Trump, Johnson and the real problem with populism

Donald Trump indicted; Boris Johnson practically fleeing parliament; Silvio Berlusconi gone from the Italian stage he had dominated for decades. Pundits might be forgiven for declaring the death of populism alongside that of Berlusconi. Liberals are likely to feel confirmed in their view that populism always ends not only in policy failure — since populists supposedly peddle simplistic solutions to complex problems — but also with shades of illegality: Trump and Johnson face punishment for lying; Berlusconi, having been subject to 35 criminal investigations over the course of his political career, was eventually convicted for tax fraud.

Yet such a view is itself simplistic. Populism and corruption are connected; hence some populists ending up in court is not so surprising. But the notion that populism necessarily self-destructs is just a comfort blanket for sleepless liberals. In fact, when there is an endgame at all, it is particularly perilous with leaders who claim uniquely to represent the people, who command mass allegiance — and who have a lot to lose. It is a challenge for which the history of dealing with authoritarians in the 20th century holds few lessons.

Why would populists tend to become authoritarians? Contrary to conventional wisdom, not everyone who finds fault with “elites” or is angry at “the establishment” is automatically a populist. True, when in opposition, populists attack sitting governments and other parties. However, they do something else too: they claim that they — and only they — represent what they often refer to as “the silent majority” or, even more tellingly, “the real people”. All other contenders for power are discredited as fundamentally corrupt. What Trump said about Hillary Clinton in the 2016 US presidential election constituted an extreme, but not an exception: there is no populism without accusations of “crookedness”.

Less obviously, the claim to a monopoly of representing the people implies that citizens who do not share (or simply do not fit) the populists’ idea of “the people” do not belong to the people at all — a charge that can be levelled at “globalists” just as much as marginalised and vulnerable minorities.

Take Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan: in 2014, at a party congress, he declared, “We are the people” — then he turned to critics and asked, “Who are you?” Trump would respond to pushback against his policies not by offering a more or less reasoned defence; rather, he would call the critics “un-American”. Narendra Modi’s government pursues rhetoric — and policies — according to which India is a Hindu nation; accordingly, India’s Muslims are at best second-class citizens.

This is certainly a simple view of the people — a homogeneous one that fundamentally denies the pluralism of contemporary societies. But that is not what liberals have in mind when they charge populists with being “simplistic”.

Rather, they take it for granted that populists in government will quickly find that their demagogic promises cannot be kept; as a result, populists can be expected to lose electoral support. Or populists might turn pragmatic and do justice to the complexity of the world — in which case, by definition, they cease to be populists.

Liberals also take comfort in the idea that since populists are “against elites”, being in government means that they have to stop being populists: after all, they will have become “the elite” themselves and can hardly criticise themselves. As in the narrative about populists being terribles simplificateurs, the problem of populism solves itself.

Modi, Viktor Orbán and plenty of others have demonstrated in recent years that populists are in fact able to govern — which is not to say that populist governments will always succeed policy-wise, let alone become politically invincible. But populists in power can certainly remain populists: no reigning populist has ever run out of elite enemies and scapegoats (of course, “shadowy international elites”, or George Soros, are particularly easy to blame).

Trump, Johnson and Berlusconi all loved playing blame-games: Trump and Johnson present themselves as the victims of “deep state” conspiracies; Berlusconi’s martyrdom was attributed to communist judges. But unlike other populists, they also flaunted a very peculiar mixture of frivolity and ostentatious moral frailty: they admitted being sinners, thereby giving their supporters licence to forgive themselves for their own failings too — a fundamental difference with the hero cult of fascism.

It is no accident that Berlusconi and Trump conducted government business in personal palaces designed for debauchery (the word “palace” initially designated the private residences of Roman emperors), and that Johnson fell because of obviously frivolous parties. Politics and entertainment merged for personalities desperate to be loved and admired for a grand spettacolo; what’s more, they would often wink when they said or did something politically outrageous. It is unthinkable that military dictators (let alone Hitler or Franco) would ever have suggested that they might just be joking.

While breaking the norms of political elite behaviour is part of populism, frivolity is not; it just happened to be a somewhat successful strategy for three figures whose careers before government had been made in and with the media (just this past autumn, Berlusconi enthusiastically joined TikTok). The likes of Orbán and Modi certainly also know how to use the media (and, in addition, they know how to suppress media pluralism), but they would never do the kind of freewheeling, somewhat risky, press conferences that Trump and Johnson evidently enjoyed — in fact, they barely hold press conferences at all.

Trump and Berlusconi, but also Jair Bolsonaro, entered government without any real experience of running a state — and ultimately never took any deep interest in it (Berlusconi conspicuously failed, for three decades, to make good on his signature promise of lowering taxes and reforming administration).

But this is not true for other populist leaders. In fact, what we observe in the early 21st century could even be called a distinctively populist form of governance: it is not about “giving the people what they want” (as a somewhat anti-democratic liberal view would suggest, according to which the people never know what’s good for them). Rather, it is about capturing the state in the name of “the people”, in effect replacing civil servants with loyal partisans; it is about rewarding supporters materially and with bureaucratic favours, while casting out everyone else (after all, only supporters are “the real people”’; the others deserve nothing).

Populists also push back against any opposition from civil society with the claim that those protesting must be “paid activists” or “foreign agents” (for, by definition, members of “the real people” would not oppose their only authentic representatives — a tactic pioneered by Vladimir Putin). Not least, populists engage in “discriminatory legalism”, which comes down to the adage: “for my friends, everything; for my enemies, the law”. Just think of the recently passed “Lex Tusk” in Poland: neutral on the face of it, but evidently aimed at taking opposition leader Donald Tusk out of the political game by falsely pinning support for Putin on him.

Would Boris Johnson have remade the UK in such an authoritarian image? There are few greater advantages in politics than being persistently underestimated; and being seen as fundamentally unserious is one way of being underestimated. Johnson’s image as a good chap among the British establishment and a loveable buffoon among everyone else prevented a clear-eyed view of his authoritarian instincts and actions: from proroguing parliament to fiddling with the Electoral Commission and generally being willing to play fast and loose with both domestic and international law.

Still, Johnson was reined in by a halfway functioning political party — something noticeably not true of other populist leaders. Berlusconi was in effect removed by the EU in 2011, but, in any case, had never quite vanquished countervailing forces within the Italian system, from the president to independent judges. His own party, however, never exercised any control over him. After all, he was the party: Forza Italia had been created by his business’s marketing department; Berlusconi personally owned its symbols (they will now be inherited by his children).

Trump, meanwhile, managed to fashion the Republican party into a personality cult (note how congressmen are falling over themselves to prove their loyalty by attacking the US Justice Department — and compromising themselves in the process). Bolsonaro could not be controlled by a party; during a period as president, he did not have one at all (having cycled through eight parties or so before). While this is not true of Orbán, Erdoğan, Modi or Jarosław Kaczyński, the all-powerful eminence grise of Poland’s governing Law and Justice party, the effect of not facing any constraints is the same, because these leaders control their parties with an autocratic grip.

Such serious populist leaders have also shown a remarkable capacity to learn from each other. After all, the populist art of governance can be copied across borders. One lesson is that one must capture the judiciary first; after that, media pluralism and election systems can be undermined at will. Populists have also learnt from history (we tend to think that learning from history is unquestionably a good thing, because we assume that only democrats do so): wherever possible, they will try to avoid producing images that would remind domestic and international audiences too easily of 20th-century dictatorships.

Instead of violent repression, there is more subtle manipulation of legal and political systems, and relentless attention to moulding public opinion — but ideally with some liberal journalists left on the sidelines to prove that the country has not turned authoritarian. Unimaginable that such smart populists would joke, like Berlusconi, that they regretted not being dictators, or flaunt affinities for Kim Jong Un as Trump did. (To be sure, someone like Putin eventually dropped the mask.)

There is every reason to believe that Giorgia Meloni, leader of the post-fascist Fratelli d’Italia, should be grouped among such smart populists. She is fashioning herself as a responsible and respectable conservative, open to an alliance with Europe’s moderate Christian Democrats: fiscally as prudent as Mario Draghi, and conspicuously different from the pro-Putin antics of her coalition partner Matteo Salvini. Meanwhile, she ruthlessly implements far-right policies and has started to capture state television.

Berlusconi had first brought the descendants of fascism into a governing coalition in the 1990s, starting the European-wide trend of normalising the far right. While Berlusconi himself never ceased to be a populist, he ended up being cast by European Christian Democrats as the centrist elder statesman who would keep Meloni in check — a sign of how an entire political spectrum can shift to the right (on national election day in September, Berlusconi was caught on camera saying he was a bit “scared” of the woman he had first made famous as minister of youth in his 2008 cabinet).

In the decades since Berlusconi broke a postwar anti-fascist taboo, plenty of centre-right parties have entered coalitions with the far right or copied its rhetoric. In the 2022 French presidential campaign, Valérie Pécresse, the Gaullist candidate — as mainstream as it can get in France — invoked the idea of the “great replacement”, the conspiracy theory according to which Muslims are being sent to Europe to substitute for natives.

To this day, no rightwing populist has come to power in western Europe or North America without the collaboration of established conservatives, including plenty of business elites (we forget how mainstream figures such as Chris Christie promoted Trump in 2016 and how the wealthy stuck with him in 2020). As the American political scientist Larry Bartels has recently shown in a book with the telling title Democracy Erodes from the Top, the supposed “populist wave” is more a matter of changing elite behaviour than dramatic shifts in public opinion.

It is this complicity by established actors that makes dislodging populist leaders difficult — in addition to the fact that populists’ relentless concentration of power renders corruption both an irresistible temptation and, eventually, part of the governing method: potential allies get favours and get compromised in the process. Even if corruption is highly visible, supporters do not necessarily disavow populist leaders. This is despite the evident irony that some of these leaders had started out as vocal anti-corruption crusaders.

The logic behind this puzzle was already apparent with figures such as Argentina’s Juan Perón; his followers in effect held that “he’s a thief, but he’s our thief”. Because of corruption and the creation of a system of crony capitalism — where, for instance, oligarchs in the construction industry also acquire media companies friendly to the leader — populist leaders have a lot to lose. They might also feel particularly vulnerable if they have kept much of the money inside the country: Orbán’s cronies, for instance, cultivate the lifestyle of 19th-century Hungarian magnates with landed estates.

Populists facing some kind of endgame may well resort to what Trump and Bolsonaro tried: inciting supporters who tried to stage a coup (Berlusconi limited himself to not accepting election outcomes). In both cases, the military ended up backing democracy — but then again, with Trump and Bolsonaro not being particularly interested in bureaucracy, these two never had a coherent plan to corrupt the military. Even Trump might learn, though: his 2024 campaign platform features a comprehensive scheme to replace career civil servants with political appointees.

Despite years of hand-wringing by liberals about how democracies die, too little attention has been paid to how populist regimes might end without causing major political conflagrations. The lessons from the 1970s and 1980s — create roundtables to negotiate peaceful transitions and give previous power-holders a stake in properly functioning democracies — might not apply under today’s very different circumstances. Trump and Johnson will probably not succeed in generating mass movements and crucial support by conservatives and business elites that could bring them back to power. But that is cold comfort; for they have been outliers among populists in our time.

Jan-Werner Müller is a professor of politics at Princeton. His most recent book is ‘Democracy Rules’ (Penguin)

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