Why Populism Wins and What Trump’s Second Term Will Look Like
It ain’t pretty
Democratic forms of governance continue their global backslide in a retreat not seen since the ancient Greeks lost it to commence 2000 years of self-governing blackout. While modern populism’s heartthrob, Vladimir Putin — a “Genius,” “Some peacekeeper,” says Trump, has proven himself a fellow bumbler and war criminal to boot, populism’s march has faltered but stumbles on all the same. For 16 years, democracy has been in global decline. Today, in Italy, as head of the Brothers of Italy party, Giorgia Meloni is poised to become Prime Minister after praising Mussolini and winning the September 2022 election. In India, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, authoritarian governments solidify control while Mexico and Brazil embraced it, but now, like America, they grapple with whether to keep it or not. In the U.S., New Right state legislatures rig elections with pseudo-laws, gerrymandering, and installation of loyalists as they continue their worship of the new Savior, Donald J. Christ.
In Moisés Naím’s scorching account of populism in his Foreign Affairs condensation of The Revenge of Power: How Autocrats Are Reinventing Politics for the 21st Century, we see how populism wins. Through this chaos-creating political art form, we also see what the second term of Trump in the White House will look like. “Unlike their totalitarian counterparts,” writes Naím, “these populists entered office through elections, but they show decidedly undemocratic proclivities.” Media no longer need be commandeered by dictators as asocial media like Facebook and Twitter offer immediate outlets for lies, disinformation, and propaganda. Others are willing accomplices, like talk radio and so-called FOX RT — there is a market for and money in dismantling democracies. Combining this with post-Cold War incompetence in government, “Declining trust in the traditional institutions that once served as gatekeepers to the public sphere has vastly lowered the reputational cost of bald-faced lying.” The gates to the city are wide open. There are no norms that cannot be violated and flaunted as a proud tribal identifier.
The new autocrats portray themselves as messianic fighters for the people against a corrupt elite. All controversies get recast as “us against them,” the “noble masses” versus the “venal select.” This is the heart of populism’s lure: emotional manipulation — and it’s not hard. All one needs to promote it is an inner vacuum of ethics and morality. An absence, not the acquisition of a long-studied skill for statesmanship or the development of knowledge, understanding, and talent. Trump, Putin, Bolsonaro were tailor-made for this. Couple populism’s lure with its reception by hairless primates on which our higher brain functions rest on a lizard lump of neurons capping our spine — a lump tuned for the emotional immediacy of fight-or-flight; sexual urgency; gag; vomit; defecation — and this combination of reptilian immediacy with human immorality is a home run. Who needs deliberation, reason, and the testing of solutions when populist leaders “tell it like it is,” “get ‘er done,” and “take no prisoners”? Through the miracle of populist mentality, common at every tavern on earth, the weakest of men — men of monumental ignorance, physically flaccid, hyper-charged with insecurities — are converted to “strong men” in the imagination seated on every barstool. “It is a common mistake to treat populism as an ideology,” writes Naím. “It is better understood as a technique for seeking power that is compatible with a nearly limitless range of specific ideologies.” And it works anywhere because “in the hands of the power-hungry, resentment against the elite can be mobilized everywhere.”
Per Naím, “Polarization follows naturally from populism. Once the basic opposition between the noble people and the corrupt elite has been put at the center of political life, the priority becomes to sharpen the opposition between them. Marxists call this ‘heightening the contradictions.’ Polarization strategies aim to sweep away the possibility of a middle ground between political rivals, depicting compromise as betrayal, seeking to amplify and exploit any opening for discord. Polarization warps the relationship between followers and their leaders.”
Those whose careers require the practice of reason, those educated broadly enough in history and philosophy, those who can think on their feet enough to challenge dogma have been flabbergasted by how easily demagogues have duped the faithful. But this is common for any kind of mass movement. “Mass movements,” wrote Eric Hoffer, “interpose a fact-proof screen between the faithful and realities of the world… [The true believer] cannot be frightened by danger nor baffled by contradictions because he denies their existence.” And Naím agrees: “The truth of an utterance is therefore independent from its correspondence with reality and derives instead from the identity of the person saying it… Such absurdities become accepted by autocrats’ followers because their psychological relationship to the leader is distorted by the prism of identity.” Identity politics isn’t just for the left. This melding of identities is an emotional attachment at the center of what disciples see themselves to be. “The melding of an individual’s identity with the identity of the leader explains why it is often hopeless to try to reason with the followers… When one’s identity is built on identification with a leader, any criticism of that leader feels like a personal attack on oneself.”
“We are wired…so that our reasoning [supports] in-group solidarity,” writes Brookings Institution senior fellow in Governance Studies, Jonathan Rauch. “Presenting people with facts that challenge group-defining opinions does not work. Instead of changing their minds, they [reject] facts to double down on false beliefs…regardless of educational and cognitive firepower.” In other words, the educated can be duped, too, as Hitler proved with his minions of scientists, engineers, and economists. Polarization is not a byproduct, says Rauch, “polarization is the product [as] cravings for shared outrage against a common adversary.” Extreme partisanship may even be addictive, says social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Justifying lies gives partisans a hit of dopamine. “Like rats that cannot stop pressing a button, partisans may be simply unable to stop believing weird things.”
But for all the trouble, energy, and hassle, can it be only devotion that needy attention addicts like Trump seek?
“The ultimate goal is to turn the state into a profit center for a new criminalized coterie,” writes Naím. “Criminalized states put the usual repertoire of a mob boss, such as demands for protection money, overt intimidation, and back-street beatings, to political ends: silencing opponents, cowing critics, enforcing complicity, enriching allies, and buying political support internally and externally. A criminalized state combines traditional statecraft with the strategies and methods of transnational criminal cartels…” Like Putin’s Russian mafia state, Maduro’s illegal gold mining in cahoots with Columbian guerrillas and Turkey to launder it, or Trump’s claiming Qatar a terrorist state until fleecing them of $1.4B to pay off son-in-law Jared Kushner’s bankrupt 666 Tower. “This is organized crime, yes, but it is much more than that; it is organized crime as statecraft, coordinated by the governments of…nation-states.”
And that is Trump’s second term. A continuation, expansion, and refinement of what he finally got started in the last two years of his first term. Once responsible adults were expunged, once Vladimir had time in their secret meetings to school Trump on how both could profit, Trump was able to leverage his decades of money laundering for Russia (fined by the U.S. Treasury from 1992 to 2015) into a wildly profitable swindling of America. Military personnel were transported out of their way to fill his resorts. Autocratic diplomats filled his hotels for influence. Government events filled his properties. Trump’s second term will be a massive windfall for the Trump Corporation and brownnosed cronies who laud him with sufficient bootlicking if he and they aren’t yet in prison. The New Right will fleece the country as the center of gravity for Banana Republics moves north. The U.S. as just another money machine for the Cosa Nostra, conning the little guys at the tavern as the little guys sing the praises of being conned.
Paragraph 2: “these populists…” Moisés Naím, The Dictator’s New Playbook: Why Democracy Is Losing the Fight, Foreign Affairs, March/April 2022, p. 144. “Declining trust…”, Ibid., p. 145
Paragraph 3: “It is better…”, Ibid., p. 145. “in the hands…”, Ibid., p. 146
Paragraph 4: “Polarization follows…”, Ibid., p. 146
Paragraph 5: “Mass movements…” Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, Perennial, 1989. “The truth of…”, Naím p. 146–147. “The melding…”, Ibid, p. 147
Paragraph 6: Jonathan Rauch, Rethinking Polarization, National Affairs, Fall 2019. “Like rats…” Ibid.
Paragraph 8: “This is organized…”, Naím p. 151