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A Convenient Way To Promote Happiness

The Lucrative Grift Of Phony “Populism”

FOX News’ Steve Hilton teaches you how to rebrand as a revolutionary populist…

One of the odder lessons of the past few years is that the radical right are now more effective “internationalists” than the left. Their leader, Donald Trump, is also at the vanguard of a global movement. He is the model for Salvini in Italy. He is one-third of a new Axis of the Americas with Bolsonaro and Duterte. And he is “Mr. Brexit.” An especially fruitful solidarity has developed between the U.S. and Great Britain. A host of ghoulish figures in the U.K., eager to ingratiate themselves to Trump and his fluctuating inner circle, provide a steady stream of internet propaganda for the President. Nigel Farage inaugurated this new Special Relationship with a speech at a Trump rally. Piers Morgan defends him on Breakfast TV. Even more overtly extremist figures—like Katie Hopkins and Tommy Robinson—praise Trump in far-right media.

Among these high-profile names, Steve Hilton’s has gone largely unmentioned. The one-sentence summation of Hilton’s political career is that he was the principal architect behind the modernization of the Conservative Party, a process that began in earnest under David Cameron (for whom Hilton was director of strategy). Hilton’s effect on this ossified party was transformative: As one commentator described, he moved the Tories “away from the traditional emphasis on immigration, law and order, and anti-Europeanism, towards a more metropolitan, compassionate and liberal vision of conservatism.” Enmeshed with his offbeat politics were a set of peculiar, eye-catching habits, like wearing shorts to work and walking around No. 10 without shoes on— a real buzz for the press, who love nothing more than an unthreatening establishment eccentric. Broader recognition arrived after he was parodied by the political satire The Thick of It, in the figure of Stewart Pearson, a herbal tea-drinking spin-doctor who talks marvelous, impenetrable nonsense, at one point declaring that “knowledge is porridge,” at another floating the idea of “[doing] away with computers,” and offering thoughtful maxims like “time is a leash on the dog of ideas.”

But this fictionalized silliness was barely parody. Take this account of a meeting he attended while in government:

Hilton suggested that one of the United Kingdom’s biggest problems was too much cloudy weather—“Why can’t we fly planes over the eastern Atlantic,” he suggested, “to drop chemicals on the clouds and force them to break up, and get rid of their rain before they get to our shores?”

Eventually Cameron grew tired of visiting Hilton’s thought emporium, and in 2012 Hilton left the government amidst a flurry of broken friendships. He moved to California, where Stanford had given him a job as a visiting scholar, and where his wife was a higher-up at Google. In many ways, Hilton crossing the Atlantic made sense, given that his professed politics were the kind of wacky, free-associating libertarianism that feels distinctly foreign to the U.K. His surest philosophical conviction was in the therapeutic properties of deregulation, but he was as likely to propose consciousness-raising classes for schoolchildren as a cut in property tax. Silicon Valley seemed a natural habitat for his type of creature, given that, unlike in Britain, people there don’t break out in hives at the idea of someone cycling to work or walking around the office shoeless. The West Coast, and particularly the Bay area, has long been a comfortable haven for rich conservative assholes who get a quiet thrill from role-playing as dirty hippies. (See Burning Man.)

In Britain it was assumed that Hilton would make a shit-ton of money and then return to be “the Tory candidate for a trendy English city,” as Labour MP Jon Cruddas put it. Mostly, however, he wasn’t thought of very much. Then came the twin eruptions of the Brexit vote and the 2016 Presidential campaign, and suddenly, Hilton was everywhere. He re-emerged on the British political scene, where he opined that his old boss Cameron was a coward who lacked the spine to publicly support Brexit. Hilton was then regularly invited onto Fox News to give his insider’s account of the forces powering this new age, which he happily did. His wrinkles were more prominent than before, but his skin was still eerily sleek, as if he was sweating olive oil into his V-necks.

When the Presidential election ended with Trump in the White House (Hilton’s preferred and predicted outcome), his appearances on Fox transitioned into a regular program, The Next Revolution, which airs every Sunday at 9:00 pm Eastern Time. Hilton declared that he was a populist—this, it turned out, had been the philosophy animating his seemingly vague and contradictory pronouncements down the years. “I only really heard of it as a political notion here in the campaign last year,” he said in an interview. “I won’t say I’d literally never heard the word, but it definitely wasn’t part of any thinking.”

Hilton’s mushrooming reputation as a house pundit of MAGA conservatism has since resulted in a new book, Positive Populism: Revolutionary Ideas to Rebuild Economic Security, Family, and Community in America. It is a manifesto for his Ideas, and like that other politician’s staple, the stump speech, it includes a lot of fluff about his upbringing. Hilton was born to impoverished Hungarian immigrants, a fact he often returns to, as it gives him a privileged vantage point from which to alternately celebrate and condemn immigration. From these straitened circumstances, he bagged a scholarship to Christ’s Hospital, a private school with a civic mission to provide a little learning for fatherless children,” and from there went on to Oxford.

Hilton uses this rags-to-riches narrative to position himself as an expert on educational innovations. Hilton discusses the independent Khan Lab School as his model for post-revolution U.S. education. Khan Lab— which Hilton helped found and which both of his children attend (at the cost of $60,000 dollars per year)—has implemented a number of educational innovations, with the goal of “reducing stress [and] increasing independence.” Students there are grouped not by grade or age, but by “independence level,” which means that they move fluidly between classes based upon how quickly they are able to master particular tasks.

Interesting though this might be, the aspect of Khan Lab Hilton wants the education system at large to replicate isn’t its learning environment, but its management. Rather than “give teachers more money and freedom to design their own curriculums,” the lesson he draws from Khan Lab is that the education system needs to be defunded entirely, and replaced by the Koch brothers’ fever-dream of total school choice. Now, while it goes without saying that school choice is a deeply malign idea, the really striking thing here is Hilton’s framing. Using Khan Lab to argue for school choice is like using lettuce to argue for the health-benefits of burgers. It isn’t representative: Of course a parent-founded school will be excellent when the parents are Silicon Valley millionaires. And of course millionaire parents will be happy to direct their children’s education—time is a privilege of money, despite every tech CEO claiming to sleep four hours a night. If you’re filthy rich, all the shittiest and most time-expensive parts of raising a child can be laundered through a small army of employees: There’s no need to bear the drudgery of middle-school math revision if you can afford a tutor; no need to badger them to clean their room if you have a maid come by the house every Wednesday. Just imagine having to shoulder these responsibilities and help administer your child’s education. Without them, why not, say, part-design their curriculum? It might be fun.

There is, throughout this section, a horrible kind of doublespeak at work. In Hilton’s telling, it’s the elitists who believe in equal treatment, the elitists who want a universal standard of education for all. If I write that school choice would saddle poor parents with an unmanageable burden, this sentiment can be absorbed and vomited back up as the patronizing maxim that “poor parents can’t be trusted to make wise choices for their kids.” All the while, the borders of the possible are strictly policed: Hilton’s belief in sweeping school reform is coupled with a certainty that “public policy can’t determine whether a child is born into a rich family or a poor one.” That public policy might be able to reduce the likelihood of the family being a poor one in the first place isn’t considered.

Education is the most radical element of Hilton’s agenda: the rest consists of mostly modest adjustments to existing systems—some good (emboldened anti-trust legislation), some bad (“opportunity” immigration), and some asinine (forcing local governments to hire more entrepreneurs). I felt an encroaching disappointment as I waded through it, chapter by wearying chapter. Where was the populist “revolution” I was promised? All I was seeing were these weak, lousy reforms!

Say what you like about the rest of the new MAGA commentariat, but they’re rarely boring. There’s a perverse fun in watching Alex Jones or Ann Coulter rolling merrily around in their own filth and stupidity, watching them bask in the pure libidinal energy that comes from saying the dumbest, most wrong shit imaginable. There’s none of that in Hilton’s book: no irate moral dudgeon, none of the frothing about globalism or George Soros that Hilton indulges on his TV show. Despite his insistent promise that Positive Populism will guide America’s next great transformation, many of its core prescriptions are drearily familiar. The idea of school choice isn’t fresh or exciting: It’s been a white whale of the American right since Milton Friedman, and the book’s grand vision for healthcare is just the kind of government-insured, market-delivered system that smarter capitalist nations instituted decades ago. These are the tactics of a worn and weary capitalism, not the wages of a populist revolution,

In some places Hilton’s imagination is even narrower, with several of his ideas being merely warmed-over versions of policies he concocted while in government. This is most obvious during a chapter on community, which opens with a meandering description of the “Big Society,” Hilton’s central ideological contribution to the Cameron coalition and as pure a distillation of the spirit of late-noughties Britain as I’ve come across. The Big Society was a vague and rarely defined thing, more an ethos than a program, but the basic idea was to marry austerity economics to a conception of civil society based upon voluntary action rather than state institutions. As Cameron put it in a retroactive back-and-forth with Margaret Thatcher: “There is such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state.” Cameron contrasted “Big Government” and “Big Society,” insisting that while Conservatives may despise the former they embrace the latter, which can do all the things social democrats ask of government.

Given that Hilton wants to realize a version of this in America, a question naturally presents itself: What happened when it was implemented in the U.K.? He elides this question, and no wonder, because the Big Society in practice was a vicious mess, demonstrating only the cruelty of its designers and the vacuity of its promise to somehow disentangle an idea of community from economics. The facilities he identifies as the constituent parts of a community—public libraries; neighborhood parks; youth clubs— all need money to function; the Britain he presided over provides an object-lesson in what happens when they‘re deprived of it. Since 2010, over 600 public libraries have been shuttered, along with more than 500 youth centers. Uncountable green spaces have been concreted over and sold off to property developers. Austerity was the only real policy the coalition had: everything else was decorative, and the Big Society was the gaudiest bauble of all, a vast shiny distraction from the brute fact of 110 billion pounds in spending cuts.

The Big Society USA is similarly designed: Control of local services would be devolved to the level of the neighborhood, such that the “right to run” them would be vested in voluntary community associations. With next to no Big Government funding available, however, these associations would be forced to function like auction houses, subcontracting the design and operation of their facilities out to the highest bidder. What happens if a local businessman wants to transform an underfunded park into a set of condos? As was the case with British councils under austerity, the “right to run” would quickly become chimerical— it would be the right to sell off for peanuts. Hilton attempts to resolve this problem by appealing to his expressed support for anti-trust laws, but who ever said that only large companies could ruin communities? Anyone who has lived in a rapidly gentrifying city will know that most small businesses behave like temporarily embarrassed monopolies, and will seek to maximise their profits just as furiously. An artisanal bakery looks a lot like a Whole Foods when it’s replacing a beloved public library.

There is a brief, tantalizing suggestion in Hilton’s book that capitalism might be in some way responsible for the withering away of American community, with Hilton tracing the start of this process back a half-century to the neoliberal turn that began under Reagan. “It’s clear that something important was lost in those years,” he writes, sounding—not for the first time—like a high-school student padding out an essay. What could have prompted this loss? Might it be that neoliberalism, in treating all interpersonal ties as economic contracts, is in fact antithetical to any conception of community? No, of course not, silly. The real culprit is government centralization. A few wonkish tweaks to infrastructure, a little more deregulation to encourage local investment, and what had been sundered by “elitist attitudes and policies” will be made whole again. 

Throughout this thick mush of ideas and innovations, there’s a noticeable absence of any references to conservatism or the right wing. In fact, Hilton strenuously denies any political allegiance at all; his populism is variously “postideological” and “pragmatic,” committed to “solving problems at the human level.” Instead of nasty partisan questions, he wants us to ask “Is this reform more human, or less?,” a question so poisonously vapid it caused my brains to seep out through my ears. But amidst the pabulum, there’s a valuable lesson to be inferred about the ideological space in which he operates. Take his advocacy of a “business-friendly living wage,” by which he means a living wage that is proportionate to a corresponding cut in payroll tax. This is the classic Hiltonian maneuver, in that it includes one entirely decent and sensible policy that a genuine populism would doubtless incorporate (A living wage, hooray!), and then marries it to something the Cato Institute would approve of (Business-friendly, meaning amenable to those who… do not want people to have a living wage). Almost every vaguely progressive measure on show here has an implicit reactionary counterpart or context—for instance, a proposed ban on non-compete contracts—which prevent low-wage workers from moving jobs—is coupled with something called “Universal Free-Market Training,” which is basically a way of readying people for the gig economy. When viewed together, the message is clear: You will never have job security again.

Despite its self-declared renunciation of ideology, the ideological function of Positive Populism is pretty transparent. Hilton is clearer about what he wants than most of the new right-wing populists, but their techniques are essentially the same: acknowledge the popular anger that might instead be channelled towards left-populists like Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and then seek to assimilate it into a politics that offers people sops and convenient enemies while protecting the basic architecture of capitalism. Hence the clever wonkery of pairing a signature Sanders policy like the living wage with a swingeing tax cut.

There’s a danger of the left falling for the “populist” trappings of Hilton’s conventionally conservative ideology, as Zack Exley, a former Sanders staffer, demonstrated when discussing his appearance on The Next Revolution:

What Fox does all day every day is they point at immigrants, they point at activists, whipping up racism, that’s what they do all day long. But Steve for an hour points at corporate power. If we can’t engage with somebody who’s doing that, that’s crazy.

Hilton’s endorsement of the living wage is encouraging, but only because it shows how core progressive demands have wormed their way into the national dialogue. It doesn’t make him a comrade, and whatever leftish concessions he makes aren’t an invitation to compromise; they’re an incentive to keep pushing. We shouldn’t mistake a fig leaf for an olive branch. Positive Populism is capitalism on the defensive, but it’s also capitalism on maneuvers, casting around for new places to deposit its discontents.

Illustrations by Tyler Rubenfeld

The programmatic clarity and post-ideological mission of Positive Populism make for an odd combination. We are told, with often brutal precision, exactly what Hilton’s populism will do, but he’s never quite so lucid when describing what populism is. Instead of definition, the book trades in cliché: Populism means “power to the people,” he writes, like David Brent reaching for his guitar. Populism is “the idea at the heart of America itself.” The inside sleeve isn’t any more informative:

By focusing on what populism is for, and not just what it’s against, Hilton provides a coherent philosophy and practical blueprint for how the movement can have an impact beyond one election cycle, and in people’s everyday lives. That’s Positive Populism.

What is Positive Populism? This exact set of policy proposals? What if we instituted a living wage and raised taxes—would that be Positive Populism? By the book’s conclusion, Hilton has overdosed on his own ambiguity, and populism is finally held responsible for every great transformative event in American history:

Populists peopled the West, extinguished slavery, and fought for women’s suffrage. They won two world wars, established civil rights, and built the greatest economy in the history of the world.

As well as suggesting that Hilton thinks populism means “anything done by people,” this passage illuminates an important feature of our current politics. Contemporary populism functions like a political Rorschach test, an empty signifier onto which any set of principles can be plausibly projected. It isn’t “postideological”—nothing is—but its capaciousness makes it a useful way of smuggling ideology in via a nebulous and untainted political form. In Hilton’s hands, its capaciousness is such that seemingly any measure, from the abolition of slavery to the abolition of zoning regulations, can be incorporated within it.

In an invaluable bonus, the apparently indefinite scope of this populism also serves to obscure the colossal ideological shift necessary for Hilton the Tory modernizer to become Hilton the flag-wagging Trump fan. Because if there’s a consistent ideological thread running through Hilton’s career, then Hilton isn’t simply a conman, or a bone-deep careerist who read the tealeaves of Western conservatism and hitched himself to its ascendant “populist” wing. But Hilton is an opportunist and a fraud, and evidence of the shallowness of his professed convictions is easy to find. Some of it is by omission: While he worked for the Tories, Hilton espoused a vague, gestural environmentalism, formalized in the slogan “vote Blue, go Green” (at one point, in a typically befuddling touch, Hilton arranged for silver birch saplings to be handed out during a press conference). It isn’t as if climate change has become less of a problem in the intervening years, so why does Positive Populism not include a single measly subsection on it?

Or take immigration, the primary antagonism wherever the new right-wing populism rears its head. Positive Populism dissembles here, with Hilton integrating some very Trumpian passages with more innocent stuff about the value of legal immigration (remembering, at all times, his own immigrant background). It’s a different story on his show, however, as was evidenced during a discussion he had with Ann Coulter about Trump’s migrant separation policy. Here is what Coulter said about the widely-circulated images of caged, weeping children:

They’re laughing and crying on all the other networks 24/7 right now: do not fall for it Mr President… These kids are being coached; they’re given scripts to read by liberals. Don’t fall for the actor children.

An appropriate response to this might be to scream, or to thump your head repeatedly against the nearest metal surface—and if not that, to at least offer some pushback, anything, in the name of moral dignity. Hilton, as craven a starfucker to have ever simpered his way into a Fox News green room, simply giggled. Actually, that isn’t quite right—he also said “umm,” “well,” “right,” and “see, I knew I wouldn’t get a word in!” before cutting to a break.

And yet: While in the U.K. Hilton was supportive of immigration, even claiming to have voted Green in 2001 in protest at the ‘skinhead conservatism’ of the Tory election campaign. That is, when he thought of it at all—having scoured a number of books about the coalition, I’ve been able to find precisely one mention of him even considering immigration while in No. 10. It reads thusly: “Hilton was anxious that immigration should not become a focus in the 2010 election campaign.”

To really make sense of Steve Hilton, you have to stop listening to him for a moment, and treat him instead as an anthropological object, to be understood by being situated in the politics that produced him. He began working for the Conservative party at the start of the ’90s, when the central antagonisms of British politics were just beginning to collapse into one another. Thatcherism produced Blairism, which in turn gave birth to Cameronism, and any pretense of authentic ideological difference between the main parties resolved into arguments about who was a better friend to the City. New Labour took us into Iraq and deregulated the banks; Cameron passed gay marriage and “hugged a hoodie.” Politics narrowed: An indigenous British “Third Way”—a kind of social democracy with Thatcherite characteristics—became the only game in town. You could nudge the dial a little, but you couldn’t question its base assumptions: an economy given over to the market, and a cultural sphere dominated by a bland, legalistic liberalism. The Tories may have only come to power towards the end of that time, after the 2008 financial crash had set Britain on its inertial course towards Brexit, but they were fashioned firmly in its image.

Hilton rejects this elite consensus now, but it was precisely its atmosphere that gave him a Westminster pulpit from which to preach his curious brand of civic-minded, environmentally conscious blue-sky bullshit. After all, the Tory party before Cameron had little need for ideas, at least not the sort he was selling. His weaver-of-dreams role may have been unusual, but its function was clear; to modernize the party, and in doing so to capture some of the metropolitan, upper middle-class constituency that delivered New Labour four successive terms in government.

If Brexit brought this era to a close, then, it wasn’t the politics of Steve Hilton that did it, but a self-conscious rejection of them by an embittered and marginalized Conservative base. It signified this base, steeped in an Englishness more inflexible than their rulers realized, wreaking their revenge on the modernizers and detoxifiers who had held their votes captive for a decade.

It is obvious that Steve Hilton is a fraud, and that the populist movement he claims membership of represents a backlash against the politics he has spent his life building. Of course, demonstrating someone to be a fraud isn’t much good on its own. It isn’t going to get him booted off Fox—if that were how public life worked, CNN would have successfully impeached Trump on primetime. And so, towards the end of his terrible book, I began thinking about what it would take to defeat Steve Hilton and anyone else who tries to peddle new fake “populisms.” It seems to me—and this is hardly an original insight—that it would require widespread acquaintance with a compelling left-populism, one that explains people’s grievances and presents them with real solutions, all in the same register of speech. A populist message, with a populist substance: nothing resembling the capitalist tweaks and machinations on show here. Hilton has previously professed admiration for Bernie Sanders, but it’s interesting to imagine what would happen to his show in the event of a Sanders Presidency. Confronted with the reality of instituted populism, I expect that he’d become just another outraged Fox host, crying socialism at the first sign of a tax hike.

If you want phony populism to go away, you have to offer people the real thing.  

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