Here and there – A populist


In a book about Kissinger, I find the following remarks about a populist.  I will refer to him as ‘Smith’ as I think a comparison may be instructive.

Smith was quick-witted, able to deal handily with hecklers, of whom there were many in the early years.  He was so attuned to his audience that he could adapt to any moods.  As a speaker he lived intensely in the moment – and what else does ‘presence’ mean?…..After he had gained sufficient renown, he could afford the pomp and circumstance that kept his audiences in a state of anticipatory excitation until his strategically delayed arrival on stage.  There were colourful banners, peppy march music, fiery introductory speeches to warm up the crowd – and then the main event, the attraction everyone had awaited so eagerly….

It was less what he said than how he said it…..Part of the magic was that Smith told people what they wanted to hear.  His pronouncements were not a challenge, but a confirmation of his followers’ assumptions and preconceptions, an incitement to cast off the dreary restrictions of civility and rationality and allow their emotions full Dionysiac release, above all a permission to maintain hope in the face of obdurate reality and to hate anyone or anything that was perceived to undermine that hope…..He appealed to a devastated populace that ….that had lost everything, including their established beliefs, felt a profound sense of grievance, and found consolation in a [nationalism] that was part sentimentality, and part utopianism, a sort of forward looking nostalgia…

Because he dwelled on longings instead of facts, he preferred abstractions to specifics, emphasizing honour, nation, family, loyalty.  What distinguished him was the totality of his commitment……He employed neither logic nor reason, but sheer passion…Smith didn’t need ideas.  He had the conviction of a convert….

More than one commentator has observed that Smith rallies were like religious revivals, where the crowds went not for articulation of policy positions, but for the release of unbridled emotion….Smith understood that his audiences wanted not only to be saved but also to enjoy themselves in the process…Smith rallies may have suggested prayer meetings; they also resemble Bruce Springsteen concerts.  Whoever imagined that salvation could be so much fun? 

Whatever else he might have been, Smith was a performer, dealing in mass entertainment.  He was no good in intimate settings….but put him on a stage and he was in his element. He knew how to work a crowd and how to package himself as a celebrity.  It didn’t matter what the press said   ‘The main thing is that they mention us.’

Weber said that someone who possessed passion but not a realistic sense of responsibility was little more than a political dilettante consumed by sterile excitements or by a romanticism that, in Weber’s words, ‘runs away to nothing.’  The demagogue in particular was unsuited to the vocation of politics because he runs a constant risk of becoming a play actor, making light of the responsibility for the consequences of his actions and asking only what ‘impression’ he is making…

Smith’s facility for dealing in dreams was enough to gain him a steadily growing following that was serious in its numbers yet fundamentally unserious in its ideas, substituting the lightness of desire for the concreteness of policy….The appeals to violence and the flouting of the law only increased his popularity among his admirers.

A ‘forward looking nostalgia’ is a useful notion.

Does the picture above best describe (1) Mussolini (2) Franco (3) Hitler (4) Tito (5) Kim Jong-Un (6) Erdogan (7) Orban (8) Johnson (9) Bolsonaro (10) Trump or (11) all of the above?

The book quotes a great definition of ‘diplomacy’ that judges and mediators might bear in mind: ‘It is the task of statesmanship to settle disputes in such a way as to minimise the damage to the prestige of the parties involved.’  ‘Face’ can be everything.

As for Kissinger, it is bad if you are too clever.

2 thoughts on “Here and there – A populist

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s