A Tale of Two Populists

Balint Vazsonyi

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 national landscape.

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 caters.

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 transit.

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 too many.

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" socialists.

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 mainstream.

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.