The Munk Debate has almost become a cultural institution in Canada. Built on the ideal of free speech and a vigilant attempt at bridging divides through reasoned arguments, it is a ray of light in an otherwise polarized world. Recently, the topic of discussion was the rise of populism, debated between two prominent intellectual figures on the right, Steve Bannon and David Frum.
Neither speaker needs much introduction. Bannon is the former executive chairman of Breitbart News, who served as Chief Strategist during the first year of the Trump administration. He is now traveling the world trying to seed, advise and cross-fertilize various populist movements. David Frum is considered a leading neoconservative intellectual; he was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush and recently wrote Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic.
As the title of his book suggests, Frum is an outspoken critic of President Donald Trump, and given his intellectual strength and verbal acuity, the debate was anticipated to be a clash of giants.
That didn’t happen. The debate ended up being surprisingly shallow, touching on almost no fundamental issues. Much of the responsibility for that rests on Frum, who chose to take a surprisingly low-resolution swipe at Bannon and populism. Frum claimed that populism had nothing to offer but anger and fear, defining it as a dictatorial threat to liberal democracy:
“This is not the first time democracy has faced thugs, and crooks, and bullies and would-be dictators and those who seek to build themselves up by tearing others down.”
His analysis of Trump supporters was equally shallow: “Many people are excited by the joy of destruction, wrecking things they could never build, smashing things they do not understand.” He then went on to liken this desire for change to the Kristallnacht in 1938 Germany, where Nazis smashed the windows and stores of Jewish merchants.
The strategy of “divide and conquer” is a hallmark of Marxism, not of populism.
Populism or Marxism?
Frum further claimed that populism always begins with sub-dividing people into groups of “us” versus “them.” At this point in the debate, it was becoming clear that Frum was fighting an invention of his mind, a straw man, because there is no evidence that populists define themselves in these terms. Populists generally define their ideology based on policies that are popular with the people but not with the ruling elites.
The strategy of “divide and conquer” is a hallmark of Marxism, not of populism. Karl Marx was the first major modern political thinker to explicitly divide the world into the oppressor class and the oppressed, pitting one against the other. Although Hitler was no fan of Marx, he was still a creature of the left and took a page out of the Marxist playbook; in many ways, he was a pioneer of cultural Marxism and identity politics.
In modern-day politics, the left uses “divide and conquer” constantly: non-whites against whites, women against men, transgendered against cis-gendered, gays against heterosexuals, minorities against the middle class.
Do the populists fit this divisive description? Not at all. Trump attacks the Swamp and wants to end over-regulation. The newly announced President-elect of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, attacks crime and wants to end corruption. Populists in Europe attack the political elite and the globalism and multiculturalism forced upon an unwilling public. They oppose this, not because they want to divide the world into “them” and “us,” but precisely because they want to prevent their countries from fracturing into many tribal factions as the result of open borders, crime and corruption.
Bannon did his best to debunk the straw man that Frum presented to the audience, but he did not get far because the debate never went far beyond comparisons to the Nazis.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe is an example of a country that has managed to benefit fully from globalist concepts while avoiding the pitfalls. It has managed to have far more immigration than the U.S. and yet none of America’s problems. It has done so by avoiding a need for populism altogether: That county is Singapore. Ever since its conception more than 50 years ago, Singapore’s political elite has been terrified of polarization and the anger of the population, and the city-state’s entire political project has been to compulsively focus on making its population content, with no reason to be unsatisfied.
Singapore’s staggering success stands in stark contrast to the arrogance of the Western ruling class epitomized by the moral outrage of David Frum. Avoiding the rise of populism is easy, no matter how you define that term. Singapore is living proof of that. If Frum and his ilk had been willing to take some personal responsibility for the rise of a wave of discontent with the liberal world order, they might have mustered the humility needed to learn from nations that have avoided the pitfalls of the modern West.