Book Review: Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close For Comfort
Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close For Comfort by Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons presents a thorough understanding of various manifestations of right wing populism in the United States. It traces the history of this socio-political movement from before the American Revolution until the year 2000. Berlet and Lyons go beyond caricatures to explore how right wing populism gains strength first by exploiting real economic, social, and political grievances, but then goes on to scapegoat perceived shadowy elitist puppet masters, typically Jewish bankers, ‘PC Police’, etc– and perceived ‘parasites’ from below–welfare recipients of color, recent immigrants, etc. The authors show that right wing populism is often an alliance between disaffected members of the elite and the working and middle class. These movements tend to emphasize their shared “whiteness” and sense of victimhood in order to bond together.
The authors are careful to emphasize that right wing populism is more than just a fringe movement. They go into detail to show that the movement has deep ties with the political and capitalist institutions of this country. Therefore, calling members of this movement ‘un-American’, no matter how repellent their views may be, is not only inaccurate, but also ignores deeper issues. Berlet and Lyons show examples of how politicians considered ‘mainstream’ in both the Republican and Democratic parties have adopted some of the same positions as right wing populists. Dismissing right wing populists as “extremists” ignores their extraordinary success in shifting the political paradigm of the U.S. to the right on many issues.
This book was published sixteen years prior to Donald Trump’s election but is still very timely. It reveals the structure of Trump’s right wing populist appeal and shows how real grievances are exploited for political gain. Therefore, the issues that many of his supporters raise should not be dismissed out of hand. On the contrary, addressing these same legitimate core grievances without the repressive scapegoating element of right wing populism could go a long way to unifying the country and raising the standard of living for everyone. The book shows that right wing populism goes deeper than Donald Trump, and that systemic structures of racial and class oppression must be effectively countered in order to foster equality and true democracy.