Philosopher Michael Sandel warns for simplistic explanations of populism. At the same time, he hopes that more and more Republicans will begin to criticize President Donald Trump.
Sweat drops are appearing on the head of the only philosopher with rock star status, Michael J. Sandel, the author of, most recently, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. It’s the summer of 2017 and the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government has traded his gigantic auditorium at Harvard University for a small, hot room in Venice. At a seminar on populism Sandel holds a lecture, hammering home his favorite point: the lack of moral discourse in politics. ‘Three decades of market-driven globalization and technocratic liberalism have hollowed out democratic public discourse, disempowered ordinary citizens, and prompted a populist backlash that seeks to cloth the naked public square with an intolerant, vengeful nationalism.’ After his lecture, which has been integrated into this interview, I talk to Sandel about what he considers to be ‘the most pressing political challenge of our time’.
We see populist uprisings all over the world. It takes different forms. We have it in Turkey, with Erdoğan, but also in the Netherlands, France, Latin-America and so on. Is there something about Donald Trump that makes him a typically American phenomenon?
‘He is similar in many respects to the right wing populists you see in Europe. What makes him distinctly American are two things, I think. One, he is using skills that he developed as a reality television host. He’s using those skills quite effectively in politics. He’s drawing on that experience, and it’s helped him. To the extent that reality television is a kind of an American phenomenon, that’s the first element.
‘The second way in which Trump is a distinctly American version of a right wing populist is that he plays up the fact that he is a wealthy man, and that he is a winner. His language is of being a winner, and he’s assimilating being a winner to being wealthy. This is an American thing. (laughs) You don’t see this too much in Europe. These two aspects are a characteristically American version of populism.