The Allure of Populism—and the Confusion with Fascism
Populist: 1) A member or adherent of a political party seeking to represent the interests of ordinary people. 2) A person who supports or seeks to appeal to the interests of ordinary people. Adj. Representing or appealing to the interests and opinions of ordinary people. Derivatives: Populism.
Fascism: An authoritarian and nationalistic right-wing system of government.
(Source: Oxford English Dictionary)
Sometimes a little clarity and precision is helpful before wading into a controversial area. Populist leaders, and populism as political movements, have been around a long time. With recent events in the United States and parts of Western Europe, it’s a good occasion to pause to reflect on the accuracies in media reporting when it comes to the use of the term “populism” and how some commentators are mixing it in with the detested and overused word “fascism.”
The rise of fascism in post-World War I Germany was the consequence of the June 1919 Treaty of Versailles and the onerous load that was placed on that nation to pay reparations to the Allied powers. The rub-your-face-in-the dirt treatment to the Germans, a proud people with a long history, combined with a populace susceptible to a charismatic World War I corporal by the name of Adolf Hitler, led eventually to World War II.
Reflect on this for a moment: Loss of national pride places a populace in a very vulnerable position to the emotional appeal of a charismatic leader.
Hitler capitalized on Germans’ pain and humiliation, and became in some ways a populist leader among his followers, except that he was not as much interested in representing the interests of Germans but more focused on prosecuting his distorted plan to re-make Germany as a pure Aryan race.
To be clear, Hitler was not a populist politician.
A number of factors and events have given rise to populism’s surge in recent years. Globalization, and its accompanying effects on global trade, the labor market, and domestic industries (manufacturing in particular), have amplified people’s fears. Add on the role that technology is playing in enabling most jobs to be done anywhere on the planet, and you have a potent mix to stoke the fears of citizens. Introduce a charismatic politician who cleverly knows how to manipulate the public and you have a potentially dangerous situation for a nation. (Above photo: Italy’s Benito “Il Duce” Mussolini)
Indeed, when one reflects on the individuals through history who have captured the hearts and minds of citizens, charisma is the common ingredient. Add a dash of Machiavellianism (the amoral pursuit of power) and fear of the unknown among a populace and you have a leader who may not necessarily be working towards society’s common good.
At this point, readers are likely thinking of one individual in particular: Donald J. Trump. We’ll come to him in a moment.
Populism is appealing to voters because it gives the perception that they’re taking back control from elected politicians to foster better representative democracy. If one does a fast rewind to the founding of the United States or Canada, the founders resisted the notion of citizens having a direct say in decision-making. It’s one reason why the requirements for the Senate of each country had strict requirements for being part of this body of second sober thought. Much of the population was excluded from potential membership.
As anthropology professor David Graeber explains in his excellent book The Democracy Project, the U.S. Constitution was modelled on Republican Rome, which had two consuls that filled a monarchical role. One was a permanent class of senators, while the other was composed of popular assemblies. In the case of the U.S., the Senate was designed to represent the interests of the wealthy, while Congress was to represent democracy. The latter’s role was mainly to raise and spend money. Popular assemblies were eliminated. The farmers of the Constitution were aware that they were building a new political structure that blended democratic and aristocratic elements.
Fast forward back to today and we’re seeing citizens pining for the misplaced belief of direct public involvement in the political decision-making process. Representative democracy is what Canada, the United States, Great Britain, and other Western nations were founded upon. In some jurisdictions, such as California, the use of referenda has grown to become politically inefficient and costly processes to involve citizens, but with frequent undesired outcomes.
America’s presidential election campaigns and the preceding party leadership nomination processes are nothing short of endurance marathons, making an Ironman competition look like a stroll in the park. The 2016 campaign saw the rise of two so-called “populists:” Bernie Sanders (pictured), a left-leaning, Brooklyn-born Vermont senator, who surprised everyone with his stamina and ability to create a following of largely younger people with basically a one-issue message. And Donald Trump, a real estate tycoon and reality show TV host who shocked the nation—indeed world—by beating out some 20 other contenders for the leadership of the Republican Party, and then went on to become President.
It was a bizarre year in U.S. politics, where the media in typical fashion (and not just America) turned into babbling idiots at times. The media’s inability to understand the history of populism and to distinguish it from fascism has been a sad commentary on the information-providing role it is supposed to play in society.
Donald Trump, because of his rantings on immigration, Mexico, Hillary Clinton, ISIS, defence spending, nuclear weapons, President Obama’s administration, and anyone who got in his cross hairs (such as women who claim he sexually assaulted them) was labelled a fascist by segments of the media and critics. Sure, he’s a bumbling businessman who excels in bankruptcies, but he’s very clever when it comes to the tax code and the entertainment business, where he was successful at turning the White House into a reality show during his four year tenure.
Trump is in some ways a populist because of the following he’s created, and surprisingly maintained following his 2020 election loss to Joe Biden, based on: a) his charisma and b) his ability to identify and exploit the fears that many Americans have on a long list of issues, from immigration to outsourcing jobs to healthcare. While his rantings about Mexicans being “rapists and murderers,” his insults aimed at women who’ve pissed him off, and his claim to “Make America Great Again” may come off as fascist in some respects, Trump fails the fascism test.
Donald Trump is not a fascist, and is a rather lousy populist politician. Specifically, he could have easily won the 2020 national election had he showed solid leadership during the Covid-19 pandemic. Sure, he’s a great reality show host. Perhaps he should be labelled an “Entertician,” a hybrid of politician and entertainer.
Compare Donald Trump to the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders (pictured), a nasty piece of work as a politician. Founder and leader of the Party for Freedom, Wilders is one of the most divisive individuals in Dutch politics. He has led the attack on immigration, Muslims and the European Union. In particular, he’s fighting against what he deems is the islamization of the Netherlands.
He’s used Twitter to state that the Netherlands needs few Moroccans, claiming that 43% of Dutch citizens stand behind this. The Dutch government is in the process of attempting to try Wilders for hate speech, specifically for inciting discrimination and hatred of Moroccans. However, with the Dutch showing growing intolerance for immigration and Islam, divisions are growing among the populace.
Wilders is certainly charismatic and has used this to great effect to rile up Dutch citizens, both those who are for and against him. But is he a populist leader? No, and no more than Donald Trump. Wilders claims to be speaking for ordinary Dutch citizens, yet he has in the process antagonized many people and divided the country—just like Mr. Trump.
The rise of the above-noted “populist” leaders has led many to suggest that fascism is on the increase and that politicians such as Donald Trump and Geert Wilders are feeding this trend. Russia’s Vladimir Putin has also been included in this list of fascist-style leader. Putin has capably created a loyal following of Russians through his populist appeal as an outdoors, macho guy who wants to make Russia great again (to borrow from Donald Trump). Of these three individuals, Putin is the closest to being a fascist leader, given some of his domestic and foreign antics in the past few years.
In contrast to the examples given, perhaps one of the best examples of a true populist leader who aimed to represent the interests of citizens—and succeeded—was Canada’s Tommy Douglas, leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, which later changed to the New Democratic Party. Douglas, noted for his barn-burner-style speeches in the 1950s and 60s, is Canada’s father of Medicare, the legislation of which was first enacted in the Province of Saskatchewan in 1962. In 2004 he was voted the country’s greatest Canadian. He died in 1986 of cancer at age 86. Douglas is a more appropriate example of populism than many of the weak cases given by media commentators.
And in the U.S., a modern example of a true populist is Bernie Sanders, as just noted, who created an incredible following across the country on a political platform of one issue: addressing how regular Americans have been screwed by the banks and big business and how it’s time to correct that problem.
Let’s pause and hear from someone who helps provide some historical context and perspective to the emerging trend to conflate populism with fascism.
Sheri Berman, a professor of political science at Columbia University, wrote an excellence piece in the November 2016 issue of Foreign Affairs. She states: “Despite real problems, the West today is confronting nowhere near the same type of breakdown it did in the 1930s. So calling [France’s Marine], Trump, and other right-wing populists “fascists” obscures more than it clarifies.”
Berman acknowledges that the right-wing populists of today share some similar traits as the fascists during the 1930s. However, she makes the key point that fascists, regardless of country, have in the past opposed democracy and liberalism (enabling free enterprise) and been suspicious of capitalism. That’s hardly Donald Trump’s stance.
Berman argues that right-wing extremists today are more oriented towards populism than fascism because they claim to speak for citizens. Besides, today’s context and socio-economic conditions can’t match those of the period between World Wars One and Two. Yet, her comment that populism of any kind is a “…symptom of democracy in trouble; fascism and other revolutionary movements are the consequences of democracy in crisis.” This is a warning to the United States and a number of countries experiencing various states of populism.
As the world moves forward in what’s been dubbed the Fourth Industrial Revolution (or the Digital Revolution), overlaid with the impending disaster that rising sea levels will impose, geo-political events, and an ageing population in many Western countries, it’s not surprising that populism appears to be surging in many countries. People are fearful of the unknowns that lie ahead.
And when one takes into account the frustrations that many people have with unresponsive elected bodies (read the U.S. Congress and Senate) and concerns in Western Europe with immigration, populism becomes very appealing to many voters. Just remember that populism comes in various shapes and forms, something to be very much avoided.
Take a moment to reflect on this thought: When emotion overrides reasoned debate and the valuing of diverse views, a nation’s representative democracy is on a slippery slope. JT
My dream is for people around the world to look up and to see Canada like a little jewel sitting at the top of the continent. — Tommy Douglas
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