France did not want Marine LePen and the Netherlands didn’t want Geert Wilders, so they have teamed up and taken their act to the Czech Republic. The event is the meeting of the rightwing Europe of Nations and Freedom group and is being hosted by the anti-Islam Freedom and Direct Democracy party (SPD). The conference is largely symbolic for the Czech SPD party, a means of raising awareness for the populist movement, justifying the movement by showing that the populist movement has a voice in Western Europe, and an attempt to legitimize populism in the Czech Republic.
It is not my intent, nor is it in my ability, to analyze politics in the Czech Republic. It is, rather, my intent to briefly take a look at the populist movement itself, as it spreads its tentacles ever outward.
By definition, populism is, briefly, “support for the concerns of ordinary people”. Sounds okay, looks good on paper, but the reality is something altogether different, as we have seen in the U.S.
Donald Trump rode the waves of populism all the way to the Oval Office, but as we have seen, by the above definition of populism, not one single thing he has done fits the definition. Granted, Trump is a case-study in and of himself in the art of lying. But other populist politicians are equally unconcerned with the ‘ordinary’ person, yet call themselves populist. So, what does populism really mean? Consider these examples:
- Donald Trump in the U.S., wants to deport undocumented immigrants and ban all Muslims from the Middle East.
- Podemos, the populist Spanish party, wants to give immigrants voting rights.
- Geert Wilders, the populist Dutch politician, wants to eliminate hate-speech laws.
- Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the populist Polish politician, pushed for a law making it illegal to use the phrase “Polish death camps”.
- Evo Morales, Bolivia’s populist president, has expanded indigenous farmers’ rights to grow coca.
- Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines’ populist president, has ordered his police to execute suspected drug dealers.
A study in contrasts, yes? It is not a term that is easy to pin down, as evidenced by the many books that have been written in the attempt:
- What is Populism by Jan-Werner Müller
- The Populist Persuasion: An American History by Michael Kazin
- The Populist Explosion by John B. Judis
- The Global Rise of Populism by Benjamin Moffett
- The Populist Moment by Lawrence Goodwyn
And the list is seemingly endless.
Müller’s book, published September 2016, is highly rated, and claims that populism is not just antiliberal, it is antidemocratic—the permanent shadow of representative politics. It seems to me that, in its purest form, strictly applied by the definition at the start of this post, it would be a highly democratic and humanitarian ideology. But, in the world of today, populism is primarily, I believe defined by a single word: plutocracy.
All a leader needs to do is find that which his people fear, play on those fears, expand them, then promise to keep them safe from said fears. In the case of the U.S., as in a number of European nations, that fear was terrorism. Ever since the Arab Spring began in 2010 and many in the Middle East were forced to flee their homes with little more than the clothes on their back, the West has been taking on these refugees. But, leaders and politicians quickly learned that if they equated these refugees with the word “terrorism”, or in some cases, “radical Islamic terrorism”, they could instill fear into the hearts of their populace and people would gladly follow any leader who promised to end immigration from the Middle East.
But really, that is all these leaders, such as Trump, need to do, and they can then proceed with their own agendas, just so long as they keep doing their best to “protect” their citizenry from “those terrorist Muslims”. And so, we are left with a Donald Trump who has attempted to rob tens of millions of their ability to afford healthcare in order to further enrich the big insurance companies; who has set the wheels in motion to destroy the environment in order to further enrich the coal and oil barons; and who has promoted tax reform to cost each of us “ordinary people” hard-earned money in order to further enrich the nation’s mega-corporations. And as long as he promises his travel ban to keep Muslims out, and keeps on promising to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border to keep those “murderin’, rapin’ Mexicans” out, even though he knows the wall will never be built, he can keep on being Robbing Hood. This then, defines the populist movement as well as any. It could be called, more aptly, the plutocratic movement, or a move toward governance by a handful of the wealthiest.
Oh sure, Trump throws out an extra bone to his followers every now and then, like a promise to pad the courts with uber-conservatives in order to eventually overturn Roe v Wade. Or a reduction in food stamps and social services that are unpopular with many in the middle income brackets. Promise them whatever they scream the loudest for, then get back to the business of crafting legislation to make the top 1% happy, for those are the ones who truly matter, those are the ones who line his own pockets. It is no different in the rest of the Western world.
Today in the U.S., we have the wealthiest Congress in recent history, and thus it is in their personal best interest, rather than to serve as a check on the president’s power, to speak out of both sides of their mouths, promising their constituents one thing, while licking Trump’s boots from the other side.
France, Austria and the Netherlands, I firmly believe, looked at what was happening in the U.S. and came to understand that this populist thing was not all it was cracked up to be. However, there is still a large contingent in those nations, as well as other European nations, and even Canada I recently discovered, that are supportive of the populist ideology, and have not yet realized that it is a veneer for a deeper, more destructive platform. As my old friend Shafer used to say to me, “Be careful what you wish for, as you just might get it”.