Populism leaves its supporters spellbound, but it’s not sustainable. It’s a powerful explosive charge that sends taboo and politically incorrect, yet critical, subjects flying on to the discussion table. But politics and governance need the persistent drive of a steadily running engine with a set direction to achieve the promised goals.
Despite my initial fervor and admiration for right-wing populist leaders, my confidence in them seems to be fizzling out.
The UK Independence Party (Ukip) was formed on the express platform of getting Britain to leave the EU and reclaim its sovereignty. Nigel Farage oversaw the rise of the party from its scratchy beginnings to becoming a commanding voice that shaped the British mind on the issue of ‘To Leave or To Remain.’ Under his leadership, the party was able to build a platform for popular British issues like immigration, jobs, and culture, and talk people of all stripes around to the central issue of leaving the EU.
A lack of a coherent ideology and the absence of concrete plans on matters of governance didn’t deter Ukip from capturing the minds of the British populace. Nigel Farage’s eccentric moments became sources of amusement and the excesses of other members, like Godfrey Bloom, were met with tolerance, if not tacit acceptability.
Now that Britain elected to break away from the EU, Ukip is like a lost soul looking for new ideas to campaign on. Of note is Mr. Farage’s remark, “We are the turkeys that voted for Christmas.”
Since the Brexit referendum, Ukip’s shepherd and prophet – Nigel Farage – has stepped down; the party is plagued with internal feuds, financial troubles, dropouts, and loses in key elections. It’s not the end of the line for Ukip, but without well-defined positions, strategy, and structure, the Conservatives and Labour Parties are eating into Ukip’s voter base.
Lesson 1: Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Don’t build a movement on a few lone issues; and if you do, have a bunch of other issues to pivot to, once you have achieved your primary goal.
Across the English Channel, in France, Marine Le Pen, with her strong French pride and disdain of speaking in English, ran on the ‘French first’ platform raising concerns about sovereignty, immigration, culture, Islam, globalization, and the French working class, and promised to put the interests of French people before everyone one else’s.
Ms. Le Pen’s rallying of French support depended on the principle of social grouping, portraying external entities (out group) as threats to the national culture, integrity, and sovereignty (in group), while positioning herself as the deliverer.
Emanuel Macron, the winner of the French Presidential contest, had a refreshingly optimistic and cheery manifesto. Eschewing the tactic of singling out particular groups and foregoing grievance-based narrative, Macron’s message was a plain and simple one – rebuild France and make it better.
His support for the EU was accompanied with a call for EU reform, which made for a very optimistic message, regardless of its impracticality. Most people would prefer a known hell than undertake an unknown expedition. The unfeasibility of his Europhilic narrative was overshadowed by the comfort and relief it provided. Not to mention, support for EU was steadily growing in the run-up to French elections, which eventually made Le Pen soften her tough stance on the EU.
Macron was also gentle on immigration, especially asylum-seekers, for whom he promised to formulate an integration program. He came out strongly against the veil ban on university campuses, buttressing his position with allusion to France’s intensely secular cultural underpinnings.
As a gentle insinuation to the socialist-minded youth of France, he also promised to outlay £500 on a culture pass for every 18 year old to facilitate cultural edification. These positions were music to French ears and minds, who idolize secularism, welfare state, socialism, and integration.
Le Pen’s entrenchment of her politics in euroscepticism and an ‘us-versus-them’ strategy didn’t pay her the desired returns, as she lost in a landslide to Macron. The constituencies where she held a sway were predominantly working class and poorly educated; she couldn’t conquer the minds of the much sophisticated, economically prosperous, and well-educated Parisians, who seemed to love the gregarious Macron.
Lesson 2: Lead people on with optimism; cut back on finger-pointing.
Lesson 3: Populism works if you are popular. Study your customers, their preferences and likes and dislikes. Getting behind a position, popular only with a minority, isn’t populism.
Cue stateside politics: Donald J. Trump ran on a truly populist platform that sought to end establishment chokehold on Washington, rejuvenate America’s economy, whittle down unthrifty foreign policy, bring back jobs, get rid of the quagmire called ‘Obamacare,’ crackdown on illegal immigration and scale back legal immigration, and cut taxes – every thing that Americans love and nothing they loath.
Regardless of his politically unconventional behavior, his mortifying remarks about rivals and people he disliked, his lack of concrete plans, and his dearth of knowledge on several key policy issues, the vast majority of Americans ate up everything he said.
His shortcoming: he didn’t work his talking points into a dominant ideology. His presidency so far hasn’t been about pulling off an ideological plan; it has been about implementing a personal pledge, upon which rests his image and pride.
A lack of ideology also meant that he surrounded himself with people from across the spectrum with competing interests. His daughter and son-in-law, who are avowed liberals, didn’t get along well with the likes of his ex-chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, a prominent alt-right chum and anti-globalist, who in turn was loathed by the establishment types like the military generals.
A mix of subordinates with conflicting interests and a lack of ideological vetting before hiring meant internal feuds, erratic hiring and firing, flip flopping on campaign promises (most recent of which was the decision to put more troops in Afghanistan), and political gaffes while responding to sensitive events.
More importantly, Trump’s brand of populism and political ineptitude has, not surprisingly, left him at loggerheads with the establishment as he went after his own party members and censured his Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, who has been his long standing and most loyal supporter.
The alienation and administrative chaos means very little, if any, of his agenda gets underway. Granted that Trump isn’t solely responsible for delays caused by a Republican establishment that resents him, dillydallies on reform, and pretends to be powerless in passing important legislation. But a modicum of political dexterity and sophistication could have helped Trump in rallying the languorous establishment in implementing his agenda. After all, Obama, despite political and public opposition to some of his policies, was able to ram through his manifesto.
Lesson 4: Popular issues need to be co-opted and realized into an ideology to make it marketable to the establishment and to avoid counter-productive administrative decision-making.
Lesson 5: Iconoclasm is good; but it should be kept in check with political skill and diplomacy.