FRANKENSTEIN: Now that brain that you gave me. Was it Hans Delbruck’s?
FRANKENSTEIN: Ah! Very good. Now would you mind telling me whose brain I did put in?
IGOR: Then you won’t be angry?
FRANKENSTEIN: I will NOT be angry.
IGOR: Abby . . . someone.
FRANKENSTEIN: Abby someone. Abby who?
IGOR: Abby Normal.
FRANKENSTEIN: Abby Normal?
IGOR: I’m almost sure that was the name.
FRANKENSTEIN: Are you saying that I put an abnormal brain into a seven-and-a-half foot long, fifty-four inch wide GORILLA!?! Is that what you’re telling me?
This great scene from Young Frankenstein reminds me a lot of what I’m seeing in contemporary conservative politics. I have always heard references to “conservative extremist,” and had a good chuckle: conservatives, by definition, cannot be extreme about anything, I supposed. There are surely extremists on the Right, but they aren’t conservatives, properly understood. Now I have recently heard references to something called “conservative populism.” I didn’t think it possible to do such things to the English language. Conservatism, at least of the constitutionalist nature, rests on a certain narrow kind of populism, to be sure: a recognition that political power derives from the consent of the governed, and that the governed get to choose who governs them. But that is not the kind of populism now apparently in fashion in conservative circles. I have always understood conservatism to demand of government a certain distance from the governed. That distance enables the government to do its work free of the passions that dominate public sentiment. Conservatives are, after all, balancers. Direct, mass appeals to raw and unfiltered public sentiment – public furor, today – satisfy voting audiences because they give the illusion of promising an absolutely responsive government. But those appeals undermine the critical need to control the people and to engage in rational governing and reasoned judgment, with space from the prevailing spirit of the community. Populism of this variety is, then, antithetical to our species of constitutional government, and to conservatism. Or so I had thought. (Harvey Mansfield has this great piece that delves into this subject matter, too).
But, of course, I don’t have to go out and get votes. Perhaps there is something to modern elections – particularly presidential ones – that results in this kind of populism, even among those in a political party not inclined to embrace it. But I’m skeptical, and I am also skeptical that conservatives are limiting their newfound populist sentiment in this way. Some modern conservatives, I fear, are now embracing not just an unhealthy style of populism (I tend to regard it as demagoguery; “populist” is mere euphemism, and not even a flattering one). Rather, I fear that they are also embracing the deeply troubling notion that one has to be the loudest, angriest, most insulting, and most obnoxious person in the room in order to be a proper populist leader. Frederick Frankenstein never meant for his creature to function with Abby Normal’s brain, and when it did, trouble followed; conservatism was never meant to embrace this brand of populism, bombast, and rage; trouble will follow.
I confess I’m old-fashioned. So perhaps today’s populist Republicans and their increasing minions have found a way to concoct such a creature, a real conservative that truly embraces populism in a way that is not discordant with conservatism. But not all creations are equal. Just ask Dr. Frankenstein.