Poverty Protest in front of Bucharest Parliament Daniel Mihailescu/Getty Images

Populism for the Rich

Modern populism is often described as a new class war between the beneficiaries of a globalized world and those who feel left behind. But the newly rich are as important a force in the rise of populism as the poorer and less educated people who feel neglected by the elites.

BUCHAREST – I recently joined a tour in Bucharest of the Palace of Parliament, the gigantic folly built in the 1980s on the orders of the late Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu, who was executed before he could see it finished. The statistics rehearsed by our guide were staggering: the third biggest edifice in the world, 220,000 square feet of carpet, one million cubic meters of marble, 3,500 tons of crystal. The enormous marble stairways had to be rebuilt several times to match exactly the steps of the dictator, who was a small man.

To construct this neoclassical monstrosity, an entire swath of the city, a beautiful area of eighteenth-century houses, churches, and synagogues, was razed, displacing 40,000 people. More than a million people worked on the project non-stop day and night. It pretty much bankrupted the state, even as Ceauşescu’s subjects had to do without heat and electricity for much of the time. It still costs more than $6 million a year to maintain the palace, which now houses the Romanian parliament and an art museum, leaving 70% of the building unused.

Ceauşescu’s folly is a monument to megalomania. But it is by no means unique, except in its size (though Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has tried to rival it in scale with his new palace in Ankara). It is indeed remarkable how megalomaniacs of a certain kind think alike, or at least share a similar taste in architecture. Hitler’s plans for the reconstruction of Berlin reflected the same neoclassical gigantism. And the interior of the palace in Bucharest, a kind of Louis XIV style on steroids, is just a more extravagant version of Donald Trump’s living quarters in Florida and New York.

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