“He who can convince people to believe absurdities can convince them to commit atrocities.” Voltaire.
A new tide of populism is spreading through Europe and North America and has not even spared Australia–a tide of populism of a different type never seen before and therefore difficult to identify analyze and combat. It is not even clear that it should always be combated and it is inspired by undeniable political economic financial and social facts “on the ground “ as they say.
The new populism is not necessarily ideologically centered, as has always been the case before during similar periods of societal turmoil. As a populist, you were always either a right-wing fascist or a left-wing communist. No longer.
The new populists come in all flavors: there are populists of the right, such as Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in Holland; populists of the left, such as Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, and populists of the center, such as Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron.
There is an advantage in being a populist of the center because you can draw votes from the disaffected across the ideological spectrum. It is interesting that the two new populists elected were the centrists. In the case of Trump, he defeated a representative of the establishment whereas Macron was pitted against the right populist Le Pen.
Note the following, however: if the Democratic National Committee had not fixed the primary elections to ensure that Hillary Clinton was nominated, the election in the US might well have been as in France, with two populists pitted against each other. Both Trump and Macron came out of nowhere and were unanimously judged to have no chance whatsoever of being elected. So much for the punditry.
What generated the new populism? In no particular order of importance, the decimation of the middle class, obscene concentration of wealth, the collapse of traditional societal values and the threat of jihadist Islam. In other words, political, social, economic and financial factors all play their role.
In the US, for example, politics has gone from a baseball game between the two traditional parties to a boxing match where one side tries to knock out the other and finally (and ironically on a baseball field), to a bullfight, the end of which is death. Neither traditional party may survive the 2016 election, and if they do, they will be transformed.
Socially, the traditional family-based social structure is under violent attack and is crumbling. The class structure, traditionally one of a large and growing middle class is changing with breathtaking speed to one in which one percent of the population owns the bulk of the wealth of society (defined as income-producing assets), another ten percent of lawyers, accountants, managers, scientists, and technocrats support the one percent, and over fifty percent of the remaining population lives in whole or in part from government handouts. In other words, a society of lords and serfs and a great many very angry people.
Some might contest the classification of Trump as a centrist, but it is clear that he captured the Republican Party nomination, taking it from traditional conservative candidates. Trump is quite obviously neither a social nor a fiscal conservative and does not share their values or objectives. Only in security and immigration policy does he fit the rightist stereotype.
With obvious variations, the same is true in most European countries and results in the Le Pen, Wilders, Macron and Corbyn phenomena. In the European and British cases, anti-Muslim sentiment, as well as anti-EU sentiment, are staples of the populist base. The themes are different but related. The refugee wave and terrorist incidents are scary enough, but for countries just emerging from the worst economic downturn since the 1930s the potential threat to jobs, coupled with the rapid spread of robotization, is unbearable.
The astonishing political/social/economic feat of Macron in France, with a “party,” that with just over a year of existence achieved the unthinkable–a large absolute majority in the National Assembly may point the way out of the increasing societal alienation. If he can succeed in his domestic agenda, it may serve as an example to others.
But do not hold your breath. In the US, Trump is the target of a large coalition dedicated to destroying his government, made up of the Democratic Party, the great media, the left in general, many conservative luminaries, and a vast swath of the public bureaucracy. If his supporters, already enraged over what they perceive as a conspiracy of the political and economic “haves” against them and their champion, bullfighting might become endemic in a country which has never experienced it before.
The bull, after all, is not always the one killed in the ring.
*Norman A. Bailey, Ph.D., is Professor of Economics and National Security, The National Security Studies Center, University of Haifa, and Adjunct Professor of Economic Statecraft, The Institute of World Politics, Washington, DC. He was formerly with the US National Security Council and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.