Lou Dobbs’s perverse populism

By Steve Michalkow

Conservatism in America ultimately exists in two forms. Most obvious is the clearly defined outline of the stereotypical Republican—pro-business, big on defense spending, with a dash of socially conservative values and utter humorlessness. Though the past eight years of American governmental activity would force any freethinking citizen who isn’t firmly suckling at the teat of the GOP to seriously reconsider allowing this mentality to retain unfettered power in the American political system, there exists a potentially more dangerous alternative already waiting in the rafters. It is, in fact, the second form of American conservatism: populism. While it amorphously bears no allegiance to any existing political party, anyone with a moderately sensitive nose can detect this special brand of conservatism due to its rank mixture of self-righteousness and self-pity. It is indeed the most unhealthy and undesirable of all political attitudes in this country.

The current attitudes expressed by Lou Dobbs are perhaps the clearest examples of this populist mentality in the media. Anchor and managing editor of Lou Dobbs Tonight, Dobbs is CNN’s resident curmudgeon-—an Andy Rooney type, but one who lacks any semblance of lightheartedness. But how could Lou even pretend to crack a smile when the weight of the world is so obviously bearing down on the shoulders of every decent, hard-working middle-class American family? As his nightly news program will tell you, multi-national corporations, the American government, East and West Coast elites, and illegal immigrants are all engaging in a massive conspiracy to destroy the middle class and eradicate the American Dream (and I bet you thought The X Files had the most convoluted conspiracy theories conceivable). Previously well paid jobs are being sent overseas, illegal immigrants are taking jobs away from decent Americans and forcing slave wages upon them, and neither the Republican Party, the Democratic Party, nor the liberally biased news media gives enough of a darn about the American middle class to care for its interests. (Apparently only the middle class of this country is allowed to call itself American.) Indeed, Lou Dobbs’s political outlook is best illustrated by his latest book, subtly titled War on the Middle Class-—a title which to me conjures up the image of those on Dobbs’s list of enemies dressed in military fatigues and bayoneting a Norman Rockwell painting.

Though each individual part of Lou Dobbs’s argument, taken on its own, may legitimately be cause for great concern, it is the conclusions reached by those arguments and the overall attitudes that fuel them that reveal the disturbing nature of this populism. One doesn’t have to delve too deeply into the rhetoric to see how readily populism seeks to reduce all those who are not part of the American middle class to the status of enemy—anyone else must have the express goal of destroying a certain American way of life. Such a mentality is composed of the crudest political demagoguery, and the dehumanizing effect of these attitudes on those who do not conform to the populist understanding of “the American Dream” contains the seeds of the worst form of cultural authoritarianism.

Populism is an inherently xenophobic belief system. It is no accident that illegal immigration and a distrust of foreigners in general are the centerpieces of Mr. Dobb’s populist jeremiad. No matter how often or how loudly Lou Dobbs dismisses the charges of xenophobia or bigotry laid against him as mere misunderstandings of his position, my distrust is not allayed. The fact remains that the logic of his own populism precludes coexistence with those people or cultures that exists outside the populist conception of the American way of life. Indeed, how else is one to interpret the attitudes of a man who essentially calls for the abandonment of free trade, the immediate deportation of all illegal immigrants regardless of circumstances, and the serious consideration of a wall to be built between Mexico and the United States?

For Lou Dobbs, effectively isolating the United States from the rest of the world is an acceptable price to pay for preserving the American way of life and keeping the American Dream alive. But who defines what the American way of life is? Whose American Dream is Mr. Dobbs talking about, anyway? Is it yours or mine? Does this dream only apply to those who dogmatically adhere to the gospel of the Protestant work ethic? If these questions make your head spin as fast as they do mine, that’s because it’s not the job of some populist demagogue to determine what the American way of life is or how to live it. Not only are such populist attitudes elitist to their very cores, but they have much more in common with the pseudo-fascist beliefs of France’s Jean-Marie Le Pen or our own Pat Buchanan than with the founding principles of American liberty.