Populism has a democratic-appearing, people-oriented, inclusive-sounding name, but there is nothing cuddly about it. It is exploitative, divisive demagoguery, relying on lies, slogans and scapegoating of an invented enemy. It garners support for a movement, Party or Leader to enable power to be acquired and minority interests and policies to prevail over the best interests of the majority or indeed of the whole country.
Scapegoating enables personal, social and national problems and difficulties to be blamed on someone else, or on some other country, institution or movement. This so-called blameable entity can then, justifiably, be insulted, demeaned, smeared, vilified and inflated into an enemy of the people. The populist leader can then lead his followers in a crusade up against this enemy to claim eventual victory. This creates perpetual and maximal Conflict Politics. Them and Us.
Along with scapegoating goes victimhood. If you feel deprived of something by somebody, you are a victim, which justifies strong action to reclaim or hold on to what is presented as rightfully yours.
Populist leaders invariably employ the cult of personality. A distinctive way of speaking or dressing, a mannered or seemingly obsessive conviction, and an artificial passion about patriotism, together with carefully managed and staged appearances, encourages the belief among followers that The Dear Leader can do and say no wrong and must be obeyed.
Scapegoating is exploited by all dictators and would-be dictators, from Hitler, and Mussolini, through to Putin, Modi, Maduro, Bolsonaro, Erdogan, Kim Jong-un and Lukashenko, among others. Via this process they energise a determined band of followers of a certain persuasion who, through their indignation at being denied something by somebody, however falsely, and their sense of grievance, get whipped up into a frenzy of opposition and hateful activity. Normally quite sensible people seem to suspend their powers of reason and can end up holding resentful placards outside election offices, or storming the Capitol building to stop an elected President from being formally confirmed in office, or even to commit murder.
It is all entirely non-rational, cynical, and an anathema to normal discourse, to conventional politics of a consensual, unifying or truth-telling kind, and to democratic processes and values. Unfortunately, all too often it works, but at the price of a divided society.
A wide range of methods including vote-rigging, propaganda on a massive scale, side-lining officials, control of the media, police brutality, and rigging of the justice system, enables the true dictator to stay in power. The USA didn’t quite get that far, but it was headed in that direction, and suddenly it seemed quite possible.
The Republican Party
The Republican Party in the USA in recent years and even recent decades has become more and more corrupted by its addiction to power, its rejection of bi-partisanship, and its willingness to use all available means, including deeply undemocratic means, to secure power, hold on to it, abuse it, and thwart any execution of Democratic Party policies however it could. A better example of this could not be found than Mitch (Senate Minority Leader) McConnell’s, hypocrisy over the recent Trump Impeachment. He voted against Impeachment and, immediately after the Impeachment vote, he made a speech saying that Trump was responsible for the Capitol Hill riot but then immediately after that said he would support Trump’s 2024 candidature for President.
The Republican Abraham Lincoln led the anti-slavery forces from the North of the country. Since Barry Goldwater in the 1960s, and down through Reagan and then the Tea Party to Trump, they have become a Reactionary Party, drawing much of their support from the West and the South. They have an inequality agenda, opposing the Civil Rights movement, and draw support from the States with racist tendencies (see ‘What is Happening to the Republicans’, The New Yorker, Jelani Cobb, March 8, 2021). Unfortunately for them, demographics are against them, they are likely to find it more and more difficult to win elections fairly, so they are having to rely more and more on methods like scapegoating, partisan politics and vote-rigging to improve their chances. They have enormous wealth from donations and a right-wing media and an unregulated social media to support them.
The USA’s democratic institutions and procedures have been exposed as not fit for purpose, and Republicans are exploiting these systemic deficiencies to gain and hold on to power and to thwart the Democrats. The Senate is over-represented by Republican senators in relation to the popular vote, because all states have two senators, and states vary wildly in population, with a few high population states like New York and California which are Democrat-leaning, and many lower population states such as Iowa and Georgia which are Republican-leaning.
The filibuster as used in the US Senate means that senator(s) can speak for as long as they like unless 60 senators vote to close the debate (cloture). See also The Economist, ‘How to Renew America’s Democracy’, Leader, March 13th 2021. This has enabled the Republicans to prevent gun control, prevent universal health care and prevent new Environmental Laws such as a carbon tax. The recent passage of the huge stimulus package was only passed under the simple majority rule because for technical reasons it was designated as a ‘Reconciliation’ measure, and because one benefit within it, unemployment benefit, was reduced at the insistence of one Democrat senator, Joe Manchin (see Joe Manchin, ‘Wild Man of the Mountains’, Economist, 21 March 2021), who is a Democrat in name only, and mostly votes according to Republican principles. Manchin is also a supporter of the filibuster, so there seems little prospect of that insuperable hurdle being removed soon.
Then there is State ‘gerrymandering’, regular re-districting to bias election outcomes in favour of Republican candidates, ‘vote-rigging’, the systematic limitation of voting options in relation to voting by mail, and where and when you can vote, which is currently the subject of Republican legislation in 40 States. See story by Vann R. Newkirk II ‘To My Mother’, The Atlantic Daily 11 February 2021; and Esquire, ‘This Is the Other Shoe Dropping From When John Roberts Gutted the Voting Rights Act’ of 3 February 2021).
Populism, the corrupted Republican Party and the deficiencies in the system, all help to explain why inequality, poverty and high murder rates are widespread in the USA, why big business interests are so powerful, why so much money circulates to support the Party, individual politicians and political advertising campaigns, and why so many huge industries – agri-business, pharma, oil, health, IT, defence, finance, and media – call so many of the shots in Government.
With so many public sector appointments politicised, and senior appointments made not on merit but on the strength of loyalty to the Party or to the President himself, democracy is undermined to the disbenefit of most citizens.
Trump, supported all the way by the Republican Party, exploited all this to the full, with many invented enemies who were respected people, institutions in public life and even countries, such as North Korea (‘Little Rocket Man’), Iran, the European Union and China (the ‘China Virus’), but not Russia. There were partisan judicial appointments, nepotism, destructive ‘yes men’ placed at the top of judicial, environment, intelligence and security bodies and even at the top of the Postal Service, pardons for lawbreakers, sneers, smears and threats for anyone who crossed him, a hostile environment for immigrants, refugees and asylum-seekers, support for thuggish racists and white supremacists, tax breaks for the well-off, and business and career opportunities for himself and his family.
Donald Trump, Populist, claimed he wanted to ‘Drain the Swamp’ and ‘Make America Great Again’. His pitch was that ‘The Establishment’ i.e., mainly the previous Government run by Democrats and led by Obama and Clinton, had abused its power in its own interests and manipulated national affairs against the interests of the ordinary working man and woman. Example policies he pointed to were letting too many immigrants and Muslims into the country, implementing green policies which harmed fossil fuel industries, and outsourcing too many industries and American jobs to China.
Having gained the Presidency on this basis in 2016-17, he then set about implementing his ideas, drawing condemnation from around the world for his policies and methods. These included calling climate change a hoax and withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord and WHO; introducing huge sanctions against China in an effort to bolster American jobs; threatening to withdraw from NATO; making clear his dislike of the European Union, his strong approval of Brexit and Boris Johnson personally, and calling Prime Minister May and Chancellor Merkel ‘losers’; conducting unrecorded one-to-one dialogues with Kim Jong Un and Putin; attempting to smear Biden by pressurising the President of the Ukraine over defence equipment supplies; withdrawing US forces from Syria thereby abandoning the Kurdish allies who had been largely responsible for defeating ISIS, but pleasing his mate Erdogan; ignoring Palestinian interests while strongly supporting the right-wing Israeli Government; making clear his admiration for the dictator President Putin; blocking travel from certain Middle-Eastern countries; building a wall to deter immigration from Mexico; embarking on a culture war which demeaned and insulted non-white citizens and immigrants; pressurising Georgia election officials to ‘find’ 11,000 more votes for him; using Executive Orders to reverse years of pro-Environment legislative improvements etc. etc.
An appalling record of the undemocratic abuse of Presidential Power, creating near-anarchy on the world stage, which was not controlled or moderated in any way by his Republican Party. This was Populism in action, demagoguery, to the enormous detriment of the citizens of the United States and the world. All in plain sight, without any hint of possible reservation, error, regret, or apology – narcissism of the most blatant kind, on the grandest stage.
He developed a strong personal following by communicating directly with the public via Twitter, and through his widely televised rallies, and despite it being recorded that he lied over 20,000 times during his presidency, and despite making thousands of outrageous, insulting and provocative statements, he was fully supported by the Republican Party and the unbelievably-partisan right-wing media.
The final outcome from the Trump Presidency was that American democracy was brought almost to its knees by his outrageous attempts to secure a second term in office, claiming that the November 2020 election result was fraudulent, and that he was the victim of a ‘Deep State’ conspiracy – the ‘Greatest Witch-Hunt in History’. He continues to promote the blatant and disgraceful lie that he won the 2020 election, and to energise his followers on that basis. Most members of the Republican Party publicly agree with him, and Republican members of Congress are refusing to work with Democrats to overcome the Pandemic and get the US economy back on track, putting their own personal prospects as they see them ahead of their responsibility to uphold American democracy and to speak the truth. The Republican Party is now a corrupted party.
Trump was supported by the British populists, Farage, Johnson and Gove. Both Boris Johnson and Michael Gove were deeply impressed by Trump. Gove wrote a fawning account of his interview with Trump. Johnson was referred to as mini-Trump, and said Trump should be nominated for a Nobel Prize. He was reported as having described Hillary Clinton as ‘like a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital’. Farage described Trump as ‘the bravest man I know’. Johnson was absolutely delighted to be photographed with Trump in the White House.
Trump, the Republican Party, and Johnson and the Conservative Party, became mutually supportive, ideological soulmates.
Biden and the Democrats are now doing their best to row America back from the worst excesses of the Trump years, and the descent towards Fascism which would have occurred if Trump had won a second term, which he nearly did. Their hardest and most important task will be to bring in reforms to the political system, in the form of electoral and constitutional reforms, to make equality Government, for the citizens and by the citizens, more of a reality, and to prevent the forces of illiberalism represented by the Republican Party and their dysfunctional approach to American democracy from returning to power. Republicans are resisting all this like crazy.
When one party in a two-party system of democracy goes rogue, democratic government becomes very fraught.
Write to us at [email protected]