The Real Danger Posed by Populist Leaders, and How to Fight It

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Political scientist Jan-Werner Mueller.
Political scientist Jan-Werner Mueller.Credit: Charlie Forgham-Bailey
Yonatan Levi
Yonatan Levi

LONDON – Toward the end of 2016, shortly before the U.S. presidential election, a public opinion poll was conducted in Florida. In addition to the regular questions about the candidates’ policies and personalities, participants were asked, “Do you think that Hillary Clinton is an actual demon?” Not as a joke, not in quotation marks – a real demon, the sort that lives in hell and hangs out with Satan. No fewer than 40 percent of Trump supporters replied in the affirmative.

“Pollsters never had to ask the public whether they believe this candidate or another may have emerged from hell. But these are the times we live in,” says Jan-Werner Mueller, a professor of politics at Princeton University and a leading authority on the phenomenon of populism. According to Mueller, the demon charge had its origins when the radio host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones told his listeners that Clinton and President Barack Obama were demons disguised as humans. In fact, people in their immediate vicinity can detect an odor of sulfur, he added. There’s no doubt, Mueller says, that “this past year has given a completely new meaning to the expression ‘demonizing your opponent.’”

When I spoke to him in London last month, Mueller rejected the idea of characterizing the demon poll’s results as a marginal anecdote. In his view, the categorization of political rivals as foreign and inhuman is an expression of the logic that typifies populist politicians everywhere – from Donald Trump in the United States to Viktor Orban in Hungary and Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel.

“Populists,” Mueller observes, “always say that they, and they alone, represent ‘the real people.’ This isn’t just another argument about matters of policy, but the assertion that anyone who disagrees with you doesn’t belong to the people, and that all other contenders for power are fundamentally illegitimate. For example, during the night of [the victory of the referendum on] Brexit, the leader of the U.K. Independence Party said that this was ‘a victory for real people’ – implying that the 48 percent of the voters in the referendum who were against leaving the European Union weren’t real Britons.”

This dangerous trend, Mueller warns, is spreading globally, and trickling from fringe parties into the heart of the political mainstream. Despite the differences between various populist regimes, their methods of operation will sound eerily familiar to Israelis: incitement of social groups against one another, persecution of minorities, enfeeblement of the judicial system and the civil service, transferring state resources to cronies, instigating against the media and placing restrictions on academia and civil society.

But however worrisome the phenomenon itself, of even greater concern, he believes, is the failure to understand it. “For a year now we’ve been hearing that everywhere ‘the people’ are rising up against ‘the establishment.’ This may sound like an objective description of what’s going on out there, but it’s populist language,” Mueller explains. “It is buying into their framing of what is happening, because it accepts that these movements represent the people, whereas in most cases they represent 15 to 20 percent of the electorate. That is certainly not ‘the people.’”

'Pollsters never had to ask the public whether they believe this candidate or another may have emerged from hell. But these are the times we live in.'

Playing into the extremists’ hands

What is populism and why is it suddenly, well, so popular? In the lexicon of Israeli politics, “populism” connotes an appeal to the lowest common denominator and the floating of empty promises. In practice, it’s a term that politicians use for every policy that has garnered public popularity but they themselves do not like for one reason or another. (For example, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked claimed that “restricting the salaries of senior executives is [an act of] populism.”) Internationally, however, the term has a different meaning: the comeback of the “ordinary citizen” into the center of the political arena and his aversion to the elites who rule the political and economic systems.

The genesis of the current global civil awakening is generally traced to the world economic crisis of 2008. The disaster that struck the West then not only toppled banks and governments, it also destroyed people’s faith in the elected representatives who were supposed to protect them from greed and corruption. Three years after the collapse of Wall Street, the accumulated public rage sent millions of people into streets across the world – from New York (”We are the 99 percent”) to Madrid (“They do not represent us”) and Tel Aviv (“The people demand social justice”). In short order, politicians who assailed the status quo began to gain public support. Some of them, particularly on the right, blamed globalization and migration for the difficulties; others, primarily on the left, accused the ultra-affluent and their grip on the political system.

As Mueller sees it, the young people’s protests that surged across large parts of the world in 2011, and many of the leaders who sprang up in their wake, were unrelated to populism. There’s no need to resort to that term to describe the events of recent years, he says; there is a different word that refers to civil activism and criticism of the government: democracy.

“All of a sudden we’re told that anyone who criticizes the elite or the establishment is a dangerous populist – Donald Trump, Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders, even Emmanuel Macron,” Mueller says. “But any old civics textbook will tell you that as a good democratic citizen, that is exactly what you are expected to do: keep an eye on the powerful and be vigilant about the elites.” The tendency to subsume such different politicians under the same rubric attests to “intellectual laziness,” he adds.

“This kind of symmetry,” the professor continues, “often plays into the hands of the real extremists, because it implies that Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have something in common. Bernie Sanders? The guy admires Denmark’s social services. Not exactly the definition of an extremist.”

To be considered a populist, he emphasizes, a politician needs to be both “anti-elitist” and “anti-pluralist.” In other words, not just to critique the abhorred “elites,” but also to argue that there is one group and only one whose members constitute the “real people” and that he or she is their exclusive representative.

President Donald Trump struggles to hold a baby as he greets supporters as he arrives in Reno, Nev., Aug. 23, 2017. Credit: Alex Brandon/AP

“For example,” Mueller says, “when the prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban, lost the election in 2002, he refused to accept the results, explaining: ‘The nation can’t be in opposition.’ Last May [of 2016], at one of his rallies, [candidate] Trump made the following remarkable statement: ‘The only important thing is the unification of the people – because the other people don’t mean anything.’”

When Orban, Trump and other populists sing the praises of “the nation” or “the people,” they are referring not to all the country’s citizens, of course, but only to their own supporters. That division into a pure, legitimate people and all the rest is not unfamiliar to Israeli ears. In fact, it runs like a thread through many of Netanyahu’s remarks across the years. From, “The left has forgotten what it is to be a Jew,” to “They have V15, we have the people,” and, recently, “The people go to vote, the left hatches plots.” Mueller says he regrets not including in his latest book, “What is Populism?” (University of Pennsylvania Press; 2016), the notorious statement made by Netanyahu on Election Day 2015 about Israel’s Arabs flocking to the polling stations “in droves,” as an example of a populist remark of the sort “one simply does not utter in a democracy.”

Shifting the blame

German-born Mueller, 46, has spent years studying the great ideas that propel Western politics. Before coming to Princeton, in 2005, he had a lengthy tenure at Oxford. The widely translated "What is Populism?" is a kind of primer for the bewildered citizen in the age of Trump. Among the plethora of books on the subject that flooded the market this year, Mueller’s volume enjoys a noteworthy status. “There is no better guide to the populist passions of the present,” The International New York Times declared. Mueller is always traveling, trying to teach whoever will listen about the mistakes we make when we think about populists, and more particularly what can be done to confront them.

The troubles begin, he argues, when someone has the effrontery to question the status of the populists – or simply oppose them. Because populists considers themselves to have a monopoly over representing the people, it follows that everyone who’s against them is perforce against the people. By this logic, every criticism of the government – be it a street demonstration, court ruling or television news investigation – is by definition antidemocratic and undermines the rule of the people. Thus, Israel's coalition whip, MK David Bitan (Likud), termed the demonstrations against the attorney general’s perceived dillydallying in the Netanyahu cases antidemocratic and illegal. Netanyahu himself stated recently in a Channel 20 interview that the demonstrations are unlawful and are secretly subsidized by the leftist New Israel Fund.

When Orban, Trump and other populists sing the praises of 'the nation' or 'the people,' they are referring not to all the country’s citizens, of course, but only to their own supporters.

Mueller: “Within the populist imagination, it can’t be true that parts of the people themselves are protesting against their only authentic representatives. Something has to explain away what otherwise looks like a very disturbing empirical reality. This is when conspiracy theories come into the picture. The technique, which was pioneered by [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, is to delegitimize any protest by saying, ‘This is all paid for by someone from the outside.’ Trump did exactly the same thing when millions were out on the streets protesting against him, and he blamed them for being ‘paid-up activists.’ During the demonstrations in Istanbul in 2013, [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan’s government said that the German airline Lufthansa is behind everything. There are no limits to this.”

Social media allow populists not only to disseminate toxic conspiracy theories about the media or about their political rivals, but also to create an illusion of closeness and direct contact with the public.

“In the old days,” Mueller notes, “you went to a party rally for two or three hours and participated in a collective experience, in the presence of a leader who connected to you directly. However, that was something that happened maybe once a year. Now it’s happening 24/7. You wake up in the middle of the night, look at Trump’s Twitter account and say to yourself: ‘Oh! Just what I was thinking.’”

On the other hand, Trump was elected president, but in the meantime hasn’t succeeded in implementing any of his promises. Isn’t that what always happens? It’s far more difficult for parties or protest candidates to protest against the government when they themselves are the government.

Mueller: “The thought that populists in power are bound to fail may be comforting, but it’s an illusion. Populist governments have no problem blaming all of their failures on the elites. Populist leaders continue to behave like victims even after they win. Hugo Chavez would always point to the dark machinations of the opposition. Erdogan continued to present himself as the street fighter from Istanbul’s tough neighborhood who confronts the establishment, long after he had started concentrating all political, economic and cultural power in his hands. When populists are in power, they continue to increase polarization among the public – there is never a dearth of enemies.”

Danger on the fringes

George Orwell, who waged a relentless war on the use of political clichés, wrote, “The slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” That would seem to be exactly the insight we need now. So many new concepts burst into our lives over the past year – “populism,” “post-truth,” “fake news” and “alternative facts,” to name a few – and all of them roll trippingly off the tongue. Mueller urges us to stop for a moment, take a deep breath, and examine critically our basic assumptions about politics in the 21st century.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Hungarian counterpart Viktor Orban share a light moment during the reception ceremony in front of the Parliament building in Budapest, Hungary, July 18, 2017.Credit: Balazs Mohai/AP

“It’s very important not to fall for the image of a ‘global phenomenon’ that is the same everywhere,” Mueller avers. “The reasons for the rise of Joerg Haider [the late leader of the Austrian Freedom Party] are not the same as the reasons for Brexit. ‘The elite,’ for example, is not a term that has one set meaning. After the U.S. elections we suddenly learned that Wall Street CEOs and retired army generals [when appointed to the Trump administration] are not really the elite. Who is? The press, of course. In France, Marine Le Pen can give rabble-rousing speeches on the streets of Paris, where she invokes classics of French literature, and nobody would say ‘Oh, that’s a terribly elitist thing to do.’ In the French context, what she actually is doing is signaling to her audience that she is different from the French fascists who collaborated with the Nazis.”

Still, despite the differences between countries, it’s hard to ignore the fact that we are now witnessing a world populist wave, the likes of which we haven’t seen for a long time.

“Recent studies have suggested that in many Western countries, what you might think of as right-wing populist content – anti-immigration, for example – has actually stayed pretty constant over the last 20 years. It seems, then, that the financial crisis was not a turning point. What has changed is that the right-wing establishment politicians decided at some point that they can work with this kind of [populist] politician. That is why the image of an ‘irresistible wave’ is so misleading: Populist success relies on the conservative establishment. For example, Nigel Farage [former leader of the UKIP] didn’t bring Brexit all by himself. He needed politicians such as Michael Gove [a senior figure in the British Conservative Party], who said at one point: ‘This country has had enough of experts.’ Which is ironic, of course, because Gove himself is regarded as the ultimate intellectual among the Conservatives. In other words, it took an expert to tell people: ‘Don’t trust expertise.’

“Same thing in the United States. The explanation for what happened in the U.S. elections is very banal: partisanship. Trump didn’t become president as part of a grass-roots, third-party movement of angry, white, working-class voters – he was the candidate of a very established party. Ninety percent of self-identified Republicans came out and voted for Trump. Had he not been the Republican candidate, he clearly wouldn’t have won. He became president thanks to heavyweight Republicans who told their supporters, ‘He’s a bit eccentric, but he’s okay.’ Trump could have been stopped, but the Republicans decided that they could work with him.”

What accounts for this change in behavior by the right-wing establishment?

'The technique, which was pioneered by Putin, is to delegitimize any protest by saying, 'This is all paid for by someone from the outside.''

“In some cases it’s sheer opportunism. In other cases it is the gradual erosion of a shared understanding that there were things that you just didn’t do in a democracy, and that without cooperation between adversaries, democracy wouldn’t work. It began in the 1990s, when Republicans started referring to Bill Clinton as ‘your president.’ This led us to the situation in which the Republican leadership says very clearly and openly: ‘We’re not going to let Obama do anything during his time in office.’ They assumed that Americans were going to blame the president for that – and they were right. It led to the sense that the other side is just so bad that there must be no cooperation with it – even if that means that Trump will become president. It’s not like tens of millions of Americans became racist and misogynistic all of a sudden. They were aware of Trump’s deficiencies, but the Democrats had become completely illegitimate in their eyes.”

And therein lies the true danger, according to Mueller: collaboration between the establishment right and the populist fringes, and the long-term influence that populists exert on other parties.

“Newspapers sometimes publish maps showing you where populist leaders are [currently] in power,” he explains. “What these maps don’t show us is the collusion – the process by which the alleged mainstream parties gradually adopt the ideas of extremist parties. When [French National Front leader Marine] Le Pen loses, we all breathe a sigh of relief, but completely miss that some of her content does extremely well even without her. If Mark Rutte – the supposedly mainstream, liberal, Europhile Dutch prime minister – puts ads in newspapers during his election campaign threatening immigrants – ‘Act normal, or leave the country’ – then, in a sense, his populist opponent, Geert Wilders, has won.”

Uncontested politics

Mueller was in London last month to deliver the opening lecture in a series of talks about developments in contemporary politics, held at the Institute of Contemporary Arts. Since the referendum on leaving the EU, and even more since Trump’s election, London has seen an numerous events that deal with the question of what has come over the world. An effective speaker, Mueller roams the room with a hand-held microphone. The eyes of the audience, most of whom are under 35, follow him intensely. These are people who are looking for answers. Very quickly the question that everyone has been waiting for arrives: What’s to be done?

Ahead of providing some practical advice, he makes it clear what is not to be done. Many politicians, the professor says, try to defeat their militant rivals by means of “destruction through imitation” – in other words, by trying to be more populist than the populists.

“This never succeeds,” he asserts. “First of all, on the instrumental level, no matter how fast you run after them, you’re never going to catch the populists. Second, when you start imitating the populist right, the whole political spectrum shifts to the right. People wake up one day and realize what has happened, and can’t reverse it.”

Political scientist Jan-Werner Mueller.Credit: Charlie Forgham-Bailey

Nor is the opposite approach – utter disregard – tenable: “The decision not to talk to populists, not to debate them on TV, to ignore their questions in parliament – this is an own goal. The total political exclusion of populists only confirms the narrative they tell their own voters: ‘The establishment is scared of us and doesn’t care about you.’”

How, then, are we to cope with the populist threat? “First, it’s important to understand that this not just a question of better PR or messaging,” Mueller says. “Many populists, whom we see as almost cartoonish characters, have a point about certain parts of the people that have been excluded and underrepresented in the political system for years.”

In other words, populism may be a wild plant, but its roots stretch deep into the fertile soil of frustration, alienation and hurt. In the 1990s, the vast majority of the states of the West adopted the economic principles of the right, effectively abandoning the aspiration of posing an alternative to them. The result was 20 years of politics without true competition. Social problems such as inequality, the housing crisis and exploitation of workers became more acute, but disappeared almost completely from the political arena. Urgent issues like migration were silenced under a cover of an almost wall-to-wall consensus.

Says Mueller: “Tony Blair used to compare globalization to a force of nature – an inevitable process, like the rising of the sun. He used to say that those who opposed his economic ideas ‘failed to understand the modern world.’ When politicians think and speak like this, they stop arguing for the merits of their approach. Everything is done because ‘there’s no alternative.’ You must do the complete opposite: persuade people precisely by saying that there are many options, and explain why yours is better than the others. The more politicians say, ‘There’s only one rational solution to policy problems, and parliaments are nothing more than rubber stamps’ – the easier it becomes for populists to reply, ‘What do you mean, democracy without real choices? Where are the people in all of this?’”

To defeat populism, he says, the left must present a worldview different from that of the right, one that is relevant to the everyday life of the country’s citizens, and return competition to politics. A case in point, says Mueller, is Podemos, the party that sprang from the 2011 protest movement in Spain and is today the third largest in the country: “Podemos was able to bring young educated people back to the polls. It isn’t obvious that young people who have lived through the past decade in southern Europe would choose this path: demonstrate on squares, form parties, contest elections and most important – go back home [that is, accept the results] even when they lose. In the 1970s, disaffected young people did very different things in Europe. When people have a sense of having real choices, they don’t lose faith in the system as a whole.”

One of the obstacles standing in the way of the left is a loss of faith in the ability to foment significant changes.

It’s not only the populists that Mueller describes who sound familiar to us – the left he’s talking about is also not unknown to Israelis. According to him, one of the obstacles that’s standing in the way of the left is a loss of faith in the ability to foment significant changes: “Today, leaders of social-democratic parties in Europe say behind closed doors, ‘We have to come to terms with the fact that now workers hate foreigners – that’s just the way it is.’ They take it as a given, and start adapting their programs accordingly. In the United States, the left is obsessed with the question of how to get to the moderate Trump voter. But that is the wrong starting point.

“The problem,” he continues, “is the prevalent conception that populists know something we don’t. This idea is based on a deep misunderstanding of how democratic representation works. It assumes that out there, there are pre-existing, fixed identities and that the populists were simply the first to discover them. That is not true. Democracy is a dynamic process, and people’s self-perception is perpetually shaped by content received from many sources: politicians, the media, civil society, friends and family. Things are constantly changing.

“After the election of Trump, so many Europeans said, ‘Here’s one good thing – we always knew that America is racist, and now it’s empirically confirmed.’ Of course there are plenty of racists in the United States, but something must surely explain how a significant number of Trump supporters voted twice for Obama in the past. Racism doesn’t seem like a very good explanation for that. Trump managed to make a lot of people see themselves as part of a white identity movement, but that’s not set in stone. This isn’t a fixed, objective identity, but something that’s been created and can also change.”

Populism takes center-stage

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban speaks in Budapest, Hungary, June 27, 2017.Credit: Bernadett Szabo/REUTERS

Viktor Orban (Hungary): prime minister on behalf of the center-right Fidesz party. Takes pride in transforming Hungary into an “illiberal democracy” and has waged a long-term war against academia, human rights organizations and the European Union. Sealed the country’s borders to Syrian refugees and warned against the threat being posed to Europe’s “Christian identity.” Fierce critic of globalization (“There’s no longer a homeland, only a target for investment”). Recently launched a campaign of an anti-Semitic character against the Jewish, Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros.

Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch far right Party for Freedom, arriving at a protest against the appointment of Ahmed Marcouch as the new mayor of Arnhem, July 5, 2017.Credit: ROBIN VAN LONKHUIJSEN/AFP

Geert Wilders (Netherlands): leader of the Party for Freedom, the second largest in the Dutch parliament. Despite its size, the extreme-right party has only one registered member – Wilders himself. Urges the closure of all mosques in Holland (“Nazi temples”), confiscation of the Koran (“Mein Kampf”) and radical restriction of freedom of expression on Islam-related issues. Supports Holland’s exit from the EU and opposes EU economic policy. Was convicted of incitement against migrants last year.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of the now-ruling Law and Justice party, speaks in front of the Presidential Palace, in Warsaw, Poland, Aug. 10, 2017. Credit: Alik Keplicz/AP

Jaroslaw Kaczynski (Poland): head of the center-right Law and Justice party, the country’s ruling party, and a former prime minister. Effectively rules the country through Prime Minister Beata Szydlo, terms his rivals enemies of the people who carry “treason in their genes.” His government imposed restrictions on the country's Supreme Court and on freedom of demonstrations, and fomented a political takeover of public broadcasting. A few weeks ago, mass demonstrations against governmental corruption blocked the government’s attempt to seize complete control of the Supreme Court as well.

Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela's president, speaks during a news conference in Caracas, Venezuela, on Aug. 22, 2107. Credit: Wil Riera/Bloomberg

Nicolas Maduro (Venezuela): successor to Hugo Chavez as leader of the United Socialist Party, and Venezuelan president. Lately, has taken steps to eradicate the country’s democratic character. The Supreme Court, which Maduro controls, decided this year to strip the National Assembly, which is controlled by the opposition, of its legislative powers. Maduro announced a referendum to amend the constitution, and since then the country has been in the grip of violent turmoil, with more than 100 demonstrators killed and thousands arrested to date. Opposition leaders were denounced as traitors and arrested.

Italian Five Stars Movement's leader Beppe Grillo holds a torch as he takes part in a march from Perugia to Assisi, Italy, May 20, 2017. Credit: Tommaso Crocchioni/AP

Beppe Grillo (Italy): a former comedian, today leader of the country’s Five Star Movement. The party, which started as a protest movement and won a quarter of the votes in the last election, has vowed to wage war against corruption, direct democracy and "green" politics. Grillo, who has never contested the party’s leadership, is a frequent critic of the political elite, the press and the EU. He has claimed that his party is entitled to get 100 percent of the votes, as all the other politicians are corrupt.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures as he addresses the nation from the historic Red Fort during Independence Day celebrations in Delhi, India August 15, 2017. Credit: ADNAN ABIDI/REUTERS

Narendra Modi (India): prime minister, on behalf of the right-wing nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. Is exacerbating interreligious tensions in his country by inciting the Hindu majority against Muslims and the lower castes, and is fighting liberal Indian institutions of higher education, accusing them of a lack of patriotism. His party urges opposition figures “to immigrate to Pakistan,” if they’re not satisfied with life in India. Does not hold regular press conferences, communicates with his supporters via social networks and his regular radio program.

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