One reason why the word ‘populist’ is so dodgy is that people get coy about saying who makes up the ‘populus’ – or who are in the crowd? Everyone standing for election in a democracy appeals to the people. All candidates are therefore in some sense ‘populist’, unless you whittle down the reach of that term.
You get a similar puzzle with another weasel word – the ‘elite’. In a representative democracy, the people are governed by those elected or appointed for that purpose – the chosen, or the elect, or the elite. If you seek election because you are opposed to the ‘elite’, what happens when you join the elite? This is a real question for at least one faith. How do you establish a church on the life and teaching of a man whose whole mission was to blow the establishment to kingdom come?
To be a true ‘populist’, then, you can only appeal to some of the people. Hanson, Farage, and Trump are popularly described as ‘populists’. What sorts of the people do they appeal to?
Well, if we look at the people who attend Trump’s rallies, we may get some idea. It’s a fair inference that Trump appeals to them and that they appeal to him. He basks in their adulation and he gets that smarmy beatific smile that may remind older readers of Liberace on the other side of the candelabra on the grand piano.
The first question is why is the president holding rallies at all while he is in office? Why isn’t he governing the country? Why is he more interested in kneeling footballers than the misery of people on Puerto Rico? (Well, he did take time to Tweet that they would have to repay Wall Street. That was sensible and kind of him.) The answer is that Trump holds these rallies because he is only in the job for what he can get out if it, and not for what he can do for his country. His ego needs stroking. He could not pass a Kelvinator without opening the door to feel the light shine upon him. He has to feed the Fox.
And he is lazy and weak. He much prefers the safety of his faithful to doing the hard work needed to implement hard decisions. He is so obviously a spoiled child that it’s embarrassing. Chuck and Nancy know that they only have to drop in for a bite, and their president will roll over like a sated schnauzer. Someone remarked that Trump’s book may have to be renamed – The art of lying down. When Trump fails, which he does nearly all the time now, he just picks up his bat and ball and retires behind the moat of his appalling Fifth Avenue castle.
Assuming that people who attend these rallies of Trump are of average intelligence, they must understand all this. The first thing to say about them, therefore, is that they are prepared to go along with a charade to boost or sedate their president.
The next thing is that they are keen – ever so keen – to get in on the show. They look like they love being part of this exalted form of live TV show. They giggle all the time. They can’t wait to tell the folks at home. They are integral to the entertainment – and the sustenance of their leader. Their role is to follow him devoutly, if not blindly. They look like they have been worked up beforehand. (Stephen Miller had that gig during the campaign.) They cheer and clap when they should. They growl and boo on cue.
They clearly want to believe. Anyone who believed Trump’s promise to build the wall and get Mexico to pay for it is at best credulous. (The other word is ‘gullible’, for which the OED has ‘easily duped.’) Most people turn off snake oil salesmen, but those who don’t are evidently willing to take what’s on offer – with no intervention from any critical faculty. If someone bought the house next door to you, and said that they would build a great wall but get you to pay for it – who would you consult first, your lawyer or your shrink?
The suspension of the critical faculty is fundamental. You don’t go to one of these spruikers to get analytical. You go because you like the show the spruiker puts on. It’s all a big show, but you remain part of a cause. Your attachment to that cause is emotional, not intellectual. You have no interest at all in a detached consideration of evidence that may lead to what other people outside your circle call truth.
These followers mostly get their news filtered for them by Facebook, that vast mind-numbing ogre. The Internet usually spares them from material critical of their leader. His slogan of ‘fake news’- any news he doesn’t like – is silly enough, but for his loyal followers, his close cadre, it perfectly sums up any source that disparages their leader – and that includes all the mainstream press – except that State Owned Television called Fox. ‘Truth’ isn’t just relative. It’s dead.
The people who rally to Trump are big on boxes and labels and classes. In their eyes, the problems of the world are simply sourced. The world is split in two. Us v Them. Good Guys v Bad Guys. You’re with us or you’re against us. Conflict and division are central to the world view of these people. You can hear it in the cheering and booing of the mob at the rallies. This mob makes George W Bush look like a contemplative intellectual.
Now the rally starts to go from being just silly to being plain ugly. Trump embraces and embodies this division and conflict. Someone pleasingly called him a social pyromaniac. He channels the fears and hopes of the crowd. And he exploits them. He is a walking incendiary when he is priming what is called his ‘base’.
People who resort to snake oil salesmen are not generally among life’s winners. The winners don’t have to stoop, intellectually or morally, to find some form of uplift in their lives. The losers feel like they need to do just that. They in some ways resemble dying cancer victims. They will pledge their faith in any course, however strange or derided, that offers them any prospect at all of getting better.
Trump says that he understands the concerns of his base. He persuades his followers that their resentment – this chip on their communal shoulder that evokes your memory of flying over the Grand Canyon – is justified. He tells them that their grievances are real; that he can identify the causes of those grievances; and that he will eliminate those causes of their ills. He then banishes all thought by wrapping up these messianic promises in preposterous nostrums – like drain the swamp, build the wall, and make America great again. And the faithful show their faith by parroting this nonsense.
Now, this is where the rally gets really nasty. When people like Trump say that they have found the source of unhappiness of their followers, what they are doing is getting ready to put out their scapegoats. Trump knows very little history, but even he knows the central role of scapegoats of the leading populists of the twentieth century. A scapegoat is a person who is blamed for the wrongs or mistakes of others. The process is usually intellectually inane and morally vicious.
Scapegoats are no different for Trump, except that he uses a scattergun. A key feature of his mode of operation is his immoderation. He knows neither moderation nor shame, and he is in your face like a terrorist. It’s his main shock tactic – after his divorce from truth and reality. This man has no conscience and he does not know shame. It’s all there in his upbringing.
Trump’s scapegoats include – every previous government, but especially President Obama; all the security services, especially the CIA, FBI and James Comey; as of recently, most of the Congress; all the ‘mainstream media’ (again except Fox); immigrants; Latinos; China; international trade and treaties; and any form of internationalism.
Trump also believes that African Americans are inferior. He is a little cagier about how he shows this, but it is there. For example, he was so struck by the grace of the writing of Obama’s memoire that he said that Obama couldn’t have written it. He had to pin it on a white man. That was of course a lie. Just like all his nonsense about Obama’s birth. By contrast, the man who did write The Art of the Deal said Trump did not write one word of it.
I omitted Muslims from that list of scapegoats. Trump was not all coy about his disdain for Muslims. You can say the same for Farage and Hanson, but the brash vulgarity of Trump will do him no good in court on this issue.
Can anyone point to a decent leader who leaned so heavily on scapegoats?
If this picture is fair, it is certainly not pretty. The truth is that these Trump rallies are frightening. The rant after Charlottesville was terrifying. Even less pretty is the way the Murdoch press and Fox and Sky TV both feed and manipulate this mob.
There was a very sad instance of just how nasty this mob can be at a rally the other day. Trump resembles medieval kings in that he believes that he can do no wrong. This means that he has to find new scapegoats all the time. His latest attempt to disempower if not kill off the poor came with the latest attempt to kill the loathed Obama’s affordable health care – something that the rest of the West takes for granted.
Again John McCain was like the boy who stood on the burning deck. He therefore was responsible for frustrating Trump. He therefore had to be the latest scapegoat. So Trump gave the mob their cue and they booed John McCain. At the invitation of their leader, who has given every proof that he is utterly unfit for this office, this cruel and ugly crowd booed a decent Republican senator; an American who had fought for his country in Vietnam (for which he was publicly insulted by this president, who had evaded such service); John McCain is a man visibly fighting cancer in the brain; and as it happens, he is about the last man standing between this president and the members of this mob losing their rights to affordable health care. When the mob gets this nasty, they resemble the Klan – an evil group that this president thought contained ‘some very fine people’.
If these are the sorts of people that support ‘populists’, what good could ever come of it? It’s sad melange of inanity, greed, jealousy and malice. There is an obvious resemblance to other grotesque ‘populists’ in the past, but what good ever came from any of them? For that matter, what good ever came from any nationalist – apart, perhaps, from Boadicea and Joan of Arc?
It’s much the same with Hanson and Farage. Their scapegoating of Muslims is overt; their promises could most politely be described as promiscuous; and those who follow them cling to the narrowest possible definition of citizenship. It’s as if their nationalism is all that they have in life.
And if you even dare to hint that those who follow these people may be stupid, you will immediately be branded as one of the – yes, you guessed it – ‘elite’. This preoccupation with those people who are qualified to run a country is truly wondrous. If someone is serious about getting rid of all those who know how to run a country and its institutions, they should have the courage of the Red Guards. They insisted that they should run the maternity ward rather than trained nurses. The cruelty and misery were beyond description.
Here is a bar room poser for you. Out of Hanson, Farage and Trump, who is the more personally revolting? My choice would be Farage. Trump is an overblown spoiled child who is a mindless bully divorced from truth. Hanson may just believe some of what she says, and at least she has come up the hard way. The other two come from backgrounds of unimaginable privilege, which just makes their hypocrisy so much more nauseating.
But the deceptions of Farage look to me to be far more calculated. He loves toying with minds. It’s the only thing he’s ever succeeded in. He recently endorsed the AfD in Germany and introduced Steve Bannon as the leading political thinker in the western hemisphere. (Who would be his main challengers in the East?) Farage took off as soon as his horse crossed the line, and he left it to the others to do the hard part.
In AFL terms, Farage could parachute out of a worm’s bum. If there is such a thing as a ‘populist’ politician, Farage is its Platonic idea. I can’t work out why some people are happy that some other people believe in Farage. But, then again, you can turn on Sky TV most nights and find some commentators who claim to admire Donald Trump. How did it ever come to this?