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‘We’re living in a populist era, not a populist moment’: Political analyst Henry Olsen on populism, Reagan, and whether or not Trump’s star has faded

Podcast & Video

This episode of Hub Dialogues features Sean Speer in conversation with Henry Olsen, a Washington Post columnist and senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, about the rise and durability of populism as a major political force around the world. Olsen is also the author of the must-read book, The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of BlueCollar Conservatism.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. A transcript of the episode is available below.

Transcripts of our podcast episodes are not fully edited for grammar or spelling.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Henry Olsen, who’s a Washington Post columnist, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, the author of the must-read book, The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of BlueCollar Conservatism, and a leading commentator and analyst of global politics. If there’s an election somewhere in the world, there’s a good chance that Henry has well-developed views about the issues and candidates.

I’m grateful to speak with him about his interesting career, as well as some of the big ideological and sociopolitical trends, including the rise of populism, that are shaping modern politics around the world. Henry, thank you for joining us at Hub Dialogues.

HENRY OLSEN: Thank you for having me, Sean.

SEAN SPEER: Let’s start with your personal biography. You graduated from the University of Chicago law school and then clerked at the United States Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. Yet, you subsequently walked away from the law to pursue a career as a think tank scholar and political commentator. Why? What drew you away from the law and into the world of ideas and politics?

HENRY OLSEN: I had been involved in the world of ideas and politics well before going to law school. I studied political theory at Claremont McKenna College as an undergraduate, and I had been involved with the American Republican Party since my days in middle school. I thought, well, maybe I should go try and make some money after doing this and went to law school. What I found was that I wanted to go back to what I had left, only approach it in a slightly different way.

That’s what led me into the think tank world and ultimately into the political commentary/opinion journalism world. I only spent three years practicing law and then I jumped ship and became the executive director at the Commonwealth Foundation, which is Pennsylvania’s conservative think tank.

SEAN SPEER: The rest, as they say, is history. As I mentioned, Henry, you have unparalleled knowledge and expertise about politics around the world. Let me ask a two-part question. First, how have you developed such broad yet deep awareness of global politics? Second, which countries’ politics do you think are underrated in terms of the level of ideas and debate?

HENRY OLSEN: Let’s take the first question first. I just love politics and campaigns. What I discovered is that once I was able to gain access to international information, that there’s a lot that you can learn about your own country by looking at other countries. Debates about things like nationalism and trade and the viability or the democratic legitimacy of international institutions are sometimes more important in one country before they surface into another country. Of course, those questions were often more debated in Britain before they became obviously debated in the United States with the rise of Trump.

I also started to look on the internet and found that I could satisfy my political nerd side by looking up election data and using Google Translate to find out what people were saying in their own language about politics. Essentially it’s a hobby. While other people are watching television or going to live concerts, I’m fiddling around on the internet, looking at the political demography of Belgium. Want to know where Vlaams Belang is doing well? I’m your man.

SEAN SPEER: I should encourage listeners if they’re interested in learning more about electoral dynamics around the world they should follow Henry’s Twitter account as well as his frequent Washington Post column which doesn’t just cover U.S. politics, but truly reflects his expertise in political trends all over the world.

Henry, one final biographical question before we get on to some of these big political trends. You once won $250,000 as a contestant on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. What was that experience like?

HENRY OLSEN: That’s $250,000 American, I should say, not Canadian. I’ve been a nerd and a trivia hound all my life. When I was living in Los Angeles after graduating from college—or university—I tried out for a lot of game shows in the early 1980s and found that I would often pass the knowledge quiz. They always test you to see whether you can have enough knowledge in their format to do credibly, but then I failed the contestant quiz because really how many boring white nerdy guys do you want on a game show? Millionaire was different. They did not have a contestant quiz. You just got on by passing the knowledge quiz, and it took me a year and a half to get on.

Then it was just surreal. It’s 36 hours in New York, they took me on stage, introduced me to the host—Regis Philbin at the time—ran me through some practices, and then brought me under the bright lights to see if I could perform. I have cool hands, hit my mark, and as you say, the rest is history. And darn those Three Stooges.

SEAN SPEER: Very cool. I’ve watched the episode before, and it’s funny watching you try to explain to Regis what a think tank is and what a think tank does.

Let’s move on, Henry, to the rise of populism. There’s a tendency to focus on the Trump election and the Brexit referendum when one thinks of present-day populism. Yet, as I mentioned earlier, your Washington Post column frequently highlights populist expressions elsewhere around the world, including Norway, Chile, Bulgaria, and so on. These political developments have often come at the expense of traditional conservative politicians or parties. Help me and our listeners understand what’s going on. Why have we seen the rise of political populism in so many countries in recent years? How much of the explanation is common and how much of it is contingent?

HENRY OLSEN: What I would say is different countries have different contingencies, but the trends are relatively similar in many countries because the populism of today is arising out of the failure of traditional political parties, leaders, and viewpoints to address the problems that have emerged since the turn of the century. There are really three types of populisms in the world, and you’ll see them in different countries to different degrees, depending on the country. There’s left-wing populism, there’s right-wing populism, and there’s centrist populism.

Left-wing populism is the sort that you might see in Bernie Sanders in the United States, or Sinn Féin in Ireland, or Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France, which is that they take an old-school critique of capitalism and apply it in non-traditional ways, often combined with nationalism. So it becomes—in a sense, you could view the Scottish Nationalist Party as a left-wing populist party. They are extremely important in many political parties around the world.

Then you have right-wing populism, or more accurately nationalist populism, that tends to come from a blue-collar background. People who have been economically and culturally moved aside in the last two decades and often will say things like “I want my country back”. Again, this is typified by the People’s Party of Canada, it’s typified in a softer way by Doug Ford or François Legault in Canada. It’s typified by Trump, typified by Brexit, and I could go on and on about people all around the world.

Then you have centrist populism. That’s the sort that was often part of one of these two, but sometimes it stands on its own like in the Czech Republic or Czechia with Andrej Babiš, and with the Five Star Movement in Italy, or in many of the countries in Bulgaria where it’s essentially not trying to critique an economic or cultural policy but simply says the elites are corrupt, it’s time to govern from common sense. As I said, you can hear those themes in both left-wing and right-wing populists, but it’s a distinct strain and sometimes it emerges in a distinct way to, in some ways, sometimes elect the leader of the country.

SEAN SPEER: You’ve written that if populism’s main strength is its ability to bring expression to unaddressed or underdressed problems, its main weakness is the lack of an affirmative policy agenda. As you wrote in January 2021, Henry, the populists often have a clear set of instincts, but little in the way of a detailed policy programme. What’s the main obstacle here? Is there something inherent to populism that limits its capacity to produce a clear, coherent governing agenda? Or are there institutional barriers that explain the lack of such an agenda?

HENRY OLSEN: I think there’s a little bit of both. The first is that the sort of political entrepreneur who can see the populist movement tends to be the person who can grasp a new situation and communicate in strongly emotional language, whether that’s the language of Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the United States, or Nigel Farage in Britain, or Matteo Salvini in Italy. These are people who are ahead of the trend and can communicate an idea to the masses. They tend not to be policy experts and because they’re coming from outside of an established political order, they don’t have a lot of policy experts hanging around them. They attract people who share those ideas or those instincts, and then people develop a policy agenda if those people or those parties start to gain traction.

There is an institutional barrier and that is that, again, populism necessarily is coming from the outside of an established political order. Which means it also tends to come from outside of the entities that credential people to run government, whether it’s the academy or whether it’s people who serve in government, either in legislative or executive roles. These people tend to have bought into an existing worldview.

Consequently, the people who are trying to shatter the worldview don’t have access to those people, and those people don’t necessarily then flock to the new leader and say, “Oh, let me help you.” Eventually, what happens over time as you develop that expertise the longer somebody and an institution or party shows traction, but particularly in the early stages, you have both a dispositional and an institutional hindrance to actually having a detailed, costed out, workable policy agenda.

SEAN SPEER: Let’s turn the conversation to your book, Working Class Republican, about Ronald Reagan, which I would strongly encourage listeners to read. The book challenges the conventional narrative that the Reagan presidency was marked by a strong fidelity to a libertarian economic orthodoxy. In fact, you effectively make the case that President Reagan was something of a populist himself. Let me ask you a two-part question. First, can you elaborate on the book’s thesis? Second, why do you think the mythology of Reagan has come to deviate so much from his actual record?

HENRY OLSEN: With respect to the thesis, I can summarize it pretty quickly, which was that to understand Ronald Reagan, you have to take him seriously when he says, as he did many times, that he didn’t leave the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left him. He was a person who was on the conventional left in his youth, in the 1930s, the 1940s, and into the 1950s. He was a member of the Democratic Party. He was the head of Hollywood for Truman-Barkley in the 1948 presidential campaign. He voted enthusiastically for Franklin Roosevelt in all four of his presidential efforts.

This is a guy who, conventionally, is understood to be in favour of more government. And then he becomes somebody on the right. And so, what Reagan was, was somebody who interpreted Franklin Roosevelt rather than directly opposed him. He was somebody who wanted to increase the degree of popular self-control. In his early speeches, he’s talking more about bureaucracy and how it is strangling popular control and freedom than he is talking in the abstract ways of libertarians about natural rights or about state control of the economy. He often endorses a lot of interventions in the economy but says they’ve gone too far, or they’re no longer what the people want, or things along that line. So, my thesis that to understand Reagan is to understand that he was about the internal self-government and the dignity of the individual more than anything else.

And so, how did he get misinterpreted? Well, first of all, he got misinterpreted because he’s a great politician. He built a coalition around his ideas. He was not an academic trying to explain his ideas. So, what would happen is, as with any good politician, different parts of the coalition came to him for different reasons. And the libertarian side of the coalition, the people who were at making abstract arguments against government, saw part of what they wanted in him and then they became people who interpreted him for others. 

So, there’s a lot of people who have never read Reagan, never listened to a Reagan speech, but they’ve heard of Reagan through the libertarian interpreters of him, and consequently when I say things to them like, “You know Ronald Reagan supported compromise rather than dying on principle?” Or “Did you know Ronald Reagan supported tax increases when it was necessary?” Or “Ronald Reagan believed that you shouldn’t discriminate against gays at a time in 1978 when he took that stand when it was quite popular to discriminate against gays?” Because they’ve never heard of him directly, they are surprised when I say this and that’s because the high priests of Reaganism, as I’ve said, took over the church of Reagan’s teaching and just pushed the actual teaching out of the temple.

SEAN SPEER: It’s worth noting that one of the reasons that Canada ultimately came to the table on a bilateral, and ultimately North American, free trade agreement was because of the Reagan administration’s use of tariffs that threatened Canadian access to the American market. It’s a concrete example, as you say, of the willingness of President Reagan and his administration to occasionally deviate from libertarian orthodoxy in the name of broader political or national goals.

If I can come back to a contemporary populist conservative agenda, how much of it, in your view, should be focused on economic issues including, for instance, middle-class stagnation versus cultural issues including the rise of so-called wokeism? Maybe, to put it differently, Henry, is it your view that a challenge to left-wing ideas about race, gender, and identity, is a political winner for conservatives in the United States and Canada currently?

HENRY OLSEN: Every country has its own different political balance and every politician has to be acutely and finely tuned to that balance. What works for Doug Ford in Ontario or François Legault in Quebec is different than what would work for a populist in France, which was different than what would work for a populist in the United States.

The first thing you have to do if you are looking at it is look at what is the centre of public opinion in the country rather than make a broad brush that this always works anywhere and everywhere. That’s being an ideologue. One thing Ronald Reagan taught me is to eschew ideology in favour of principles. What is generally good everywhere is embracing a theory of the nation and making that into a positive statement. That is, a nation as something that embraces both rights and responsibilities of all of its citizens. It’s one that’s unafraid to talk about facts, scientific and moral, and human nature, physical nature, things that can’t be changed by the person or the party in power.

I think with respect to the general question of wokeness, a generally acceptable conservative populist theme is that we can be tolerant of and approving of people who are in a minority of people who are, say, biologically in between male and female, or in other ways, but that you can’t simply deny the facts of human biology or the facts of human interaction.

The idea is to unite people rather than to divide people. Some people on the left, I don’t know if this is the case in Canada but certainly the case in the United States and the United Kingdom, they just say “I don’t know what a woman is.” You don’t have to be condescending or mean but most people on the street know what a woman is. Even if they want to treat somebody who is transgendered as if they were, but they can define what’s in front of them.

That’s a sort of manner of speech and the manner of expression about those issues that I think will work for a populist. Broadly speaking, these cultural issues properly addressed are winners. Particularly if you put it in the context of a nation that works for all of its citizens socially, economically, and culturally. It applies in things like advancing opportunity for everybody, not just gender or race minorities but for people who have been left behind in any way, intentionally or unintentionally.

That’s something that Prime Minister Harper, in his recent book Right Here, Right Now, talked about that when he signed trade deals, he didn’t just take an ideological view like Americans tended to and just throw the doors open and take a devil may care attitude, but he tried to make sure that certain sectors that were important to Canada’s economy or to certain segments of the Canadian community weren’t devastated by the trade deals. That he was looking at it not just from an economic efficiency standpoint but from a social stability standpoint. That’s an example in the economic sphere of what a conservative populism ought to be trying to do

SEAN SPEER: In your answer, Henry, you used the word balance a few times. Let me ask you, are there any contemporary politicians around the world who in your view are achieving that kind of balance, and who should aspiring populists be studying?

HENRY OLSEN: Yes, I think that in Canada, both Doug Ford and François Legault have done a very good job of balancing conservative economics and populist economics, as well as conservative cultural concerns with the concerns of tolerance and inclusion. Again, they’re different politics but they’re addressing different polities, different sets of voters. I think overseas, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, who is the governor of Madrid, she is somebody who is now the leading Spanish conservative politician because she talks about conservative culture, but also inclusion.

This is a woman who talks about the conservative nature of Spain and talks about Western civilization, who is an unmarried, non-believing madrileño who has a Depeche Mode tattoo on her wrist because she’s rather modern. It’s that sort of thing where you balance off the old and the new, the social with the individual in a way that still provides for human freedom and social stability. I think she’s going to be prime minister of Spain, maybe sooner than later, but she’s certainly somebody in the here and the now who can be looked to along with the Canadian examples.

SEAN SPEER: A fascinating example, precisely because it shines a light on the difference between social conservatism and cultural conservatism. Do you want to maybe just elaborate a bit on what those differences are, and what the different political fecundity may be of a cultural conservatism, particularly as it relates to some of the points you made earlier about the power of nationalism as a unifying idea for a contemporary populist?

HENRY OLSEN: Social conservatism in the Anglo-American world, or the U.S.-Canadian world, can tend to have a religious context. You can also see this in places in Europe that still have strong religious cultures like Poland or Italy, where a social conservative will talk in religious language and in a way that supports a particular theology. Cultural conservatism transcends that. It includes it, but it transcends that.

It is something that can speak to people regardless of background about their shared experiences, and their shared human nature. That a parent has concerns about their children, and about their dignity, and about their role, independent of whether they derive it from a particular sacred text or from some other cultural experience. A cultural conservatism is one that includes what is typically considered to be social conservatism, but it transcends it by driving it away from particularistic roots and language into a more stable and more broad-based font and approach.

SEAN SPEER: Let me ask you a penultimate question, Henry. Are we living in a populist moment, or a populist era?

HENRY OLSEN: We’re living in a populist era, not a populist moment. We are now, depending on how one characterizes it, well over a decade into populism as a political feature. The denizens of those who chatter continually say populism is a spent force and it is over, and yet you continually see populists doing well in elections, and populist themes left, right, and centre re-emerging.

I think when our children, 40-50 years from now are in their careers or in university and writing the histories of the era, they will say that what we’re living through now is an era that is defined by populism. It’ll be defined by which type of populism came to power and how well they succeeded once they came to power. The question is—they will come to power, they are already coming to power, and more will come to power in the next few years, left, centre, and right. That’s because the pre-populist experts and elites simply have no answers to the problems. They apply old answers to new problems. They get old solutions and then ask you to double down on the obviously unsuccessful solution, and people are getting tired of it.

If we look back in 40 years and we are still free politically, if we are still tolerant socially, if we’re still wealthy economically, then we will say that populism will have met its challenge. It will be looked at as we today look back on what can be called the labour/social-democratic era that upset the 19th-century dualisms of politics to create a new order to address the new challenges that industrialization and urbanization brought.

If we’re looking back and saying, gosh, how is it that the West became subject to autocratic forces? How is it that all the wealth passed from us to other nations? How did we go wrong? In other words, if we’re more like the early fifth century Roman empire than an ascendant reinterpretation or reawakening of Western civilization, well, then we’ll look back and say that populism had failed.

I just don’t see any way that we’re going to get through to 2040 and not have seen populism tried in many leading countries. It’s already being tried in the United States and in Britain. It’ll eventually come to Germany, France, and others. We will find out whether it succeeds. I think a prudent populism of the centre-right will renew Western civilization, but the proof is in the pudding.

SEAN SPEER: I said that was the penultimate question, but if I may just sneak one in before we come to a final question, a prediction about the future of American politics. One of the things that is so admirable about you, Henry, as an analyst and a commentator, is that from early on, you’ve taken the rise of populism seriously as a political force. On the other hand, you’ve been pretty clear-eyed about its weaknesses and able to analyze it dispassionately. That has precluded you from being swept up and forced to make false yet powerful binary choices about your own political affiliations and commitments.

What do you think has enabled you to do that? What in your approach to analyzing politics has served you so well in this period of turmoil and polarization?

HENRY OLSEN: I have a habit of mind of moderation. I don’t like to get swept up in enthusiasm. I think in terms of probabilities rather than certainties. Oftentimes you’ll find people on one side or the other take a probability and exalt it into a certainty, and I just don’t let myself do that. I also think it comes from the fact that there’s nobody that exactly represents me. It’s hard to get trapped up in enthusiasm when there’s nobody who is singing exactly from your playbook. One of my favorite quotes is from Treebeard in The Lord of the Rings when he is asked by Merry or Pippin in the Fangorn Forest, “Whose side are you on in the war?” Treebeard says, “I’m not on anybody’s side because nobody’s exactly on my side.”

SEAN SPEER: You said that you’d prefer probabilities rather than certainties, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you, as a final question, do you think Trump will be the GOP nominee in 2024?

HENRY OLSEN: Well, I’ll quote another line from Lord of the Rings, when Sam meets Gildor in the forest. He asks Gildor for advice and Gildor gives him nuanced advice and Sam says, “Well, that’s why they say what they say. Go not to the elves for advice for they will tell you both yes and no.”

Here’s the thing, I don’t know whether Trump will be the nominee. What I can say is that Trump is a political balloon that is slowly descending. He’s not descending so quickly that it would be unthinkable that he could win the nomination, but he’s also not descending in a manner so that we would be sure. He’s not descending so slowly that we can say, oh, he’s definitely going to keep his altitude and be the nominee.

I would say right now it’s a toss-up. I would slightly lean against him being the nominee, but I’m also not a Trump fan. I have to be upfront about that. What I will say is that Trump is somebody who I think is hurting his own cause with his fixation on the past. That Trump now says little except “They stole the election from me and I want it back.” And that’s not an attractive message.

And then you look forward and say, well, what can he, if Trump gets out of his narcissistic bubble and he decides to actually do what he did in 2015, which is offer a new message, what would he say that other Republicans aren’t? He’s a follower on policy now. He was a leader in 2015. He’s a follower now. So, it’s entirely plausible that somebody, Ron DeSantis, Governor of Florida, others that I know like senators Marco Rubio or Tom Cotton or Josh Hawley, could basically very credibly say, “I represent everything that you want. I want to be a fighter against the woke culture. I believe in inclusion, and I believe in a strong nation. I am in favour of free markets, but I’m not a free-market fundamentalist. But I’m not Donald Trump.” 

And I think that the centre of the Republican Party is increasingly wanting that. They may still like Trump. They do like Trump. But they are increasingly wanting to consign him to the past rather than to the future. And so, I think that we’ll see over the next year whether that’s going to become more obvious, or whether Trump is going to become the leading dominant figure against whom no one can stand. Right now it’s too early to say, but I think those are the trends that are vying with one another. And I would like to believe that a populist conservatism can rest on a firmer ground, but it remains to be seen.

SEAN SPEER: Henry, we’ll have to have you back on in the coming months and years to update our listeners, not only on this race but some of these deeper trends of populism here in North America and around the world. This conversation has been the tour de force that I had anticipated.

Henry Olsen, Washington Post columnist, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and author of The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism. Thank you so much for joining us today at Hub Dialogues.

HENRY OLSEN: Thanks for having me on, Sean.