Modern populism — what it isn’t

Populism has a bad name these days, which is odd when you consider that the Latin word “populus” means precisely the same as the Greek word “demos”, namely the common people. “Democracy” is a political system in which the demos or populus holds power (“krateia”) and it is universally regarded as a good thing. Populism is the prevailing philosophy of those common people. So why does everybody equate the current populist surge with fascism or worse?

I think there are probably two reasons. First, it is quite common for people to treat any new phenomenon as simply a repetition of an old and familiar one. Fascism itself, when it first appeared in the 1930’s, was seen as a recrudescence of traditional Prussian Juncker militarism. It took time to see that this was something new and different, and much more dangerous.

Secondly, everyone now agrees that fascism is a very bad thing, so calling something “fascist” is a good way to avoid having to take it seriously. But modern populism is not fascism. It is a new political movement and we need to know how to evaluate it. Here are some obvious points of difference between the two movements:

  1. Modern populist movements are as likely to belong to the left as to the right. In America in 2016, Bernie Sanders was just as much a populist as Donald Trump. Both men appealed to the same angry working class constituency. Yet Sanders identifies as a socialist, which is definitely a new thing in American mass politics. Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece are both left wing populist movements. Jeremy Corbyn, the former leader of the UK Labour Party, was just as much a populist as Nigel Farage, who used to lead UKIP; he was elected on a huge wave of popular support precisely because he was seen as not being a politician. Many commentators have observed that left-wing and right-wing populist parties have much more in common with each other than with the traditional parties.

  2. Fascists are authoritarians. They dream of an ordered, hierarchical society in which everyone knows his place, led by a “Great Man” to whom everyone gladly submits. Needless to say, this “Great Man” is the leader of the Fascist Party. And he is actually called “The Leader” (Der Fuehrer, Il Duce, El Caudillo...). Populists, on the other hand, are deeply suspicious of leadership and of anything that looks like an elite. To lead a populist party successfully, you must not look like a leader at all. Look at Farage: his persona is the bloke you meet in the pub, who smokes his fag, drinks his pint and speaks his mind. Or Trump, who was actually born into money, but who presents himself as an ordinary guy who made it rich by his own efforts, who still eats cheeseburgers and makes locker-room jokes about women’s pussies. Boris Johnson, a Tory populist, is a toff, but he’s the People’s Toff, Lord Snooty among the Bash Street Kids. His clothes are rumpled, his hair tousled and, before he became Prime Minister, he used to go to work every day on his bike. His toffishness, the fact that he went to Eton and can speak classical Latin fluently, is a kind of running joke, and his politics (apart from his stance on Brexit) are well to the left of most of his fellow conservatives. Or look at Beppe Grillo, the leader of the Italian 5-Star movement: he’s actually a professional comedian, as is the new prime minister of the Ukraine.

  3. The fascist love of hierarchy commonly manifests as an obsession with the military. Fascists love uniforms, jackboots, salutes, flags, parades, military titles and marching bands. Their leader usually appears in uniform at rallies. Populists, even right-wing ones, are not interested in any of these things and are usually repelled by them.

  4. Fascism always grows out of some perceived national humiliation. Usually this is defeat in war, but not always. Italy, for example, was part of the victors’ coalition in 1918, but was then humiliated by its stronger allies who denied it the extra lands that had been promised. They went to Yugoslavia instead. Fascists want revenge; their dream is to have a replay and win this time around. That is another reason why fascists love the armed forces. Populism, on the other hand, usually grows out of rapid cultural change that many people feel they can’t cope with. They just want things to go back to being the way they were when they themselves were children.

  5. Fascists attribute the humiliation their country has suffered to a secret “enemy within” who stabbed the country in the back. Usually this enemy is identified as Jews or communists (or both). The reason fascists expect a replay of events to give a different result is that they propose to get rid of these secret traitors beforehand. Populists also believe in an enemy within, but not a secret one. Their enemy is the “liberal elite” or “metropolitan elite”, that is to say people who are (or are perceived to be) well educated and well to do, living in big conurbations such as London or New York, doing well economically out of immigration and free trade, voting for left-of-centre parties and noisily defending minorities with a social justice agenda. Populists are in revolt against this group and want to see them stripped of their political power, but there is usually no suggestion of rounding them up and putting them in concentration camps. And they are not identified with any particular racial group.

  6. Fascism, particularly in its Nazi form, is profoundly racist and xenophobic. Their sense of national humiliation makes fascists overcompensate by seeing all foreign nations as racially and genetically inferior to them. This leads to the identification of their country with an ancient gene pool that has to be kept pure. Racial intermarriage horrifies them. Populism, especially of the right-wing sort, is also xenophobic but in a much more limited way. Populists strongly oppose immigration and what is perceived as foreign rule (for example the European Union), but have no particular grudge against foreigners who stay in their own country and don’t interfere with anyone else’s. And populist xenophobia has no real racist element. In the UK, for example, populists complain about Polish and Romanian immigrants who are racially indistinguishable from themselves, but often have a sentimental attachment to Sikhs and to the black Windrush immigrants, who are perceived as being culturally British.
In his book Whiteshift, the author, Eric Kaufmann, describes an interesting experiment in which white American and English people were asked to show their preference between two future demographic scenarios, dubbed the “melting pot” and the “salad bowl”. In the melting pot scenario, there was a mixed-race majority of about 55% which identified itself as white, though people of pure white descent were actually quite rare and mostly found in isolated rural areas. The rest of the population consisted of large black, Asian and (in America) Latino minorities. Not all members of the “white” majority looked white, but they all spoke English without an ethnic accent and identified with the past of their nation and its traditions and symbols. In the salad bowl scenario, whites were a minority of about 25% that mostly intermarried with each other to preserve their culture. The rest of the population consisted of various ethnic minorities, which also kept themselves to themselves. In the US, Democrats by and large preferred the salad bowl, Republicans the melting pot. When anti-Trump Republicans were taken out, the result was even more clear-cut: Trump supporters overwhelmingly preferred to be part of a mixed-race but culturally white majority rather than a pure white minority. Exactly the same was observed in the case of Brexit voters in the UK, compared to Remain voters.

You could hardly imagine anything less like fascism! To fascists, any kind of racial mixing is anathema because it adulterates “superior” blood with “inferior”. Populists on the other hand are essentially egalitarian and completely uninterested in hierarchies of merit based on genes, but they do strongly dislike immigrants who refuse (as they see it) to assimilate culturally. Racial intermarriage is the ultimate form of assimilation, providing that the children of mixed marriages adopt the dominant culture and not a minority one, and this probably explains why so many populists are prepared to tolerate it.

The boundaries of political movements are often fuzzy, so inevitably there are some individual populists, especially right-wing ones, who are indeed racists. Whenever some incriminating tweet from one of these comes to light, the press and the media immediately raise a kerfuffle about how this proves that populism is a terrible thing that ought to be banned. But there are also some individual members of traditional Conservative parties who are racists, and I have never heard this used as an argument that these parties should not exist! I have also noticed that whenever a member of the British Labour Party is convicted of being an antisemite (which sadly happens rather often these days), everyone hurries to say that the party should not be condemned for the aberrations of individuals. Am I the only person who smells a strong whiff of hypocrisy here?
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