It’s Trump o’clock: Populism’s moments of alarm

We should stop worrying about politicians who use populist means to gain voters. Instead, let’s pay closer attention to populists who try pulling the rug out from under liberal democracy.

ACTIVISTS WEAR masks depicting the face of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the French far-right National Front, with the hair of current party leader, his daughter Marine Le Pen, during a demonstration last year. (photo credit: GONZALO FUENTES / REUTERS)
ACTIVISTS WEAR masks depicting the face of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the French far-right National Front, with the hair of current party leader, his daughter Marine Le Pen, during a demonstration last year.
Everywhere, people talk about right-wing populism. Ever since 2016’s Brexit referendum and the election of President Trump, this has become a kind of monster under the bed. Two Vice Media documentaries, three episodes of The Daily Show and a copy of The New York Times are about as much you need to get the idea that populist conservatism is the new black.
In the midst of mass hysteria, one can hardly distinguish muted voices of scholars who have dedicated their lives to studying the political philosophy that stands behind the “P-word”. And no, it isn’t a snap of Donald Trump shaking hands with Marine Le Pen at an FPÖ rally full of marauding masses carrying out postmodern pogroms.
It’s something a tad more complicated than that.
In a nutshell, the rise of right-wing populism in the 21st century is a reaction to rapid economic, social and cultural change.
Join globalization, digitization, changes in the labor market and new migration flow with Elon Musk’s weekly, mind-blowing roundups and you get the gist of it. Change is hard.
While some parts of the society readily accept the new reality, others remain hostile and uncomfortable. Once they start to feel that their concerns and grievances aren’t being represented by the established progressive elites – they turn to right-wing populists. They turn to parties and leaders who claim to speak in their names and offer simple, fast solutions that will return them to the safety of their old comfort zone.
And you know what? That sounds very natural to me. There is nothing inherently wrong in trying to win over voters by promising them a collective conservative break before we all continue our “Tesla season to be jolly” parade. The world is moving forward regardless. And realistically, there is nothing that can or should be done about that.
Before I get accused of sugarcoating and simplifying, hear this: It isn’t right-wing populism we should be concerned about – it is the populism itself.
Let me decode that for you. The central tenet of populist ideology is that democracy should reflect the pure and undiluted will of the people, defending their rights and power against the privileged elite. Such a premise can sit easily with ideologies of both European right-wingers and their American left-wing counterparts.
But who are these mysterious people whose will populists so vigorously defend? And is their will really as undiluted as we want it to be? I’m inclined to believe that in the populist context, the “people” and their “will” are largely molded through the use of some central agency, often taken up by the figure of the “leader.”
THAT IS why populists are so quick at constructing the “We” – a popular identity against “Them” – a common enemy. And regardless of whether you believe that this process is inevitable in any political process, it is hard to argue with the fact that populism has the capacity to take the process to a whole other level: to a level where imaginary marauding masses mold into an authoritarian leader who knows the “will” of the “people” better than they do themselves.
Here is the deal: We shouldn’t worry about the politicians who use populist means to gain voters as part of their catchall politics. These may actually present an opportunity to shed light on weaknesses and blind spots of representative democracy.
Instead, we need to pay closer attention to people who utilize populism to strategically undermine the very foundations of democratic governance: the rule of law, press freedom, separation of powers and civil rights.
How do we distinguish between the two? Populist politicians make many promises and some of them are more dangerous than others. Conservative rollback on globalization and “political correctness,” along with the pinky promise to bring about a more inclusive representation, are neither dangerous nor evil. Promises and actions to create a “strong hand,” a new world order and free money are what we should truly dread. These fantasies betray liberalism.
Don’t take my word for it – read up on Hugo Chávez and his rotten legacy.
Excuse the drama, but I was born and raised in a country where such a postmodern Leviathan isn’t merely a handy metaphor.
That is why I believe populism, at its triumph, is a serious challenge to liberal democracy. That is why I cringe whenever I see people who have been enjoying the benefits of liberalism get fascinated by strong leaders that promise to solve the world’s problems for them.
They remind me of a woman living in a happy marriage with a lovely, yet boring husband who goes out of his way to find a compromise. She knows she has it good, but sometimes, over a cup of coffee, she can’t help but fantasize about her neighbor’s husband – a bad boy, a charismatic, dashing and bold know-it-all. The bad news is that the bad boy cannot help but cheat, misbehave and manhandle, while the wife either doesn’t know any better or cannot build up the courage to leave.
Waking up from a teenage fantasy is a lot easier than crawling out of a miserable and abusive marriage. Similarly, fighting for rejuvenated social or liberal democracy where democracy is already in place, is far simpler than transitioning to democracy where none exists. This is the good news.
The writer is a Russian journalist currently pursuing a graduate degree in political science at Tel Aviv University.