It is not so much the guns as the grins that make the photo such a document of its times. “Santa, please bring ammo”, tweets US Congressman Thomas Massie as his seven-strong household pose with rifles in front of a blameless Christmas tree. His pun-strewn replies to accusations of bad taste confirm that this is “just” playful lib-owning at work. What, his entire being seems to ask, is the worst that could happen?
Five years since the votes for Brexit and Donald Trump, it is still not understood how much populism boils down to antic rebellion rather than (the initial theory) economic grievance or (much more a leftwing thing) doctrinal belief. This is to some extent a movement of laughing cavaliers. Violence is not their wish, but nor do they recognise it as a plausible and unintended outcome of their doings.
And why, given the lack of warnings from recent history, should they? Temporally, we are now almost as far from the second world war as it was from the American Civil War. Few voters in the west have ever seen their domestic politics go catastrophically, life-endangeringly wrong (at least until the Capitol siege of almost a year ago.) Their appetite for political risk is therefore only natural. Consider it the civic version of the rash consumption and investment at the end of a business cycle, when the last crash is too remote to remember. “Stability is destabilising,” said the economist Hyman Minsky, who should have tried his hand at political commentary.
To define the west’s problem as one of casualness, not wilful malevolence, is not to minimise it. In fact, it is much the harder problem to fix. The implication is that nothing short of a violent crisis will restore to people a healthy fear of the political extremes. Social media can be tamed, electoral dark money banned and education improved to little effect. These are tactical answers to a problem that could not be any more structural: in today’s grating argot, a lack of “lived experience” of the consequences of populism.
It is a problem that by definition gets worse with time. When the second world war veteran Bob Dole died at 98 last weekend, the US did not just lose a dry wit and once-productive senator. It lost one of its few remaining messengers from the dire first half of the last century. Praise for him is really a lament for the generations who kept politics more or less steady from 1945 to just before the millennium.
Liberals have had half a decade to study populism in its modern form. They still miss its ludic element: its treatment of politics as a kind of low-stakes team sport. Even those who credit it tend to blame the innate frivolity of individuals, rather than a historic context in which no electoral choice has gone disastrously wrong in living memory. It cannot be a fluke that the most stable major democracy, Germany, is the one where the second world war, or rather its demagogic prelude, is simply never allowed to leave public discourse.
If and when US democracy falls, giggling complacency, not moustache-twirling villainy, will be the presiding atmosphere. Of course, there are real believers and zealots on the American right. Former Trump aide Steve Bannon is one, as is the writer Michael Anton. But there were plenty of those in the 1990s and (in Barry Goldwater, a presidential candidate) the 1960s too. What has changed is the share of the wider populace who think no harm can come of extensively indulging them.
In encounters with Trump voters and donors, a certain type recurs: unfailingly civil, vanilla in most of their tastes and often easier company than their leftwing equivalents. Some are just loyal conservatives. (Dole himself was not above a bit of tribalism.) Some, as is true of the most prominent Brexiters, relish an outsider cachet that was hitherto denied them by their own wealth and whiteness. Almost all are hurt to be thought of as enablers of civic damage to their country. In toying with the likes of Trump, their main failing is one of imagination, not of conscience. They can’t picture the worst-case scenario. Two or three generations separate them from any salutary historical lesson about what a fissile material politics is.
To regard anything in public life as “inevitable” is to succumb to teleology. Still, with the passing of Dole and much of his generation, it is hard to avoid the thought that societies grow rasher and more reckless as their memories of past crises fade. In other words, for the west, whose last existential mess is now a human lifetime ago, there is no avoiding the wages of success. It should expect its politics to wobble and lurch until such time as citizens taste the consequences again.