No one has invented a cure for populism. It can be held at bay, temporarily, but never fully eliminated. Still, by detecting the symptoms and attacking the malady early on, we may substantially cut the risk of its reappearance. If, on the other hand, populism can progress unchecked, it will spread rampantly.
In the United States, the much-maligned institutions have won the battle against Donald Trump, at least for now. Trump will leave power in January, but only after feeding the enormous tumor of a supposed fraud that deprives the incoming Biden administration of legitimacy in the eyes of a big portion of the American electorate.
The real symptoms of populism first appear only when it is already well advanced. At first it seems laughable, a fight between one man and the great political and economic powers. But the populist has correctly identified a wound in society that is much deeper and more painful than the establishment realizes, because they have largely caused it. And it is almost always the result of inequality, which means certain problems disproportionately affect a particular sector of society.
The populist identifies this and defines it as corruption. Populists will attribute it to the elites, declare that they must be replaced, and present themselves as the solution. Using this simple formula, they achieve something profound, namely to rob their political adversaries of legitimacy for being members of the “corrupt” upper-echelon. Society thus becomes divided into the “phonies,” on the one hand, and “the people,” whom the populist claims to represent.
A Trump election rally in Pennsylvania — Photo: Reporters via ZUMA Press
The populist manages to politically reengage and revive social sectors that have been sidelined by democracy, and mobilize the institutions of state — or so it seems — to address their grievances. But all the populist really does is activate disenchanted citizens on the basis of rage, fear, division and exuberant promises that then generate collateral damage.
This makes it difficult for a newly enraged and divided society to reach necessary consensus to apply real solutions. In delegitimizing their adversaries, populists delegitimize democracy, which rests on pluralism. And by delegitimizing democracy, they open the way to abuse it by attacking and coercing the institutions blocking their way.
It’s at this point that the authoritarian vocation of every populist emerges, with personal rule seeking to replace legality and the rule of opinion taking the place of the rule of law. These help the leader keep power.
Societies with more robust institutional immune systems, like Colombia or the United States, can successfully expel them from power though without fully curing themselves from the infection. The sickness keeps trying to return to power and continues to fiercely delegitimize institutions and opponents, as exemplified by figures such as Peru’s Alberto Fujimori, Colombia’s Álvaro Uribe and Bolivia’s Evo Morales.
Using fraud as his “trump” card, Trump still has the ammunition to dominate politics from the opposition, as Uribe did against the government of Juan Manuel Santos (2010-2018). If Trump keeps imposing his agenda on the media through fake news, he will push the Biden administration up against the wall and keep the Republican Party at his mercy. And as a result, U.S. politics will be reduced to one man’s irrepressible quest to return to power.
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