The Left Is Demonizing Populists—For Pushing What the Left Once Believed | Opinion

Earlier this year, British comedian-turned podcaster Russell Brand interviewed Thomas Frank, the long-standing liberal defender of American populism. For a man who has spent several decades imploring liberals to listen to what working-class and rural America are saying, in this instance, he failed to heed his own advice. When asked by Brand about the contemporary American populist movement, as represented by Steve Bannon, Frank replied,

"In my opinion, there is no such thing as right-wing populism, there are people who mimic it, and Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, would be people I would list. But populism is the Jeffersonian tradition in American life. It is a democratic, left-wing movement. It's about building a mass movement, a transracial mass movement of working class people for economic democracy. That's what it is, that's what it's always been."

With that one statement, Frank brushed off the closest thing our current moment has to a democratic, transracial, mass movement of working-class people. He dismissed the only the only serious counterweight to woke corporate hegemony. He denigrated contemporary working-class movements that are far closer to the Wobblies of the early 20th century labor battles than they are to the Black- or Brownshirts of the dark days of European fascism.

Sadly, Frank is not an aberration but an exemplar par excellence of a type of thinking that's taken hold of the Left, namely, conflating being Left-wing with moral goodness, to the extent that anything not Left-wing is a moral evil. Thanks to this line of thinking, the Left has taken to seeing the actual populist movements rising up across the globe as a threat—though these Right-wing populist movements embody a broad coalition of non-elites advocating for themselves against powerful governments and corporations—in other words, the very thing that the Left is supposed to itself embody.

Confronted with Right-inspired populist movements like parents showing up at school board meetings in Virginia, truckers protesting in Canada, and Brexit voters in the north of England—people of all races who simply do not want their basic, fundamental values transgressed—the Left sees only white supremacists, fascists, and racists. Even the word "populism" is more often than not preceded adjectives like "far right" and "extremist" in mainstream liberal media.

The result is a truly tragic missed opportunity for solidarity between Left and Right. But it's also proof of how far the Left has fallen from its mission.

After all, what is a populist if not someone who stands for fairness for the little guy: a level economic playing field, financial reform, a scaling back of excessive government power, and a rejection of absolutist ideologies. These were once Left-wing values; now, the Left systematically portrays the grassroots populist movements springing up across the world to address these issues as white supremacist, far right actors.

This broad brush character assassination has reached the highest levels of power, as evidenced by President Joe Biden's speech last week denouncing MAGA Republicans in Philadelphia. The most chilling thing the President said was not the accusation of fascism against his political opposition, but rather, his revealing statement that he can only work with "mainstream Republicans." Biden wants you to think that he is cutting out the "semi-fascist" MAGA wing, as he called them a few weeks ago, but what he's actually doing is cutting out the populist wing. Biden was essentially saying to any American looking for real reform: You are my enemy.

Steve Bannon
Donald Trump's former advisor Steve Bannon (C) is led away from a New York court in handcuffs on September 8, 2022. ALEX KENT/AFP via Getty Images

That should have alarmed the liberal Left as much as it did the Right. Yet the Left mostly embraced the speech. Like Thomas Frank, if you're not Left, you can't possibly be on the side of the good. Ergo, the thinking goes, you're on the side of fascists.

They let themselves get away with this because they don't know how to listen. Former Bernie Sanders spokesperson Briahna Joy Gray acknowledged this a few weeks ago, as she patiently tried to explain in an interview with progressive journalist Cenk Uygur at The Young Turks that it might be wise for the Left to recognize a difference between a sworn political adversary—she mentioned Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Green—and the ordinary men and women who support Green, in case the Left might be able to win them over. In response, Uygur spent most of the interview berating Gray, calling her and others like her who are willing to speak to people on the other side "fake Leftists."

Self-described progressive Uygur and his Young Turks show are the Left-wing equivalent of the populist Bannon's War Room, a popular podcast that reaches millions. But Uygur is far less smart and less effective, in part because unlike Bannon, he has no cross over appeal. He can barely have a civil discussion with his own side. Meanwhile, Bannon welcomes onto his show with open arms prominent left-wing figures like Naomi Wolf.

For the many who feel besieged by insane political rhetoric and personal attacks, any genuine cross-party discussion feels like sanity. But now Bannon is facing a host of charges over a border-wall fundraising scam that Trump pardoned him for—something he has cast as an attempt to silence him.

Whatever the legal technicalities of this case turn out to be, for it to come from the same political culture that overlooked the evidence of Hunter Biden's corruption means that Bannon's prosecution will simply provide further proof to his fellow populists that the state is intent on making an enemy out of them.

It's a pretty amazing thing to see those who dare point out the uni-party, who hold both Democrats and Republicans responsible for policies that benefit the only the rich and corporations, be attacked not by the Right but by the Left.

This tactic prevents a serious, effective, non-partisan, people-led opposition. And who benefits from that?

Jenny Holland is a former newspaper reporter and speechwriter. Visit her Substack here.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.