NPR/J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Stop calling it “populism”

It’s craven nihilism. Not so much unlike Hamas.

Jeffrey Denny
4 min readOct 19, 2023


Jeffrey Denny

“Hamilton’s besetting fear was that American democracy would be spoiled by demagogues who would mouth populist shibboleths to conceal their despotism.”

So wrote Ron Chernow in his “Alexander Hamilton” biography.

Yet here we are, some 2.5 centuries after Hamilton, with despots posing as populists and spoiling our democracy. And many thought-leader shibboleths about populism today:

— “Populist passions, not Trump, rule the GOP,” explains a Washington Post op-ed by Jim Geraghty, conservative National Review writer and Hoover Institute fellow, tacitly defending the indefensible former president.

— “Soft Corruption and the Limits of Populism,” New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, as usual, brilliantly beard-stroking the obvious.

— “The GOP Can’t Afford to Indulge Populism,” former Republican U.S. Senator John Danforth cautions in The Wall Street Journal after the horses bolted the barn long ago.

Not to wordnerd, but “populism” isn’t what’s troubling the GOP and democracy. It’s plain old amoral Machiavellian cunning and scheming, suckering their angry MAGAs for power and money.

Level-setting “populism”

A populist is “a member of a political party claiming to represent the common people,” the Deep State Merriam-Webster says, so take it with a grain of salt.

But populism isn’t what’s torturing the House GOP and Washington. Try nihilism, “a doctrine that denies any objective ground of truth and especially of moral truths.”

But in focus groups, populism tests better than nihilism. Who doesn’t love power to the people! Like our Founders intended!

Even if they didn’t. Like Hamilton, who believed in the people to govern but worried about majority mob rule.

It’s unclear whether the young Hamilton worried about the potential for today’s minority mob rule.

For instance, how the MAGA Dear Leader who twice lost the national popular vote and incited a minority mob insurrection still dominates the Party Formerly Known as Grand. Which dearly hopes to return him to power even as he promises to expand his powers and revenge those holding him accountable for his lawlessness. For the people — his people — of course.

And thanks to nihilistic GOP vote-rigging, his lower House oligarchs who represent a vast 2% of voters (but mostly themselves) have seized Washington and holds our government, national security, economy, elders, jobs and financial security hostage.

For what?

It can’t be for shrugging emoji whatevs, like our democratic republic doesn’t matter.

It can’t be just to entertain nihilistic MAGAs who love the roar of the greasepaint on Fox Theater, as The Atlantic columnist Tom Nichols suggests in “This Mess Is What GOP Voters Wanted.”

It surely can’t be because they agree with MAGAs who nihilistically want to tear things down without a plan to make things better. Which of course will hurt MAGAs first and worst while their heroes laugh all the way to their shrimp-tower fundraisers.

Whatevs, these are no populists.

Re: Trump.

“I think he has done a great job of sort of marketing himself as the champion for all of these people,” an aide former Vice President Mike Pence said. But recounting Trump’s comments in private meetings she attended, “I detest the way he speaks about them … it was so disparaging to them.”

Re: GOP House Chaos Caucus.

MAGA Generalissimo Matt Gaetz represents Florida’s Gulf Coast 1st Congressional district including Pensacola. Median household income: $71,000.

Meanwhile, Gaetz’s Congressional salary is $174,000, with perks such as staffers and lobbyists who are willing, in a legislative way, to traffick themselves for his needs.

His devout Christian constituents who ban books that disturb them on behalf of their kids somehow don’t realize or care if Gaetz profiles as someone to protect kids against.

And Gaetz’s salary that his taxpayers pay is chump change. “Forbes estimates that Gaetz and his parents are worth about $30 million,” per his official financial disclosures. The internet that MAGAs depend on for the truth puts Gaetz’s net worth at $50 million.

But what’s wrong with fake populists? Don’t they at least make the “common people” — at least Fox watchers — feel heard and represented? Unlike the liberal elite Deep State CNN watchers do?

But let MAGAs beware

History is shamed by dictators who rose to power on populism and eventually subjugate and slaughter the people who empowered them.

We’ve seen this in Russia, Eastern Europe, Africa, China, Latin America, and elsewhere. And now with Hamas posing as Palestinian populist leaders while using their people as cannon fodder.

Classic nihilism. This could never happen in America, right?

Jeffrey Denny is a Washington writer.



Jeffrey Denny

A Pullet Surprise-winning writer who always appreciates free chicken.