A Tale of Two Populists
It was the best of titles.
It was the worst of titles.
Echoes of Charles Dickens grew to a veritable din as newspaper
after newspaper offered pages upon pages of reports, opinions and
statistics about John McCain, Republican member for Arizona of the
United States Senate, and one Joerg Haider, recent addition to the
government of Austria, in the heart of Europe.
Both were touted as populists.
Never mind what the word actually means, never mind whether or
not it has some definite content which would endow it with a positive
or negative charge.
Never mind whether it means anything at all in the year 2000.
None of that would help you. Because, you see, the journalists
throwing about the epithet are in complete agreement: McCain - good.
Haider - Bad.
Populist - goodbad.
Of course, people like me who began to learn English at the age
of 22, have a long, arduous road ahead. This one is turning out
to be an actual roadblock. There is no such word as "goodbad."
Something's got to give.
Senator McCain is a populist because he caters to people's anxiety
about other people with money distorting the political landscape.
Mr. Haider is a populist because he caters to people's anxiety
about other people with foreign tongues and habits distorting the
Since we have established that Senator McCain is good and Mr. Haider
is bad, the inherent meaning of "populist" seems to come
not from the person, but from the people to whom the populist politician
Now therefore, Americans - good. Austrians - bad.
The first statement presents no problem. Americans really are good.
Personally, I can't quite sign on to the second because I myself
used to be a refugee in Austria. That was in 1956 when, literally
minutes after Austrians had rid themselves of Russian occupation,
they found 200,000 Hungarian refugees - aftermath of Hungary's unsuccessful
uprising against Russian occupation - either in residence or in
200,000 Hungarians are a lot of Hungarians. If you had asked the
Beverly Hills police after the Zsa Zsa incident, it's about 200,000
Yet, the day after I had arrived, covered in mud, cold, hungry
and penniless, I was standing with a friend next to a subway coffee
shop underneath the Opera House of Vienna. A girl of about 18 walked
by. I felt something touching my hand. I looked up, but she was
gone. She had pushed a twenty-schilling note in my hand - enough
for 3-4 lunches in those days - and didn't wait for a thankyou.
For decades and decades thereafter, little Austria accepted her
role as the clearing house for everyone escaping from the Russian
stranglehold across the Iron Curtain. I am not familiar with the
exact circumstances of today, but I might sympathize with the proposition:
let others have the fun for a while.
But, if Austrians voted for Haider, they must have turned bad.
Americans vote for McCain. To be a populist, as we said, is good
in America, because Americans are good.
Through the mists of time, memories of another New Hampshire primary
winner waft across the horizon. Was Pat Buchanan not also described
as a populist?
Oops and double oops.
'cause Buchanan is real bad, we're told. Just like Haider.
At this point, things get hopelessly confusing. Worse yet, the
people's right to know what a populist is has been trampled upon.
I am not a conspiracy buff, I don't even attend sessions where
the demise of TWA Flight 800 is being scrutinized. But it would
be worth money to me to find out who makes these decisions for the
rest of us.
Someone, somewhere, does.
How else do we explain the emergence of a Uniform Code of Journalistic
Justice? Its verdict has been increasingly consistent: national
socialism - bad. International socialism - good. After fighting
it out between the two - first in the Spanish Civil War, then in
World War II - Europe has come to the same conclusion.
Clearly, the two cannot live side-by-side.
National socialism gave socialists a bad name. For all intents
and purposes it was wiped out of existence in 1945. Wherever it
rears its ugly head, we must call it "fascism" to avoid
even the slightest risk of being identified with "good"
On the other hand, international socialism has been modified to
the point where the poison is administered so gradually that the
patient does not die; it simply undergoes slow mutations, so slow
that the mutant species come to mistake the poison for a nutrient.
Thus we have arrived at a moment in history in which a Joerg Haider,
head of a small provincial government in a small country, fills
our newspapers and TV channels as if a major threat to our existence
had surfaced, while the ruling socialist parties that stretch from
the Ural Mountains all the way to the British Isles are seen as
But I have ventured too far afield. Let me suggest that a populist
is one who plugs into negative sentiments. Mr. Haider represents
Austrians who had grown tired of foreigners, and Mr. McCain represents
Americans who had grown tired of the George W. bandwagon.
I am fully aware that mentioning in the same breath John McCain,
a genuine American hero, and Joerg Haider, a Tony Blair look-alike
with a soft heart for the SS is an outrage.
But then I am not the one who started calling both a populist.