‘What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!’ (Hamlet, II. ii. 309)
Political creeds of all stripes have tended to subordinate human nature to ideological preconceptions. Whether liberal or conservative, they have traditionally viewed the human condition as something which is flawed, imperfect; they see their goal as to encourage or coerce humans into acting in a way which is in keeping with their utopian vision. This tendency seems to have begun with the advent of Christianity and its doctrine of Man’s fallen nature. ‘There is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins,’ says Ecclesiastes; this idea of innate sinfulness was enthusiastically adopted by Paul, who was gnawed at by a sense of his own iniquity. ‘For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh,’ he declares in Romans 7:18, whilst a few chapters earlier he observes that ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’
Christianity, thus, saw divine truth as being immutable and thus as requiring human nature to be changed in order to fit it. But, of course, divine truth was inaccessible to the normal person; it could only be received through the mediation of the Church. By receiving the sacraments and acting in a ‘godly’ manner, humans could move closer to salvation; if they acted according to their own wills, they were damned to eternal torment. By interpolating themselves as sole mediators of the will of God, the decidedly human Church gained the power to control human activity and behaviour whilst simultaneously presenting themselves merely as passive exegetes of divine will.
The Enlightenment, far from upending this, invigorated this hierophantic social structure. Where Christianity grounded temporal power in arrogating to itself the right to interpret the mysteries of the divine, Enlightenment thinkers grounded their power in their exclusive access to reason. They dismissed loyalty to tradition and religion as superstition; they declared that the world must proceed according to the dictates of rationality.
But whilst this love of reason might ostensibly seem egalitarian and accessible to all – cf. Kant’s declaration that ‘“Have the courage to use your own understanding,” is therefore the motto of the enlightenment’ – it swiftly descends into the realm of the technical. As such reason becomes as occluded as God was to the Christian world. And where the hierophants of the Christian world were priests, the Enlightenment hierophants were scientists and bureaucrats. In Dialectic of Enlightenment, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer speak of how ‘under the title of brute facts, the social injustice from which they proceed is now as assuredly sacred a preserve as the medicine man was sacrosanct by reason of his gods.’
This new privileged caste of interpreters of transcendental truth was as dismissive of human nature as their ecclesiastical predecessors had been. For them, the issue was not original sin; it was what they perceived as human irrationality. They perceived in human nature a tendency to recoil from reason; to seek comfort in what they dismissed as superstition. Humans were too unpredictable, too reluctant to comply with self-evident reason. They were ‘fallen’, not insofar as they were distanced from God but they were of limited rational capacity. As such the scientists and bureaucrats of the Enlightenment sought to control human nature, just as the Church had assumed temporal control over daily life.
This control manifested itself in the domination of nature through repressive political systems. Traditionally, Enlightenment excess in this regard has been identified with regimes like Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, where ‘rational’ central planners were at best apathetic to human suffering and viewed humans as malleable material which could be altered and changed to best fit their ideologies. But the Enlightenment hatred of human nature, and the desire of the ‘rational’ to control those deemed less so, applies to modern-day democracies too.
Human nature is profoundly mistrusted by liberal democracy. Humans are told to believe in technocratic experts, to trust not their own instincts but instead the rationality and judgement of others. Those concepts which transcend reason – the nation state, the hereditary principle, organised religion – are either viewed with scorn or transformed into nullities. Modern democracy has also seen a very noticeable shift in political power away from representative bodies towards deliberative and ‘rational’ ones such as courts. American judges today hold enormous power, both judicial and indeed executive. Even in Britain, courts have increasingly begun to see themselves as guardians of the rule of law rather than mere interpreters of statute and precedent. Across the Channel in Europe the (unelected) European Commission holds vast political power, both within the EU and in its diktats to Member States. What all these bodies have in common is a shared belief that human nature needs taming by those who have privileged access to rationality – that humans exist in a flawed, fallen state which manifests itself in their base expressions of nationalism or prejudice, but which can be corrected through the guidance of reason.
Against this two-thousand-year trend of history stands populism. To be a populist is nothing more than to reject the tyranny of reason; to believe that ideology should be sculpted around the contours of human nature rather than vice versa. That which human beings feel in a primal sense is right to a populist, regardless of whether it is impious or irrational. There is no extrinsic point of reference to which a populist points in considering if something is right or wrong; there is only what the people will.
What are these essential elements of human nature which a populist holds so dear? They are those which are rejected by instrumentalised rationality – a desire for community; a mistrust of the Other; a belief in the power of the majority; a sense of identity; a preference for stability. To a devotee of reason, such things are often seen as defects in character. Let us consider the final of these, a preference for continuity and stability. This is, in most people, a fundamental trait. Yet to President Macron – a typical Enlightenment politician and believer in rationality – the propensity of his people to resist change was a national flaw. The ‘Gauls’ are ‘resistant to change’, he bemoaned to a Danish audience. To Macron, it was inexplicable as to why his compatriots would be reluctant to accept his economic reforms. He, and his fellow high priests at the altar of rationality, had demonstrated by way of reasoned argument why free-market reforms liberalising labour laws would be good for the economy. It did not matter that such reforms would constitute a fundamental alteration to the national culture of his country, nor that many millions of Frenchmen would oppose it; it was rational and thus it must be so.
Thus has liberal Enlightenment thought often proceeded; those who, by virtue of their ‘intelligence’ and their education, have a special access to reason will decide, and then impose their will upon a reluctant populace. One major example of reason clashing with human nature is migration to and in Europe. To an individual with a scientific or anthropological background, there is little difference between a Briton and a non-Brit. They share the vast majority of DNA; their phenotype is nearly identical; indeed a non-Briton speaks and sounds and acts in a broadly analogous way to a Briton. As such, the dictates of reason suggest that people of all nations are replaceable and interchangeable. This has been the impetus behind the breakdown of national borders in Europe; borders, to the rational, simply interfere with the flow of capital and labour across the continent. But the individual intrinsic instincts of a Briton do not function according to the crystalline logic of rationality. To him or her, there is a difference between a Briton and a Pole or Syrian or Ghanaian. Such a difference may not be explicable in terms of rationality or science. But where the populist and the Enlightenment liberal differ is that the latter simply assumes that which is not rationally explicable does not exist; the former is a trenchant believer in such things.
It is not right to suggest that populism is merely vindication of man’s baser nature, as some neo-Hobbesians have suggested. For populism is a repudiation of the belief that man’s nature is base. The Enlightenment is profoundly anthropophobic; much like the Christian world it followed, it sees mankind as inherently fallen and in need of correction. The populist sees man as glorious, as perfect. Of course, that is not to justify everything which an individual man does. No populist would deny that individuals can deviate from their innate perfection – whether that be through violence, greed or through unwarranted hatred. For instance, racial hatred is not innate to human nature; it is an aberration which stems from an individual failing. But what men in general feel is, per se, right.
One objection to populism is that it is fallacious to identify any particular trait as being universal to human nature, and that as such society cannot be constituted around such principles. It is true, and indeed tautologous, that every individual is different. In fact the populist would not seek to deny that there are those who do not have the elements of human nature which he prizes – that there are those who do not value community, who embrace change wholeheartedly, who have a weak sense of identity. But he affirms strongly that such people are not the majority, and that furthermore it is another inherent part of human nature that the will of the majority be respected. Such majoritarian instincts are to be found in all cultures, no matter how primitive.
Populism brooks no hierophany. Historically political leaders acted as mediators between the people and a higher power; so for example a King was the interface between his nation and God, whilst modern liberal technocrats hold exclusive access to scientific truths which they enact for the benefit of the people. This is not the case with populism. Of course, this does not mean that it is a ‘levelling’ movement, or that it is somehow egalitarian. Populism, in fact, requires strong leaders. Such figures, however, are not like former political leaders who (like Platonic Guardians) organise the polis according to higher principles. Instead they conform more to what Hegel spoke of when he wrote of great historical figures. He noted that ‘They are great men, because they willed and accomplished something great; not a mere fancy, a mere intention, but that which met the case and fell in with the needs of the age,’ and later that ‘they were thinking men, who had an insight into the requirements of the time.’ Such leaders are not beholden to ideology nor to the divine. They are simply figures who embody their historical moment and merge the popular will with their own. Like the Emperor Napoleon, they ‘exist on one point while seated on a horse, stretching over the world and dominating it.’
Who are the modern day Napoleons? Trump is one such figure; a figure ‘larger than life’, who is uninterested in fealty to ideological preconceptions and whose sole political mission is to channel the will of the people and enact it through the organs of the state. His abrasive, loud political style is often decried by mainstream politicians and the liberal anti-populists who support them – but they fail to recognise that in contemplating Trump they are contemplating the face of the American people. Neither are morally perfect, certainly according to extrinsic standards – but Trump is deeply human, with all that entails. As such he is able to better feel the pulse of the American majority and embody their will. His opponent in 2016, Hillary Clinton, was the very opposite of this; artificial, disdainful of human nature and thus disdainful of the American electorate too. Hillary had little interest in allowing an expression of human nature were she to become President; her intention was clearly to use the state to impose changes against the popular will, to make Americans more like her ideal rather than bending the state to better match the essence of Americans.
But Trump will prove to be but the first of the great populist leaders of the 21st century. Already in Europe others are rising to join him – Salvini in Italy, Sebastian Kurz in Austria. Such leaders are not, as they are often accused of being, rabble-rousers. Such an appellation implies that they instrumentalise and use their people towards an ulterior motive. Instead of this, populist leaders simply channel the sentiments of the nation’s spirit, allowing it to infuse the organs of the state and thus to enact political change. These leaders are already busy reconstituting their countries along new lines which abjure anthropophobia and place the interests of the native people at the heart of their political program. No more will Italians be told by their self-imposed social betters that their wishes and desires are somehow ‘incorrect’ and must be altered to better fit the will of a higher power – populism will enable the restoration of national pride after years of contempt at the human nature of voters.
This essay began with a quote from Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, speaking of the wonderous nature of what is to be a human. Hamlet places humans rather than god or reason at the centre of his universe – imperfect, flawed, full of rages and lusts and yet awe-inspiringly perfect. It is this sense of awe at the sublimity of human nature which lies at the heart of populist thought; it is this which impels it towards a future in which politics, theology, philosophy and art all revolve around humanity.