I recently wrote about a book called The Populist’s Guide to 2020, by Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti, who co-host the Hill’s show Rising. The book’s premise is that today there is a rising kind of “left populism” and a rising “right populism” and that these can be described as part of one tendency and share “a single idea,” namely that “American families, workers, and communities which built this country still matter, they deserve a voice, and they are the future.” There is a populist movement, they write, as seen in “working class uprisings across the globe, from Donald Trump’s election [to] Bernie Sanders’ campaign.”
Reading the book, I found the idea of “left populism” and “right populism” being a unified “working class politics” to be deeply troubling. After all, once you get past abstractions like “families are the future,” what is “right” populism? Who are the right-wing populists? Well, they tend to be authoritarian nationalists who say the word “workers” a lot but are actually deeply xenophobic and militaristic. Are Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders part of the same movement? Centrists have often claimed this! Are they right?
I don’t believe so. I don’t think there is a mere “policy difference” between the right and the Left, and I utterly reject Ball and Enjeti’s thesis that these two groups are aligned.
Ball and Enjeti responded to me forcefully on their show Rising, with Ball delivering a biting monologue. I’d like to address their criticisms, because I think they misunderstand the arguments I am making, and that this misunderstanding is quite common when people talk about how the left should engage with the right, and what the differences are between left populism and right “populism.”
Let me start by acknowledging one thing Ball is correct about: She implies that while I framed my article as a “book review” it is in fact not much of a book review. I actually did not mean to write a book review. I just meant to write about the central idea that comes from their book, using quotes from the book to examine the idea. But in doing so, I wrote an article that kind of looks like a book review. I realize that “writing about a book” and “writing a book review” seem similar, but Krystal is right to suggest that, if read as a book review, it is not a very good book review, in that it is not about the entirety of the book.
But Ball’s actual argument against my position does not hold up—or rather, she does not offer an argument against my position, because the argument she makes is against something I do not believe. Ball begins by correctly quoting my conclusion, which is that right-wing populism is the enemy of the Left and we should not partner with it. She then defends the show Rising itself, and her decision to co-host with a “right-wing populist.” She says that she “fundamentally [does not] believe the left benefits from isolation, deplatforming, and a refusal to engage.” She says that she and her co-host have debated fiercely and disagree on many things, such as the use of military force against protesters. She defends the idea of having a diversity of viewpoints, and hashing things out with those who don’t agree with you. “Engagement is better than burying your head in the sand,” she says.
I do not find this a particularly compelling rebuttal, because I agree with it entirely. I’ve always advocated debating people with abhorrent views. Some leftist publications ignore conservative books, pretending they don’t exist, while I spent ages meticulously engaging with the texts to refute their arguments. I’ve even gone on Rising itself to debate with Enjeti! I am pro-engagement and pro-argument. (If I was against having arguments on principle I doubt I’d spend so much time getting into them.)
What I think we need to do is distinguish between “engaging people” and “softening/sanitizing their views.” And what I objected to about Ball and Enjeti’s book is not that it contains disagreements between the Right and Left—actually, the book is almost all about things they agree on—but that it presents “right-wing populism” as if it is simply a “polite disagreement” away from “left-wing populism.” Yet it doesn’t actually define clearly what “right-wing populism” is. As I asked previously: Who are the right populists? What do they actually believe? Ball and Enjeti argue that there is a “right populist movement” in this country. Well, can we name some people in that movement? Enjeti cites Tucker Carlson as an example. Okay, Tucker Carlson is a racist concerned with preserving an “ethnic majority.” Who else? Is Jair Bolsonaro in this movement? Is Donald Trump? In the book, Ball and Enjeti speak of “our” politics. Their argument is that the “populists” should think of themselves as part of one “rising” tendency. “Our vision,” they say, is of “two parties united,” and “the ideas that animate us are quite simple, and center around a single idea.” Both Bernie’s campaign and Trump’s election are described as part of a “working class uprising.”
The whole framing of this suggests that Sanders leftists are closer to Trumpists than they are to the mainstream of the Democratic Party. Again, this is what centrists say about us, too. In fact, if you accept Ball and Enjeti’s framing, we on the Left should not be asking the question “how do we work within the Democratic party to the extent we can while simultaneously building power outside of it?” but “how do we collaborate with nationalists?” Here’s what Ball says:
We should be humble about the virtue of our own “side.” It’s not clear to me why Saagar should be beyond the pale, but corporate and imperialist Democrats who sold out the country and murdered civilians overseas should be just fine. Many of the leftists who watch this show probably feel the same way. Now, that is partly because we do tend to gravitate toward areas where we have some shared level of interest and agreement, but it’s partly because there are a number of things on which we do in fact agree, so one of the central questions of the show is “Can the new left and the new right work together?”
Well, naturally, I don’t think corporate Democrats are “just fine”—I have been highly critical of Joe Biden, the Clintons, Jeff Bezos, you name it. But the point is that we do not have shared interests with the “populist right,” because the populist right is a sham. Yes, we may share a distaste for liberals and Jeff Bezos. But the movement Enjeti is peddling is a big swindle. Ball says that she is interested in “exploring in these new coalitions [populist left and populist right] . . . are there places of overlap?” But where do I overlap with Donald Trump? He’s anti-immigrant, anti-union, anti-Black Lives Matter, anti-regulation, anti-environmental policy, anti-transgender. He’s not even pro-worker.
For example, Ball and Enjeti cite taxes on the rich as an example of a place of left and right overlap. Well, the first thing our “right wing populist” president did when he got into power is give the rich an enormous tax cut. Enjeti cites Missouri senator Josh Hawley as one of the supposedly pro-worker Republicans. Well, Hawley opposed increasing his state’s minimum wage to just $12 by 2023 and opposed getting rid of right-to-work legislation. (Mehdi Hasan has an excellent column on the myth of Hawley’s “populism.”) Ball repeatedly cites Democrats’ support for American imperialist aggression (e.g., the Iraq War) as an example of why we should shun the Democrats and gravitate towards the right. But when I went on Rising, America’s destructive foreign policy was the first thing I clashed with Enjeti over, and Donald Trump assassinates foreign officials and drone-bombs civilians. The Left has nothing in common with the populist Right. They say “workers,” we say “workers,” and that’s about it. And if we don’t recognize the size of the chasm that separates us, we are not going to oppose forcefully enough the Right’s most destructive actions.
Of course, I’m interested in persuading Trump supporters to come and join the left. But I want to do this by convincing them that left ideas will benefit them, not by pretending that right-wing co-option of economic rhetoric has anything in common with sincerely-meant leftist economic policy. By suggesting there is something genuinely in common between the Left and the “populist Right,” Ball is complicit in Trump’s giant fraud, which rhetorically pretends to be on the side of workers and then screws them over.
Here’s a scenario: A socialist meets a fascist in a bar.
The liberals are destroying this country!
They’re so weak. And elitist. They don’t care about the workers.
Oh, it’s so true.
And of course the media is complicit. They never tell the truth.
Meanwhile, illegal immigrants are taking our jobs and destroying the ethnic majority.
Wait, what the fuck?
Ball says Rising tends to focus on the areas the populist Left and Right agree on. The book is similar: A lot of it is targeted at corporate Democrats, “identity politics,” and the media. Ball and Enjeti’s unified “populism” is what happens if you try to forget the nasty bits of the Right and just focus on a shared disdain for liberals. And it’s possible to say that the socialist and the fascist at the bar “have a lot in common,” since they agreed until they disagreed. Ball says this about me: She notes that I admitted I agreed with 80 percent of what Saagar says in the book. But this is only because a conscious effort is being made not to talk about immigration, climate change, racism, drugs (Enjeti wants the government to crack down on pot users), etc. This isn’t window-dressing, and these aren’t side issues. These are matters of life and death for millions of people. When it comes to climate change, it’s a matter of life and death for the whole planet.
I do not want to suggest that Ball and Enjeti are anything but sincere. I have admired much of Ball’s work, if none of Enjeti’s, and I think Rising has produced a lot of excellent material and filled gaps in the media. I do think it’s important to note, however, that the Hill is owned by a close personal friend of Donald Trump. And from what Ball says about the relative palatability of Enjeti’s politics versus those of the mainstream Democratic Party, leftists watching the show could very well get the impression that Donald Trump is more similar to them than Joe Biden. Nationalist racists like Carlson are presented as preferable to centrists, because they are part of the “populist” movement. I think it’s reasonable to believe that if the pro-Trump owner of The Hill thought Rising was significantly hurting Trump, it would be less likely to air.
I’ve made it clear over and over again in this magazine that I believe in greater engagement with the right’s ideas. When I say I want “nothing to do with” them, I do not mean that I am unwilling to rebut their arguments, or even to have Democrats partner with Republican senators on things I care about. But we cannot just talk about “the areas where we agree,” since those are negligible compared to the areas where we really, truly do not. There is no unified right-left populist politics. Nor should there ever be.