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The anti-populist

Traditionalist historian John Lukacs laments the direction of conservatism in America

POPULISM FIRST EMERGED in America in the late 19th century as a radical political movement pushing for labor reform, progressive taxation, the regulation of business, and economic justice for the little guy. But in recent decades, as observers like journalist Thomas Frank and historian Michael Kazin have pointed out, the populist notion of an embattled people fighting an entrenched elite has evolved into a staple of the conservative worldview. From Joseph McCarthy finding treason in ''the bright young men who are born with silver spoons in their mouths'' to Richard Nixon speaking up for ''the silent majority'' to George W. Bush complaining about those who ''think they're all of a sudden smarter than the average person because they happen to have an Ivy League degree,'' the right has consistently won elections by talking the language of Power to the People.

But criticism of the marriage between conservatism and populism comes not only from the left. In his bracing new book, ''Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred'' (Yale), the traditionalist historian John Lukacs-well-known for his elegant histories of the great men and great events of World War II-offers a dark vision of modern democracy being destroyed by nationalist demagogues who gain power by bullying unpopular minorities and pursuing a belligerent foreign policy. Today's politicians of the right, Lukacs writes, have abandoned the conservative values of stability, order, and tradition and instead learned to bind nationalist majorities together by evoking hatred, directed not just against foreign foes but against fellow citizens who are seen as insufficiently patriotic.

These arguments are all the more striking because they come from a man of the right, albeit an idiosyncratic one. A staunch defender of Catholic social policy, Lukacs in his new book takes aim at ''laws approving abortions, mercy killing, cloning, sexual 'freedoms,' permissiveness, [and] pornography.'' But he has hardly been gentle when it comes to contemporary conservative heroes. Ronald Reagan? ''Superficial, lazy, puerile (despite his age), an expansive nationalist.'' George W. Bush? Blessed with a ''mind and character'' that are ''often astonishingly lazy.'' Even William F. Buckley-hardly the image of a man of the people-Lukacs once wrote, is insufficiently respectful of the past, displaying ''hardly any trace of interest in history and only selective references to tradition.''

In both his new book and in his larger career, Lukacs reminds us of a deep fissure that exists between traditional European conservatism and the contemporary American variety. Historically, the great conservative thinkers, from Burke to Tocqueville, have been wary of democracy, let alone populism. In conversation, Lukacs is pessimistic about current American politics, arguing that mass democracy is vulnerable to demagogic manipulation. ''The people do not speak, or they very seldom speak,'' he observes. ''But other people speak in the name of the people.'' In his new book, he expresses the fear that we are witnessing ''the degeneration of democracy'' into an ersatz populism.

The author of more than 25 works of history and countless articles, the Hungarian-born Lukacs has a particularly devoted fan club among conservatives like George Will and Richard Brookhiser, who admire his old-fashioned focus on the role of great men like Churchill and the enduring reality of national character. But while he has frequently contributed to National Review, the American Spectator, and other conservative publications (along with many liberal and nonpartisan ones), Lukacs eschews the label of ''conservative,'' preferring to describe himself as a ''reactionary,'' instinctively skeptical of the claims of progress whether made on the left or right. The reactionary ''is a patriot but not a nationalist,'' Lukacs explained in his 1990 autobiography, ''Confessions of an Original Sinner.'' ''He favors conservation rather than conservatism; he defends the ancient blessing of the land and is dubious about the results of technology; he believes in history, not in Evolution.''

Despite the fact that the Republican Party has made populism into a winning ticket, Lukacs reminds us of the intellectual contradiction inherent in today's American conservatism, which stirs up populist resentment toward the elite even as it extols ''traditional'' values.

It was Lukacs's own early experiences in the cauldron of European history that taught him to be suspicious of the kind of mass politics he sees dominating the United States today. Born in Budapest in 1924 to a father who was a progressive-minded Catholic doctor and a bourgeois Jewish mother, Lukacs grew up in the shadow of Hungary's golden age. He attended Budapest University, where he studied history.

Conscripted into the Hungarian army when it was allied with Germany, Lukacs became a deserter, spending the last days of the war in hiding as Budapest was being bombed by the allies. Although he welcomed the defeat of the Germans, he had no illusions of what liberation by the Russians meant. Soon after the war ended, Lukacs made contact with Rear Admiral William F. Dietrich, a member of the American mission in Hungary, to whom he supplied ad hoc intelligence reports about the tightening grip of Russian power in Hungary.

After emigrating to the United States in 1946, Lukacs eventually found a steady job teaching at Chestnut Hill College in Pennsylvania, where he stayed until his retirement in 1994. In his new homeland, Lukacs found himself at odds with both liberals and conservatives. Some liberals, to his chagrin, were full of illusions about the benevolence of Soviet communism, while anti-Red crusaders like Joseph McCarthy were more preoccupied with ferreting out spies in the government than with containing Soviet power in Central Europe.

''Already [in the '50s] the trouble with most conservatives was that it was a negative conservatism,'' says Lukacs, who penned several anti-McCarthy articles for Commonweal magazine when the Senator was riding high. ''They were anti-liberal. And that's not enough.''

From the early '50s onward, Lukacs repeatedly argued in books and articles that the Soviet Union was a brittle and fearful empire that was having trouble holding itself together, and that the United States should focus on pushing for fresh negotiations over the status of Central Europe rather than pursuing blustery ideological combat and pointless wars in Asia. (On this last point he found a kindred spirit in another traditionalist and early anticommunist-diplomat George F. Kennan, who became critical of Cold War excesses and who remains a close friend of Lukacs's.) Since the end of the Cold War, Lukacs has consistently advocated a more modest American role in the world, arguing that it is foolish to get entangled in the affairs of the Middle East and other hot spots.

Among Lukacs's many books two general types stand out: impressionistic reflections on modern history and philosophy with titles like ''The Passing of the Modern Age'' and ''Historical Consciousness,'' and narrative histories focusing on World War II, including ''The Duel'' (about the standoff between Hitler and Churchill in 1940) and, most recently, ''Churchill: Visionary. Statesman. Historian.''

In general, his straightforward histories have received the most attention. ''As a historian I think he is absolutely outstanding,'' says Emory University historian Patrick Allitt, author of the 1993 study ''Catholic Intellectuals and Conservative Politics in America, 1950-1985,'' in which he compared Lukacs with more mainstream conservative Catholics like William F. Buckley, John Courtney Murray, and Michael Novak. ''I put him in the very first rank of historians of the 20th century. I think he's utterly brilliant, both in his incredible powers of research and assimilation and his wonderful style [and] psychological insight.''

Yet Allitt believes that Lukacs's elitism limits the practical worth of his political worldview. ''He's never going to be a central figure in the American conservative tradition because he says things which practical politicians mustn't say,'' Allitt argues. ''Because he's an elitist he can be an interesting person to give daring and energetic ideas to conservatives, but they can't take him to the polls.''

Richard Brookhiser, an editor at National Review and a respected historian in his own right, makes a similar distinction between Lukacs's historical work and his more political writing in books like ''Populism and Democracy.'' While exceptionally insightful on World War II, Brookhiser says, Lukacs's critique of nationalism and democracy is based on a blinkered view of American culture and an unwillingness to recognize what makes America different from Europe.

Brookhiser explains his point by way of a history lesson. ''Theodore Roosevelt once wrote that there were two ways in which Jefferson was superior to Hamilton. One was his love for the West and the other was his trust in the people. I think to the 'trust in the people,' John would probably say that is populism, and evil nationalism is probably lurking behind the door. But...a disposition to trust the people up to a certain point in certain ways is an American thing and perhaps it is America's contribution to the world.''

Lukacs bristles at the suggestion that he sees America through a distorting European lens. ''I'm not speaking as a Hungarian,'' he says. ''I've lived in this country now for almost 60 years. My books don't deal with Hungary, but with British and American history.''

In conversation, he's willing to grant praise to a certain form of populism, citing the mass movements that have brought democracy to Central and Eastern Europe. ''The people are often right,'' he notes. ''Just think of my country. The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was a real popular uprising. Although it was defeated it had very salutary consequences in the long run. It was the Stalingrad of international communism. The repression in Hungary afterward was much less. They did not quite restore 100 percent terror. That is why in 1989 the change of the regime came along without bloodshed.''

But even when pressed, Lukacs has difficulty finding any good words for populism, American-style. To him, the rise of right-wing populism here is troubling because it means that the conservatives no longer serve as a shield against the dangers of mass politics. Instead, ''conservative'' has come to mean simply ''antiliberal.''

''Nationalism is a very low and cheap common denominator that unites people,'' he says. ''It is hatred that unites people. People take satisfaction from the idea that we are good because our enemies are evil. This is a very American syndrome but it is also universally true of mankind.''

''In this country the Republicans are the nationalist party,'' he continues. ''That's why they won the election-on the basis of symbols. I think the importance of economics in people's political choice of vote is vastly exaggerated. We live in such an age of intellectual stupidity that people use the wrong terms. People think this is a 'cultural issue' or a 'moral issue.' These are half-truths.''

Although Lukacs has won his share of esteem in a career that spans more than five decades, he now finds himself oddly isolated as someone who criticizes the Republican party from a traditionalist vantage point.

''What is there traditional in George Bush?'' he asks with exasperation. ''Nothing. Nothing.''

Jeet Heer, a frequent contributor to the Globe and the National Post of Canada, is the coeditor of ''Arguing Comics: Literary Masters on a Popular Medium'' (Mississippi).

Historian John Tukacs, shown here in his library, warns of the dangers of populism.
Historian John Tukacs, shown here in his library, warns of the dangers of populism. (Photo / Tobias Everke)
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