Global Affairs

Populists and the dumbing down of politics

Donald Trump and others like him offer no new way forward, yet their success discredits established parties

LONDON • Senior Republican leaders are engaged in a desperate last-ditch effort to prevent tycoon Donald Trump from winning their party's nomination for the US presidency.

But warnings from established politicians such as former governor Mitt Romney and veteran senator John McCain are cutting no ice with large numbers of ordinary Republican voters, who seem determined to pick Mr Trump as their future leader: "There is nothing short of Trump shooting my daughter in the street and my grandchildren, there is nothing and nobody that's going to dissuade me from voting for Trump," an angry Republican voter told New York Times journalists over the weekend.

For outside watchers, the ascendancy of someone like Mr Trump is mystifying, more akin to a badly scripted vaudeville theatre play than a race for the election of the top leader of the world's most powerful nation. But although there are certain features which make Mr Trump uniquely comical, people like him are prominent throughout the Western world.  

In Italy, a newspaper magnate whose most important pursuit apart from making money is chasing girls young enough to be his granddaughters remains his country's most prominent politician, although he is now challenged by another Italian of similar ilk, a comedian who shouts obscenities in public and was rewarded for his efforts with a quarter of the votes cast in Italy's latest parliamentary elections.

In Britain, there is Mr Jeremy Corbyn, an inconsequential MP who emerged from a lifetime of promoting wacky causes on the fringes of politics to take over the leadership of the country's main opposition Labour Party, in a takeover move which is almost a carbon copy of that undertaken by Mr Trump over the Republican Party in the United States. Then there is Ms Marine Le Pen in France, a woman who has no government experience whatsoever but who, according to current opinion polls, is leading the list of candidates for France's presidential elections due next year.

What all these characters and many others like them have in common is a public profile far bigger than their actual record, plus an uncanny ability to attract crowds, usually with nothing more than the promise that every problem can be resolved by just "being tough" and that all established politicians should simply be dismissed as a useless, limp-wristed lot.



The death of ideology offers one explanation for the rise of the populists. Political ideas no longer matter; the competition between political parties in the Western world now largely boils down to a boring debate between various teams of politicians, each claiming to be more competent than the other in managing national affairs. Even the language of politics in the West is now infused with tedious business management-speak: Prime ministers routinely talk of "delivering services" to "stakeholders".

This gives populists a perfect opportunity and a great justification. For, if the essence of running a country now is no different from that of running a commercial company, then electing as US president someone who made billions flipping real estate makes more sense than entrusting the ballots to someone like Mr Marco Rubio, who spends all his time passing allegedly irrelevant legislation in the US Senate. That's Mr Trump's message, and the current crop of established politicians have only themselves to blame for making such a message sound plausible.

The technological revolution has also facilitated the rise of populists. One impact has been obvious for some time: The Internet with its various social platforms offers populists an opportunity to reach millions of potential voters at very little cost. So, although Mr Trump can still rely on his hefty bank balances to run a relatively traditional electoral campaign in the US, someone like Mr Beppe Grillo, the Italian comedian, can achieve instant prominence through the simple expedient of hard-hitting blogs, bitingly ironic Twitter messages or fiery videos uploaded to YouTube.

But the more insidious and less-noticed impact of technological changes was to magnify the perceived gulf between the rulers and the ruled, leaving politicians to scramble to reconnect with the electorate. Sometimes, the efforts of politicians to embrace new technologies work out well: Social platforms provide for better interaction between governments and people in the Scandinavian countries of Europe, for instance.

But very often, attempts to harness technology in politics backfire in spectacular ways. That is certainly the case with the tendency of many mainstream Western political parties to open up their leadership selection processes to all party members, and usually by using Web-based social platforms.

In theory, that's what the democracy should be all about. For it's hardly justifiable that a party leader should be selected in some smoke-filled room by a bunch of old men, as was the case in many Western countries; better open up that process to all party members. But the result of such a greater internal party democracy, which was accelerated by profound technological changes, is that old established political parties are liable to be hijacked by populists.

That's what happened in Britain when the Labour Party wanted to be "cool" by allowing people the option of enrolling as members with a click of a mouse and then giving them the opportunity to select the next Labour leader with another mouse click: The result was that the party attracted people who treat politics as just "liking" someone on Facebook. And the outcome was Mr Corbyn, who came out of nowhere to be elected party leader, notwithstanding the fact that anyone who understands British politics knows that his chances of winning a general election are nil.

And up to a point, that's what also happened in the US, where primary elections became genuine contests no longer controlled by a party's central bureaucracy. Just a generation ago, someone like Mr Ross Perot - another populist prepared to blow billions on a quest to become US president - had to indulge his fantasies by running as an independent candidate, since he had no hope of capturing the Republican nomination; today, however, Mr Trump has launched a hostile takeover of the party.


And then, there is another phenomenon promoted by the explosion of the electronic and online media: The cult of the celebrity, the rise of the idea that people are important just because they are known, and that what they have to say is automatically meaningful. We are already used to the sight of supermodels whose only talent is to sashay down a catwalk suddenly becoming "international ambassadors" for humanitarian causes, pronouncing with gravity about, say, the cause of hunger in Africa. So, why not take seriously someone who hosted The Apprentice television reality show?

A good case can be made that populists are similar to a skin rash: They come out of nowhere, but also usually disappear fairly quickly, leaving no trace. After all, European and US history is full of the political equivalent of snake oil merchants throughout the 19th century, and most of them are now utterly forgotten.

Still, the damage that such people cause can be both considerable and enduring. Their activities discredit established political parties but do not provide workable alternatives; almost by definition, populists are one-man bands.

That means that, far from offering another way of handling power, as populists often claim to do, they merely help in the destruction of the old power structure, and its replacement with nothing. So, populist individuals are not a solution to the political crisis of confidence experienced by many Western nations; they are merely another symptom of that malaise.

The political platforms of populists also undermine confidence in existing legal and constitutional structures. Mr Trump argues that, if elected US president, he would simply ignore Congress when this suits him, all in the name of being "decisive"; Ms Le Pen in France promises to evict "foreigners" and seal her country's frontiers to migrants, notwithstanding the fact that French and European laws do not allow her to do either.

And ultimately, the rise of populists tends to dumb down all political discourse, to transform all politics into a circus. People caught lying about their past are never held to account. People who resort to personal, obscene attacks against their opponents are being presented as "assertive". That's the climate in which a televised US presidential debate could end up discussing the size of Mr Trump's hands, and his inferences about other bits of his anatomy.

So, what at times seems as just an amusing circus turns into a dangerous phenomenon for most nations. Mr Trump and his ilk don't stand for a new way of politics, but for the recasting of politics as a farce.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 07, 2016, with the headline 'Populists and the dumbing down of politics'. Print Edition | Subscribe