A wave of populism has been washing over the world in recent years. From the Tea Party and Occupy to Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders to Brexit and Marine Le Pen in Europe, the common people are angry and want their voices to be heard. And that’s understandable. From time immemorial, the rich and powerful have trod upon, stolen their wealth from, and generally disregarded and abused the poor and their needs. Democratic movements worldwide have attempted to ameliorate this and slowly brought progress over time, mostly through improving the needs of the bourgeois, (just one giant step down from the ruling classes), whose benefits coincidentally trickle down to the less fortunate around them. This has been true from Magna Carta, which carved away rights from the king for the English nobility and established a modicum of equality under the law for the first time, to modern movements such as reproductive rights, championed by middle class women but aiding their poor sisters as well.
Le Pen’s success last weekend in reaching the presidential election run off, coupled with Trump’s victory and Brexit, is troubling to many, particularly Europeans whose nations still feel the scars of the ravages of populist leaders Franco, Mussolini, and Hitler. Le Pen is unlikely to accede to the presidency of France, a country whose philosophers greatly influenced our own country’s founders. However, her party, the National Front, has come closer than ever before, and she certainly succeeded in her goal to “un-demonize” it so that it has become much more acceptable to openly support a group once synonymous with anti-semitism and racism. One has only to look at the rise in hate crimes here post-Trump to see that the potential for the normalizing of violence from any of these populist movements is cause for concern.
Different Types of Populism
Violence is not populism’s fault per se. Populism is essentially the idea that the common people’s needs should supersede the needs of the ruling elite and upper classes. There is, however, a crucial difference between populism on the right side of the political spectrum and that on the left. While all populism professes to value common people over elites, rightist populism always has the specter of a third, also-marginalized group who is blamed for the people’s problems along with the elites. In both Europe and America, that third party group is immigrants.
Europeans can perhaps make more of a case for their anti-immigrant biases, living as they do in cramped, historically homogenous cities and intimate towns which various people-groups variously raided, conquered and pillaged back and forth over the centuries. But in America, many of our deepest national myths about ourselves are based on immigration, from the Pilgrims to Ellis Island to the heroic pioneers of the west. How is it that our identity as a nation of immigrants, once a source of pride, has been turned upside down into a threat? Because the modern viciousness towards immigrants is really nothing more than a dog whistle for racism, the same way “welfare queens” was code for African-Americans back in the 80s. Every right- wing populist movement has to triangulate against a scapegoat. Which makes a great deal of sense because you can’t use hatred against the wealthy as your only whipping boy when you yourself, (spectacularly in the case of our current president and cabinet), are the wealthy.
Was Jesus a Populist?
How are we, as Christians to evaluate these movements? Was Jesus a populist? In many ways, yes. He championed the poor and weak against the powerful, and like most populist leaders was popular himself, amassing huge crowds. However, he never made the move of triangulating one marginalized group against another.*
Jesus lost his popularity and the crowd of followers turned into a mob only after they saw their hoped-for Messiah humiliated, emasculated. There was no point in asking for his freedom when offered by Pilate; he would have returned a broken man. Indeed, from the observers’ perspective, he couldn’t even find the words to defend himself and his beliefs, so terrified was he of Pilate’s court. Facing death, he did not bother to speak up for the common people who thought they’d found their voice in him, and so they rejected him. But this was never the goal of the Lamb of God, to be a fiery orator to rile the crowds and convince them how right they were to feel aggrieved. To teach them, yes, to empower them and encourage them to think for themselves, yes. But not to inspire anger, hatred and division.
This missing piece is how Trump was so successful. He convinced the poor and forgotten that he was on their side simply by claiming he was. He convinced millions of Americans that he, a billionaire, living in a tower, actually cared about their modest lives in trailer parks and suburbs throughout America. And he did it in large part through the use of triangulation, particularly against immigrants.
Redemption for All, Not Just Your Own Group
Many of the reasons Trump voters cited for their support of him, Jesus would have been on board with, such as improving the economic lot of the working poor and improving access to health care. But he would never have been on board with scapegoating immigrants. Jesus is the redeemer for all, regardless on which side of artificial, nationalist borders they live.
The common people need a voice, yes, but not at the expense of other common people. If the movement you follow demonizes one or more groups who are themselves struggling, then that’s your sign that it is corrupt. It’s something that no Christian should support and no thinking person as well. And if you, like an English nobleman of old and many Trump and Le Pen followers today, are only interested in a movement because of what you can get out of it rather than how it will help those less fortunate than yourself, then you are not following one of Jesus’ basic teachings: to love your neighbor as yourself. If only that idea were more popular.
*Some would interpret his encounter with the Canaanite woman this way, but I have a different take on it–a topic for another day…