As we veer into a brave new age of right-wing populism, a restive mood of contempt for the masses has seized the opposition. Demoralized liberals, still reeling from the debacle of the 2016 presidential ballot, are salving their wounds with reveries of metaphysical superiority.
There are many curious things about this rhetorical shift. For starters, populism cuts across traditional ideological divides. Paralleling Donald Trump’s nationalist anti-immigration takeover of the GOP and the presidency was the left-populist crusade of Bernie Sanders, rallying workers to traditional (capital-P) Populist remedies of public ownership of higher education and health care access, among other things, and a reversal of the present inequalities of federal taxation. Meanwhile, the anti-globalist Brexit vote, captained by the nationalist rightist UK Independence Party, came in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s overthrow of the New Labour neoliberal orthodoxies festering at the heart of British left politics since the age of Tony Blair.
You’d think the disenchanted forces of Anglophone liberalism would now embrace viable left populisms of the economic variety as an antidote to the confrontational, xenophobic cultural populism of the right. But you would, of course, be wrong.
In but one representative sample of the growing allergy to ordinary people within contemporary liberalism, HBO pundit Bill Maher airily informed Trump campaign spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway during a pre-election interview that her candidate was gaining popular support “because people are stupid.” The tone was strikingly similar in outlets of respectable liberal opinion. In response to the rise of the populist right in Britain and the United States, Foreign Policy magazine ran a title-says-it-all essay under the headline “It’s Time for the Elites to Rise Up Against the Ignorant Masses.” One History News Network contributor weighed in during the early phase of the GOP primaries with the anguished cry, “Just How Stupid Are We?”
Such outbursts at least have the minimal virtue of honesty. But what’s still more curious about this reflexive rhetoric of misanthropic panic is that, prior to the Trump and Brexit uprisings, the right was just as apt to harbor vicious misanthropic sentiments as the left is now.
The Pre-Populist Right
Before the noticeable turn among Trump supporters toward populist ordinary-guy rhetoric—at times they started to sound like rousing orators of the kind of trade unions they’ve spent decades trying to smash—their sloganeering was often openly elitist. Prior to landing a six-figure book contract as a Trump evangelist and professional right-wing gay guy, Milo Yiannopoulos relished posing for photos while modeling a T-shirt that read “STOP BEING POOR.” And tireless right-wing provocateur Ann Coulter—an erstwhile outsider who likewise now finds herself awkwardly aligned with the new mainstream of conservative opinion—has long drawn upon the pernicious elite tradition of privileged contempt for the mob. In particular, she updates a variety of moral panic that has characterized her class since the emergence of modernity: fear of the overcrowding, overbreeding, emotionally volatile, easily cowed mass of humanity.
The longer you look at all the forces of reaction marshaled behind the billionaire president, the more opportunistic his populist turn seems.
In her 2011 book Demonic, which explained how “the liberal mob is endangering America,” Coulter praised the work of Gustave Le Bon, the first Frenchman to set about measuring the craniums of Nepalese peasants in an effort to lend pseudoscientific credence to elite European imperialist and economic projects. Le Bon’s influential 1895 book The Crowd drew admiring praise from Hitler and has been a reliable touchstone for misanthropes and eugenicists since. In fact, the whole anti-immigration discourse, marked recently by Trump’s “build the wall” rallying cry, is steeped in the legacy of Le Bon and those who have always feared the teeming masses and the great unwashed, whether foreign or homegrown. Their alarmist outcries were typically first deployed upon the toiling white masses within Western societies, and then would find a new subject in new foreign ethnic minorities.
In both settings, the rhetoric is remarkably consistent: There are too many of them. They breed too much. They’ll swamp our limited resources. There isn’t enough room. They’ll destroy and vulgarize our culture. But what’s striking in our own new political order is how ideologically fungible such sentiments are becoming before our eyes. Put another way: if Hillary had won—or Brexit had been resoundingly voted down—we would be hearing more populism from the liberals and more misanthropy from the right.
More confusing still, in the web-native invective of the overtly white-separatist subculture of the new online right—the self-styled “alt-right”—anyone who does not carry into adulthood the strangely adolescent impulse to distinguish herself from the hated mainstream of society is derisively called a Normie or a Basic Bitch, as though white separatism were an obscure punk genre. A common thread of masses-deriding misanthropy runs through the writing and rhetoric of the online white-nationalist right. Indeed, the longer you look at all the forces of reaction marshaled behind the billionaire president, the more opportunistic his populist turn seems.
The People, No
The targets of this panic have shifted over time. In Western Europe at the end of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, the intelligentsia reserved its greatest horror for the very mass media that nowadays empowers and elevates the apostles of today’s mass-baiting commentators. In the 1930s F. R. Leavis led a campaign in writing against “films, newspapers, publicity in all forms” and warned that mass literacy and new technologies meant that “culture is at a crisis” unprecedented in history. Baudelaire condemned photography as a “sacrilege,” which allowed “the vile multitude” to “contemplate its own trivial image.” One can imagine his horror at today’s selfie culture.
But what exercised this founding cohort of misanthropic intellectuals was less the proliferation of mass literacy than the people absorbing suspect new forms of cultural content. The education reforms at the end of the nineteenth century introduced universal elementary education. As literary critic John Carey has argued, it was the formation of this new reading public that created the demand for the popular newspaper, which became a handy synecdoche for “the masses” among the opinion-forming classes. T. S. Eliot called newspaper readers “a complacent, prejudiced and unthinking mass.” D. H. Lawrence argued for going to the root of the matter: “let all schools be closed at once,” he proposed, since “the great mass of humanity should never learn to read and write.” Aldous Huxley wrote, “universal education has created an immense class of what I may call the New Stupid”—a distinctly unwitty title with a very Bill Maher ring to it.
Most important, according to Carey, was fear of a growing population. From 1800 to 1914, Europe’s population rose from 180 million to 460 million. This, together with the specter of cultural degradation that went along with it, sent the intelligentsia into a panic about mass culture. At its zenith, this fear merged with proto-fascist politics, eugenics schemes, and genocidal fantasies. H. G. Wells called the age’s new influx of human beings “the extravagant swarm of new births” and “the essential disaster of the nineteenth century.” A whole panic genre of books about the masses emerged in response. The Revolt of the Masses by Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, published in 1930, fused the two main strains of elite panic into a single argument, in which every worthy tradition of Western high culture was held to be on the verge of complete annihilation at the hands of an animalistic mass public.
It’s more than a little shocking to discover that so many revered literary giants from this time thought the vast majority of people were essentially subhuman. No one is especially surprised to hear that Nietzsche warned that “a declaration of war on the masses by higher men is needed” to bring “the superfluous” under heel. But figures like W. B. Yeats also thought the ideas Nietzsche articulated were “a counteractive to the spread of democratic vulgarity.” A member of the Eugenics Society, he wrote, “Sooner or later we must limit the families of the unintelligent classes. Since about 1900 the better stocks have not been replacing their numbers while the stupider and less healthy have been more than replacing theirs.” Flaubert wrote, “I believe that the crowd, the mass, the herd, will always be detestable.” Ezra Pound, later a notorious enthusiast of fascism, regarded humanity as a “mass of dolts” and Virginia Woolf bemoaned “that anonymous monster the Man in the Street.” Mass society was, in her scandalized judgment, “a vast, featureless, almost shapeless jelly of human stuff . . . occasionally wobbling this way or that as some instinct of hate, revenge, or admiration bubbles up beneath it.”
The Mass Art of Mass Hatred
Today, of course, our middlebrow cultural consensus would consider such self-regarding tirades as the height of elitism, or indeed as fascist complaints about “cultural decadence.” Strangely enough, though, many of these same exterminationist fantasies have now been absorbed into contemporary mass culture itself. The very mass media they saw fomenting the tyranny of the mob was soon conveying the hatred of the masses to the masses.
In many ways, this outlook took fullest hold a century after Gustave Le Bon’s opus on the subject. The 1990s, when Maher came into his TV celebrity, marked the tipping point; contempt for the human race acquired a certain jaded cool, and made a countercultural pose into a mainstream one. Kurt Cobain, now revered for his sensitivity and progressive cultural politics said, “Humans are stupid. I’m ashamed to be human.” Comedian Bill Hicks, who likewise rocketed to national fame in the nineties, delivered stand-up punchlines like, “We’re a virus with shoes.” He riffed at length on the “miracle of childbirth” and punctuated his misanthropic class-hatred shtick with sound effects:
It’s not a miracle if every nine months any yin yang in the world can drop a litter of these mewling cabbages on our planet. And just in case you haven’t seen the single mom statistics lately, the miracle is spreading like wildfire. Hallelujah! Trailer parks all over the world just filling up with little miracles. Thunk! Look at all my little miracles. Thunk! Filling up my trailer like a sardine can. Thunk! You know what would be a real miracle? If I could remember your daddy’s name, godammit. Thunk! I guess I’ll have to call you Trucker Junior. Thunk! There’s your brother, Pizza Delivery Boy Junior. There’s your brother Exterminator Junior. There’s your brother, Will Work For Food Junior.
Again, precisely this style of rhetoric can be found in the new online far-right’s squalid forums, which are filled with deep-seated hatred for the breeding female body, whether black, Hispanic, or white trash.
Tool, the thinking man’s U.S. heavy metal band and ardent fans of Hicks, released their most famous song in 1996, the title track of the album Ænima, in which they compared the human content of their own city to the contents of a toilet that deserved to be washed away in a secular, scatological reimagining of a biblical flood: “Here in this hopeless fucking hole we call L.A.,” Tool frontman Maynard James Keenan yelled, “the only way to fix it is to flush it all away.” A whole host of grunge and metal artists joined the chorus, a guignol of humanity-hating that probably culminated with Slipknot’s 2001 track “People=Shit.” (Again, points for concision.)
What do the jaded Hillary loyalists who call the public stupid have to offer?
Such faux-rebellious posturing weirdly echoes the sentiments of D. H. Lawrence when he wrote that “it would be nice if the Lord sent another Flood and drowned the world” to answer the prayers of those who “detest the spawning human-being.” Not long before a real political movement brought such fantasies to horrifying realization in Nazi Germany, Lawrence even wrote, “three cheers for the inventors of poison gas.”
This ’90s misanthropic style also found telling echoes on the other side of the culture-war divide—namely, in the unlicensed disgust of apocalyptic hate preachers like the late pastor Fred Phelps, who professed to welcome the deserved end that God had arranged for the shallow, teeming, earthly, and disgustingly corporeal American masses. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell disastrously flirted with their own brand of Phelpsian eschatological fantasy shortly after the September 11 terror attacks, when Falwell mused on a 700 Club broadcast that God had assented to the sacrifice of the thousands killed on that day as atonement for America’s toleration of the sins of homosexuality and abortion.
The Sin of Breeding
It was also a Christian parson, Thomas Malthus, who wrote the darkly influential Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798, lending moral and philosophical legitimacy to the fear of uncontrolled breeding. Murray Bookchin described Malthus’s essay as an “ideological diatribe against the humanistic tradition of the enlightenment” and a “pessimistic attack upon the egalitarian ideals” of his opponents. Malthus provided a cover of scientific respectability, argued Bookchin, for cruel treatment in the English poorhouses and orphanages during the Industrial Revolution. And Malthusianism would go on, over its long, ugly career, to furnish all-purpose alibis for the rise of social Darwinism, eugenics, and the genocidal policies of Imperial Europe—and ultimately for the Holocaust, where the “lifeboat ethic” advanced by Malthus meant that much of humanity had to be pushed overboard to save “the fit.”
Malthusian ideas likewise found a resurgent appeal during the ’90s in left-leaning circles. These ideas had sprung up earlier via the ecological wing of the post-war counterculture. The Population Bomb—a Malthusian tract written by biologist Paul Ehrlich in 1968—sold 2 million copies and made the cause of overpopulation a fashionable environmental one. Ehrlich, for his part, promoted a cold-hearted Malthusian policy agenda seeking to promote “the development of mass sterilization agents.” Ehrlich wrote that his “feel for overpopulation” came from “one stinking hot night” in Delhi: “people thrusting their hands through the taxi window, begging. People defecating and urinating. People clinging to buses. People herding animals. People, people, people, people.” He hurried back to his hotel because he was “frightened” of “the mob.”
One of the sharpest advocates and internal critics of the modern left, Bookchin saw in the ’90s “a deep-seated cultural malaise that reflects a waning belief in our species’ creative abilities.” He called out self-styled progressives, meanwhile, for endorsing a quasi-eugenicist brand of “spiritual hygiene” to curb the ravenous resource consumption of the masses.
Cultural conservatives have at their best argued for decorum, good manners, the rule of law, and the preservation of great institutions and traditions. This project was implicitly built on a belief in the dignity and improvability of people. Even the elite misanthropic fears of the modern intelligentsia sought to preserve high culture against the corrosive forces of massification, which meant at a minimum that they expressed a devotion to human artistic creation at its highest.
Today, what do the jaded Hillary loyalists who call the public stupid have to offer? What does the misanthropic nihilism of Pepe-meme-making rightist trolls who disdain “Normies” offer, other than its own form of cultural degeneracy and a fatalistic vision of a canceled future dictated by biological determinism?
Instead of drawing upon the great humanistic popular mobilizations of the past like the civil rights and labor movements, some of Trump’s noisiest critics have drawn upon the tradition of elite misanthropic fear and contempt. The real challenge we now face is not so much an unleashed mass populism but the confused debate over what populism represents—and what aspirations the masses are allowed to harbor.