Let’s do away with « populism »

It is high time, after Brexit and Donald Trump’s election, to seriously rethink the way we view the strong popular movement of anger that is sweeping our democracies and that we have taken to despise as “populism”.

The same thing happens over and over again. Opinion polls and pundits get it completely wrong. It is easy to understand why. Our elites are incapable of seeing reality as it is and prefer to dream up a world where nothing would have changed since those happy days of the 90’s when our western democracies had come out triumphantly from the Cold war. Those elites believe that everyone lives and thinks as they do, or should think and live the same way.

A huge number of our fellow citizens, especially among disenfranchised people, understand perfectly well that policies which were justified not so long ago do not answer today’s problems. The international system was put into place after World War II. It has deteriorated in the last few years and no longer serves to protect the interests of a large parts of the population. This explains the worries of public opinion and the huge abyss that has been created between rulers and governed.

In Great Britain, “populism” took root with the demagogical attempt by David Cameron to solve his problem with the Eurosceptics among his own party by holding a referendum on Brexit. Voters were misled by this foolish alternative. The same can be said in Spain of Catalan leaders who promise a rosy future with independence or of the National Front in France, when it advocates giving up the euro.

Donald Trump is the best example of a “populist” politician one can dream of. But beside his outrageous slandering of women, Muslims, Hispanics… he expresses a real feeling : the frustration a lot of people feel listening to the dominant politically correct view of society. This rejection explains why he will be the next president of the USA, not a sudden massive conversion of his followers to fascism, white supremacy or outright racism.

« Populism » is a trap: uttering insults brings one’s rival to respond to the provocation with other insanities. I hope I’m not wrong but I sincerely don’t believe Donald Trump is a new Hitler, as has been said so often during the campaign. I also don’t think one can put his followers in a “basket of deplorables” and hope to convince those who were trying to make up their minds.

« Populism » surely doesn’t have the right answers but it does throw out legitimate questions. One should be able to have social change without questioning family values; immigration, when it is illegal, is not something to be promoted; inequalities should not be allowed to grow on for ever; international trade doesn’t have to destroy so many jobs; the rules we observe should apply to all citizens, whatever their religion including Islam, etc… These few principles are not “populist”. They are just common sense. They are just as true in the US as in Europe where the political discourse is even more conventional.

If we let the “populists” take charge of all these issues we can be sure they will win, whether they are called Marine Le Pen in France, Beppe Grillo in Italy, Geert Wilders in Holland or Alternative for Germany. After the US election result, we are going to see a lot of European politicians racing to be the Donald Trump of their own country.

We don’t know whether the next US president will be as “populist” in the White house as he has been as candidate. I have a feeling he will not, although at this stage he hardly has any credible answer to the issues he br. oadcasts. My opinion is bolstered by the fact that all those who got the election so wrong are now predicting the apocalypse. I am also reassured by my memories of Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 when a bad movie actor was going to drive us directly into a nuclear war. As today, the liberal establishment was furious to see someone emerge from outside its own turf and was saying all kinds of terrible things about a man who has turned out to be one of the most popular presidents in history.

Given the considerable impact on Europe of all that goes on in the US what is happening in Washington D.C. is crucial for us. The political and diplomatic stability is being disturbed well away from the shores of America.

From now on, and more so as of inauguration day on January 20, Donald Trump is going to be an actor in our own political life. There is a striking paradox : The most « populist », and therefore anti-establishment, politician on earth is going to bet at he helm of our global world’s establishment.

With Donald Trump as the most powerful man on earth, it is going to be very difficult for our leaders to keep despising those “populists” and ignoring what they are telling us about the malaise in our societies. If after the Brexit shock, Trump’s election does at last bring such an awakening, then it might not be the harbinger of a “populist” tidal wave, as the right-wing parties in Europe are hoping.

(This article was first published in Spanish in the Madrid paper La Razón, on November 10th).

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