I do not want to write about Donald Trump. He is a horrible human being and the fact he is the President of the United States scares the hell out of me. His views are splashed over the media stream and twitter feed every day, and a lot more intelligent people than I have written countless articles analyzing the miscreant so I don’t really need to add anything to the depressing subject of Trump.
What I do want to talk about is the issue of populism. The media has deemed Trump a populist president and talks about a wave of populism sweeping over Europe. Duterte in the Philippines and Bolsonaro in Brazil have given it a global accent. The reason I feel compelled to write this column is that there is a sense Canada may become infected with a racist and reactionary brand of populism. We have Maxime Bernier with something called the People’s Party of Canada. Bernier, a former Conservative cabinet minister, says the party will advocate for “smart populism” which he says means speaking for “all Canadians” and not appeasing “special interest groups”. In the meantime we have the recent election of Trump wannabes Ford and Kenney. Are their election victories examples of populism or just the same old right wing political thinking?
It is important to define populism but it turns out to be a very slippery concept to nail down. At a London School of Economics conference back in 1967 a gathering of academics could not come up with a clear definition of populism. According to Peter C Baker writing in the Jan 10/19 edition of the Guardian, “Populism, specialists now agree, is an ideologically portable way of looking at politics as a forum for opposition between “the people” and “elites”. This definition creates more questions: is the conceptual “people” of populism inherently defined in a way that spells danger to pluralistic co-existence? Or ,less menacingly, is the idea of “the people” a necessary and always malleable concept simply part of what it means to do politics.”
To add to this we might include Niall Ferguson’s criteria for the creation of a populist movement. Ferguson is a conservative historian and Fellow at the Hoover Institute. He says those criteria are (1) rising immigration, (2) increasing inequality, (3) perception of corruption, (4) a major financial crisis, and finally (5) a demagogue. All these conditions existed in the US with the 2008 financial crisis, with the bailouts of huge corporations and the subsequent stagnant “recovery” for most working folk, and the subsequent realization that the system was rigged to benefit the wealthy. Throw in a touch of racism and xenophobia and enter Donald Trump to make it all jump. Now, how a pampered millionaire bore like Trump could be seen to be of “the people” is beyond me but with Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller crafting his campaign, he convinced enough voters, or at least Electoral College voters, to buy his line. In fact if you look at the vast majority of leaders of these populist political parties around the world, they are wealthy white males from the ruling elites of their countries. Also the funds used to proselytize their new religion come from wealthy donors like the Koch brothers.
This contradiction seems to make no difference to the true believers. Of course most, but by no means all, of the true believers are older white males, just not rich. When these “populists” talk of speaking for “all Canadians” or “for the people” what they are talking about is their own particular group. What often differentiates right wing and left wing populist movements is that nationalist and nativist beliefs are a core element in right wing populism. So, in the US, racism against blacks and Latinos, along with a dash of Islamophobia, draws in whites seeking scapegoats for their perceived fallen status in society. The European populist talk of “real” or “pure” Italians, French etc., excluding all those s0-called special interest groups like immigrants from their former colonies and the children of those immigrants who were born in their new homelands.
So what is the difference between this right wing populist movement and the old right wing politics? The Reform Party in the 1990’s could be described as a populist party railing against Eastern elites, multiculturalism and trade unions. The Conservatives under Harper had many of the same policies of the Reform Party and much of the same base but they were definitely not a populist party. They were the elite and they served the elite institutions of the capitalist economy. There doesn’t seem to be much difference except how much exposure populists are receiving presently in the media. Bernier’s People’s Party did poorly in the four recent by-elections. In Europe, except for Hungary and maybe Italy, they generally receive less than 20% of the vote. That is a definite concern but it is not the vast global tsunami some would have us believe.
Naomi Klein in a recent interview was asked how we combat this populist movement. “Social resentment has been an important part of the consensus behind Trump. But it is not something new: the permanent and systematic pitting of working class whites against blacks, men against women, citizens against migrants, was crucial in building today’s corporate dystopia. It is a strategy of “divide and rule” which has always been one of the elite’s most powerful weapons against real democracy. For precisely this reason, it is vital we follow an “intersectional” approach as embraced by many American movements. This means understanding how multiple issues – race, gender, income, migrant status, climate crisis – intersect and overlap within an individual’s life experience. Even in the deep structures of power. We must be able to show the role played by the politics of division and separation to overthrow such politics instead of following them.”
In Populism: A Very Short Introduction, Cas Mudde describes contemporary populism as an “illiberal democratic response to an undemocratic liberalism” and “one that asks the right questions but provides the wrong answers.” It is incumbent on all of us who want real change, positive change to our broken political and economic system, to help our fellow citizens to find the right answers.