. Not that the LA Times isn’t big, but it never got broad wall-to-wall coverage on cable news.
George Will will never have to worry about that happening to his grandchildren or his kids. He’ll never have to deal with that reality. Neither will half of these people who sit there and peddle. They’ll only have the benefits of what they sit there and promote. They’ll never have to worry about their children dying of despair, never being able to get a job, seeing a town wither as institution after institution closes and shutters. That’s the reality for millions and millions and millions of people, like the actual suffering that’s going on.
And if national populists fail at trying to empower, I really worry, will there be anyone who ever advocates for them? Or will it be acceptable for them to just die off? Certain people on the right, like in National Review have said, “Yeah, just die off.” And other people on the left sat there and said, “Oh, your suffering is not real, and you have white privilege, or it’s not real enough. Or it’s real because of conditioning of white privilege or white nationalism,” or whatever the hell they want to sit there and say.
No, it’s the problem of neoliberalism. And it’s regardless of race as an economic problem that we’re having this. And someone has to sit there and get up and get angry and do something about it. And I fear that if national populists don’t do something about it, the governing class of this country will be just okay with seeing them just decimated and die off like they have for decades.
Mr. Jekielek: So what is the way to reconnect the elites with the, as you call them, the somewheres with the anywheres?
Mr. Girdusky: Right. That’s a bigger question than maybe I am apt to sit there and know. I spoke at the White House not too long ago with some under staffers, not the President, but some staffers there. And they asked me a question on messaging. And I said, “Whatever you’re writing about, how does somebody with less than $1,000 in their checking account feel about what you’re writing about? Or feel about how you’re talking about it? And if you don’t know someone like that, you should know somebody like that.”
And I don’t know if there’s an easy way to sit there and reverse what’s been going on with the great sort, where the rich are living only among the rich and the poor living only among the poor. I even tweeted one time that maybe we should have a rule that a congressman has to have one staffer with no college degree or no high school degree in the office. Something should be done, though, and could be done where you have to sit there and have more representation somewhere in any office of the government. I have never met a congressional staffer without a college degree. And that’s problematic.
Mr. Jekielek: Nationalism and populism, and certainly national populism are often portrayed in a very negative light.
Mr. Girdusky: That’s an understatement.
Mr. Jekielek: As something far-right. I’ve seen “racist,”
Mr. Girdusky: “Xenophobic.”
Mr. Jekielek: “Xenophobic.”
Mr. Girdusky: Just like my Twitter mentions. They all come up. Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: Is there any truth to this?
Mr. Girdusky: I mean, certainly, if you look at somebody, some figures like Jean-Marie Le Pen, he certainly would fill in—some things that he said are extremely vile and not something that I would ever cosign. And there are people who like to throw themselves into the characterization of the far right. That would definitely fall into this. But I don’t think you can call the movement as a whole that because up till now, a lot of the movement hasn’t been clearly defined.
I think in the book, “They’re Not Listening,” we try to clearly define what the movement’s goal is. And in many of these parties in Europe, especially, they went out of their way to purge themselves of neo-Nazis, of outright racists, from Marine Le Pen’s kicking her own father out of the National Rally, and now it’s called the “Rally for the Nation.” The Swedish Democrats purged these people. The AFD is trying to find some kind of purge right now. But they all sat there and worked extremely hard to sit there and cleanse themselves of outright racists or Nazis and kind of clean themselves up, and I think that they’ve done a pretty good job of that in most of these places.
Mr. Jekielek: So, in other words, these are, at some point, these are fair accusations.
Mr. Girdusky: Maybe like about 30, 40 years ago, I would agree with probably a lot of them had fair accusations. Because national populists are very hard on immigration. A lot of those people who’d be racist would sit there and try to—but immigration is not the only issue. The goal isn’t to have purely white countries. And in fact, when they did a poll on them, not a single country poll—I think it was like 19 countries polled, it’s in the book—asked what is the biggest criteria to become an immigrant to our country, not a single nation, not a single organization with these national populist groups said being white has to be a priority. So there’s no demand for racial purity or religious purity in any sense of the word.
I think that maybe 30, 40 years ago when you did have outright neo-Nazis running the Swedish Democrats, for example, you could sit there and characterize it. I think in the last 20, 25 years, these parties, especially the major parties have gone out of their way to sit there and purge the more nefarious characters from their groups.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s almost like the movement has this Crimson Letter on it.
Mr. Girdusky: Well because—and this is what I try very hard to say in the book—we don’t have a left-wing media in this country; we have a consensus media. So the media is almost always pro-war, almost without exception. In the Iraq war, it was The New Yorker, it was the Jerusalem Post, it was The New York Times, it was Fox News, it was ABC, it was NBC, it was CBS, it was MSNBC, it was CNBC, it was The New York Times, it was The Washington Post all advocating for war, every single one.
Jeffrey Goldberg, who, from The Atlantic, he was the one who created this, the one with the anti-Trump article about Trump saying that veterans are suckers and losers. He was the one who sat there and said Saddam Hussein was working with al Qaeda to take down the United States. Full blanket lie. Totally, totally, totally a lie. Still has a job at The Atlantic. Never was fired, never was demoted, never was taken down from his post. He lied, and his lie was then used to sell us into a war that killed over 100,000 people.
But it’s part of the consensus media, the same way that when our economic collapse was happening in 2008, it was a CNBC host who said we’re purposely trying to downplay it, not to cause panic, rather than telling the truth. It was how do we sit there and create the national mood. And I write in the book that the only time Trump got universal praise from the media—I think it was 46,47, or 48 editorial pages, daily editorial pages, that came out in support of one of his things—was the bombing of Syria.
It’s a pro-war consensus. It’s a pro-immigration consensus. It’s a pro-free trade consensus. You are allowed to operate within the confines that they have set. The minute you break the Overton window and the minute you step out of place is when they sit there and really come after you, and national populism is unique in the sense that it really is trying to change and alter the neoliberal consensus, the neoliberal order. So that’s why they’re always attacked and it’s attacked in every country. From Bolsonaro to Vox to Le Pen to Salvini, they are broadly, Modi. Modi is attacked and viled constantly in India. Tony Abbott was. I mean, it’s across the board.
Mr. Jekielek: Any chance you think this will change?
Mr. Girdusky: Well, the trust in the media has certainly changed and the belief in the media. You have large swathes of the American public who simply do not believe anything that comes out of the media’s mouth. And that’s sad. That shouldn’t happen. We’ve always had yellow journalism, we’ve always had people who expand on the truth or sit there and create a narrative. That’s not unusual. But in this sense right now, here’s the problem with the media, if you are a desk journalist, city desk journalist or a reporter, there’s not a lot of money in that lifestyle, and there’s not many jobs left in that lifestyle institution.
Magazines, newspapers, they can’t do groundbreaking investigative reporting. They don’t have the budgets for it anymore. Most major media institutions like The New York Times or The Washington Post, they are a billionaire’s tax write-off because most of them lose money. Almost every major newspaper in this country at this point is losing money. It’s a hobby project for a billionaire to sit there and own a newspaper.
How do you make money in the media? You become a brand. Rachel Maddow is a brand. She sells you something. You may not know it. It’s in the vision that it’s the news, but it’s a brand. She says on her program that she believes that, I think it was like last year’s, she believed that the Russians were going to take over the North Dakota’s heating system and blow it up and kill and freeze everyone in North Dakota to death. She said this on air like two or three times. This is like borderline paranoid schizophrenia. But she’s selling the idea of the Russian hoax or Russia is always bad. It’s clear.
You had Nicolle Wallace saying it’s an open question if Donald Trump is a Russian asset. He’s killed Russian troops in Syria. He’s ordered the killings of Russian troops in Syria. I mean, these people are delusional, but they’re brands. You know what you’re going to get, and you’re going to know what you’re going to get almost every time and that’s okay.
And it’s comfortable. And that’s how you get a seven figure contract with a major television network. And that’s how you get your own opinion contribution, or your seven figure book deal, or to go on late night with, name the late night host, I don’t know, Conan O’Brien, whoever. You get those things by becoming the brand that sits there and sells them exactly what they want all the time. That is the problem with our media right now. It is attractive to become a brand. So to go on Twitter and to sit there and be a reporter and attack Trump, you’ll get thousands of retweets and you get your name up there, and you may get on cable news more often. That’s what’s a problem with our entire media industry as it stands now.
Mr. Jekielek: So in the book, you say that you think people that advocate for these national populist agendas should actually work with the establishment to enact them, and you advocate for the establishment to work with them to enact them.
Mr. Girdusky: Right.
Mr. Jekielek: Create a better society. How is that possible in a media climate like you’ve just described?
Mr. Girdusky: Well, I mean, it’s worked in some countries. Switzerland has certainly done it with the Swiss People’s Party. They’ve done to a certain effect. The Danish People’s Party didn’t in Denmark. You know they never controlled the government; they were always part of a coalition. In Australia, certain things have gotten done. Go wherever they’re willing to meet you, even if it’s halfway, and go whichever party’s going to meet you, even if it’s halfway.
So there’s this organization right now that’s coming. It’s called Defend the Guard. And it’s about not allowing National Guardsmen to serve in wars overseas if they were not formally declared by Congress. That’s a way to stop these endless wars because that’s basically keeping the National Guard there is how you continue this police state, not police state, policing the world.
Now, if a Democrat wants to do that, even if they may hate your opinions on immigration, you’re going to meet them somewhere along the way, work with them there. If you can work with the unions that do coal mining, or unions that do steel, unions that do other things, and you can work with them to influence politicians to work against these trade agreements, then do it. Any which way that you can meet them there, find a way to sit there and organize and do it.
Barbara Jordan was a black Democrat, but she advocated for immigration reduction because it was primarily a concern with the African American community, the black community. There are opportunities everywhere that I think you can meet with the establishment on something to get, to inch along the way. You don’t have to have a purity test and you don’t have to hit a Grand Slam every time. But you have to start making your marks and mean them little by little by little by little. Politics is not easy, and it takes a lot of work. But I think there is ample opportunity, simply because the populations of this country are so upset with what’s going on.
Mr. Jekielek: That’s actually really interesting. You make a strong case—the book has multiple references to this issue—but you basically make the case that if the governing factions over decades had listened to what voters and these democratic studies actually wanted, there’s a good chance that national populism wouldn’t have begun in the first place.
Mr. Girdusky: Right. Well, there are nations right now like Australia, which has a right-wing government—the Liberal Party is in power there—and they certainly take into account concerns over populist nationals. I’m not saying they’re the perfect government, but they certainly listen to them.
Denmark, which is run by a left-wing political party, certainly sits there and says, “How does our nation feel about certain subjects?” So let’s say for instance, immigration, which is a major issue in the book—it’s about a third of the book. Denmark, when their liberal org party, when the left-wing party came into power, they kept most of what the right-wing party had pursued on immigration. It was this year that they announced that they actually had fewer refugees from Syria than the year before. And the left-wing party of Denmark said that was a great thing because they’re going home now because their home is more stable.
Same thing with the Liberal Party, the right-wing Liberal Party, in Australia. They have made it so immigrants cannot immediately settle into overpopulated parts of cities, which would drive up rent prices on the native population. They’re at least thinking about the concerns of the native population in a way that most neoliberal leaders never have for the last few decades.
Mr. Jekielek: What is the significance of the rise of the CCP as you describe it?
Mr. Girdusky: The Chinese Communist Party imposed the biggest threat to what has been Pax Americana, which has been peace throughout the world because of the United States. I think it is the fault of the West and of Western leaders and of neoliberal leaders to believe that normalizing trade relations with China, with the Chinese Communist government would ultimately make them more Western. That just never happened. They never intended for that to ever happen. And it’s the fault in their ideology that they believe they can impose Western beliefs through cheap televisions.
China is not Angola. It’s not Chile, it’s not France, it’s not Canada, it’s not a normal trading partner. They absolutely want to become the world’s global superpower of the 21st century. And if America crumbles from the inside, they certainly will be. And they will outpace us on our manufacturing, on our education, on our technology, on our military. And we will be a falling Tower of Babel. People who don’t believe in the same things don’t identify the same way, they scream about victimhood and privilege all day long. And we’ll have people that, a small minority at the very, very top and a lot of people at the very, very bottom.
And I think that they would love us to see our future look more like Brazil’s than like our own past, and I think that that’s why they pose the largest and the greatest threat to not only the United States, but I think nationalist governments around the entire world. They want to rule the world. It’s very clear on their intent.
Mr. Jekielek: In the US, you describe President Donald Trump as the face of national populism. But you actually say that this is something much bigger than just this big personality.
Mr. Girdusky: Yes, it predates him. I say that the most recent reincarnation of populism, especially right-wing populism, started in 1998 with Viktor Orban when he came to power. In 1999, the Swiss People’s Party, which is still in power, so is Orban. Danish People’s Party was in 2001. And it increased slowly for two decades, but unnoticed.
It was only when Trump won that everyone sat there and said, “What’s going on?” And then Bolsonaro came, and Modi manifested himself into a Hindu nationalist in India. And people realized they were losing control, and that’s when they had a—and Brexit, obviously, had just happened as well—and that’s when they had the freak out, when they couldn’t, it wasn’t just Central Europe that was having questions of liberalism. And Trump is certainly not the perfect incarnation of national populism. He doesn’t deliver on it. He’s still made many concessions to liberals and neoliberals in his own administration. But he is the probably most fitting for it, as far as American politicians currently are, as far as ones that have gotten elected to high office.
Mr. Jekielek: So this isn’t going away.
Mr. Girdusky: No, I don’t think so. We have major elections coming, not only with the American election. Once again, there’s more to an election than just philosophy. If we were just doing a philosophical test of what do you believe should be happening on policy issues, we’d have much different election results than who do you want to have a beer with, which is what a lot of people sit there and have a conversation about.
But we are going to see, even if Trump loses, we are going to see an election in Italy coming up, where they’re trying to prosecute Salvini so that way he cannot become Prime Minister, but he very well may likely, or his party may likely in Italy. You’re seeing an election in Sweden coming up in a few years with the Swedish Democrats coming close to the first place. And I think you may have referendum over Italian membership in the EU coming up very quickly, not to mention the rise of national parties throughout South America, and to see what happens in a post-Trudeau Canada during the next election.
So this is absolutely not going away. And these concerns are not going away. As long as there’s the rise of the CCP and questions over the issues of prosperity for the working class, and the issue over mass immigration and national identity, we will have these issues manifest and grow larger. Eventually, people are going to sit there and say to themselves, “What does it mean to be French or to be Italian or to be American? How does the economy benefit people without a college degree or access? People who happen to just be born in parts of this country that aren’t advantageous to them? Why, in those rich Western democracies in America, why do we have multi-generational poverty?”
Martin Luther King launched his march against poverty in 1960 Mississippi and that county, that town he launched in, is still one of the poorest places in the entire United States 60 years later. Why are these things not changing when we are constantly hearing the people who are promoting neoliberalism saying that things have never been better? Well, they’re getting better for some people, and they’re getting really good for some people. But for a lot of people, things are not good at all, and in fact, are getting worse.
And why in a nation that brought us everything from the automobile to cheap food and fast cars and everything to make life happy, why are people dying of despair? I think these are fundamental questions that have not changed, and once they are, and as long as they are going unanswered or ignored by the ruling elite, I think that they will be getting bigger and those voices will be getting louder.
Mr. Jekielek: Ryan, such a pleasure to have you.
Mr. Girdusky: Thanks for having me.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.