Populism thrives as memory of war fades and ‘greatest’ generation passes

US Politics: George HW Bush had a taste for moderation based on bitter experience of history

Former US president George Bush: He  was the youngest pilot in the US navy. He remains the last president with combat experience. Of all the theories behind the spurt in populism – the 2008 crash, immigration – the passing of the “greatest” generation from both high office and the electorate is under-discussed. Photograph:  Luke Frazza/Getty Images

Former US president George Bush: He was the youngest pilot in the US navy. He remains the last president with combat experience. Of all the theories behind the spurt in populism – the 2008 crash, immigration – the passing of the “greatest” generation from both high office and the electorate is under-discussed. Photograph: Luke Frazza/Getty Images

 

As Americans pore over the feats of the late George HW Bush, so extensive that you half-expect “rocket scientist” to pop up, it is still the first that stands out. The US president was the youngest pilot in the US navy. He remains the last president with combat experience.

Wednesday’s memorial service was for one man, but also, by proxy, for a generation that lost its best years to the second World War.

Of all the theories behind the spurt in populism – the 2008 crash, immigration – the passing of the “greatest” generation from both high office and the electorate is under-discussed.

Experience of trauma does not instil risk aversion as a matter of course. But having lived through the near ruin of civilisation, that cohort of westerners did not trifle with dangerous ideas after 1945. Obituaries that attribute Bush’s caution to high-born Waspery or the Episcopalian Church miss the formative effect of war.

To see what happens when societies become incautious, look around. What unites Donald Trump’s former adviser Steve Bannon with France’s rioting gilets jaunes and the UK’s fiercest Brexiters is not just their will to upturn the existing order. It is their belief that transient economic strife is the worst that could possibly happen.

None of these people actively desire civilisational meltdown. They just under-rate the prospect of it happening as an inadvertent result of their actions. How could they not? Unintended consequences, the precariousness of order, the independent momentum of ideas: to keep these dangers in mind takes a bitterer experience of history than is available to most people under 90.

How telling that the populist fever in US politics flared in the 1990s, when power passed from the war generation to its children. Newt Gingrich, that smash-it-all-up merchant, was the first speaker of the House of Representatives born after the Depression. What his predecessors saw as a concert of grown-ups against the extremes, he saw as a venal, backslapping Washington ripe for “revolution”.

Again, it is not so much the malevolence as the innocence that unnerves: the assumption that real life comes with a fuse or fail-safe that will shut down an ideological adventure if it ever runs out of control.

Populist leaders

It would be nice to condemn the rashness of these populist leaders and leave it at that. The trouble is that people vote for them by the bushel. The generational loss of caution is a mass phenomenon, not just an elite one.

In a sense, Bush did have what he once mocked as the “vision thing”. It takes vision to see the fragility of order. Even in moments of ostensible triumph he sensed the potential for tragedy, which is why he did not humiliate the Soviets in 1989 or sack Baghdad in 1991.

The question is where such vigilance came from. It takes a Freud or a Shakespeare to divine human motivation. Perhaps the obituary writers are right to dwell on the Yankee prudence of his childhood. It is just that millions of his generational peers had no such rearing and still voted, in nation after nation, decade after postwar decade, for various flavours of stability. What they shared was youthful experience of ideology run amok.

Social order is to some extent self-cancelling. The longer people have it, the more they take it for granted

That generation is already revered to the point of mawkishness. Bush should not be. A nuanced account must reckon with his initial foot-dragging on civil rights and his sometimes tawdry bid for the White House in 1988. But these trips to the darker edges of politics stand out precisely because they are uncharacteristic.

Taste for moderation

In the main, he had a taste for moderation that is consistent with formative encounters with its opposite. Crash or no crash, plentiful immigration or none, perhaps the West was always going to be suggestible to extremists once his generation faded and took its instructive experiences with it.

Social order is to some extent self-cancelling. The longer people have it, the more they take it for granted. Historic events that warn them against such complacency pass from living memory to folklore to something more like rumour. Ideas that would have made their forebears shiver become credible, even exciting. Think of the antic glee at the prospect of war in Britain in 1914. It defies understanding, until you remember the country’s inexperience of mass-mobilised conflict since Napoleonic times.

We might be living through a (so far milder) version of the same phenomenon: an openness to political extremes born of historic distance from their last trial and error. The implication of this argument is as bleak as the argument itself. For the West to rediscover its aversion to wild ideas, perhaps they must be tested to failure. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018

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