Donald Trump just doesn’t get it, does he? Alternatively, he is in denial. Much more likely, however, is that he knows exactly what he is doing. President Trump simply refuses to accept that his incendiary words on race and ethnicity can lead to truly dire consequences.
Trump’s recent attempts to exploit ‘race’ to mobilise his core base of supporters (with attendees at one rally even chanting ‘send her back, send her back’ about a Muslim congresswoman) have undoubtedly increased divisions and tensions in American society to unprecedented levels, and further inspired those who see the answer to all the country’s problems through explicit xenophobia or, in some cases, simply via the barrel of a gun.
Depressingly, the UK’s new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, who clearly admires ‘Trumpian’ tactics, has also had a history of exploiting race and ethnicity for political ends during his career. One of his electoral advisers, Lynton Crosby, encouraged Johnson to use the ‘dead cat’ strategy (the metaphorical equivalent of throwing a dead cat on the table, both to shock everybody and suddenly dominate the news agenda).
He has made good use of this. In 2018, for example, the former Foreign Secretary thrust himself back into the headlines with a burka ‘letter box’ jibe, which many commentators in the UK interpreted as Islamophobic.
Trump seemed very pleased to see Johnson become Prime Minister this year, and claimed that people in the UK call Johnson ‘Britain Trump’ (perhaps he missed an apostrophe, and meant to say ‘Britain’s Trump’?). While there are some significant differences between Trump and Johnson when it comes to their personalities, there are also (to my mind) some striking similarities between the two men, especially when it comes to leadership style, political ideas and tactics. Psychologically, both men have enormous egos and a narcissistic self-regard for their own over-inflated abilities, qualities which appear to fit well with this new age of ‘selfie’ politics and Twitter sound-bites.
More importantly, though, both leaders have been viewed as blatant ‘populists’ by their critics. In fact, the word ‘populism’ has become one of the major buzz-words of recent years. It has increasingly been taken up by historians and political scientists, and is used regularly by various media commentators to try to capture the essence of what they believe has been happening to liberal democracy across the globe, particularly in Europe and the USA.
President Trump and his controversial style of politics probably exemplifies what most observers have in mind when they employ the term ‘populist’. Moreover, the UK’s new Prime Minister, Johnson, has evidently watched and borrowed from the Trump leadership model, and has thus also been labelled as a vulgar ‘populist’ by his critics, especially in his recent self-proclaimed ‘do or die’ approach to Brexit.
However, at the same time, there has also been much debate among scholars about the actual meaning of the word ‘populist’. It constitutes what the Dutch academic Cas Mudde has called an ‘essentially contested concept’. Indeed, there is little consensus as to the precise meaning of the term.
Pinning Down Populism
Helpfully, though, Mudde and other like-minded scholars have gone some way to try to clarify what ‘populism’ is. Unlike some creeds, populism is not a coherent ideology, with a clear or logical set of principles or policies. Instead, it is what some political scientists refer to as a ‘thin ideology’, and tends to make use of ’emotional’ heartfelt appeal rather than considered intellectual reflection.
Nevertheless, populism can still be described as an ideology; it is one that (to quote Mudde) ‘considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups’ i.e. the ‘pure people’ versus the ‘corrupt elite’. It argues that politics should be an expression of the ‘general will’ of the people. While a charismatic leader is not essential to such an approach, the typical populist leader will often claim to represent the virtuous ‘people’ against the scheming and greedy ‘elites’.
Significantly, in their book Populism: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2017), Casse Mudde and Cristobel Rovira Kaltwasser have also noted that populism is fundamentally a ‘Manichean’ view of the political world, a simplistic binary approach where everything is divided into ‘good’ or ‘bad’, black or white, mass or elite.
With his incendiary populist rhetoric and the highly stage-managed mass rallies held during his Presidential campaign, Donald Trump often promised to ‘drain the swamp’ of corrupt Washington politics and directly confront the self-serving elites in the name of the people: in other words, he would represent the masses against the ‘dishonest’ elites. It was a classic populist and Manichean approach.
Since becoming President, he has regularly self-identified as a ‘nationalist’ and labelled his opponents as ‘globalists’ in press conferences. Using highly emotive rhetoric about protecting hard-working Americans, he has promised to ‘Build a Wall’ and close the borders to illegal Mexicans, restrict the travelling rights of Muslims into the country, and to ‘make American Great Again’. The ‘elitist’ Democrats in Congress, he claims, seek to subvert and block such policies and are ‘out of touch’. Again, this was nakedly populist politics.
Similarly, Boris Johnson tends to employ the same patterns of discourse: he has sought to present pro-Remain advocates in the UK as wrong-headed ‘metropolitans’, liberals who have lost touch with ‘the people’ and are simply the creatures of Brussels. Since becoming PM, as well as saying that he wants to make Britain the ‘Greatest’ nation in the world, Johnson has accused Parliament of being out of touch with the people and too ‘pessimistic’. In some recent comments on Brexit, made during a Facebook ‘People’s PMQs’ broadcast directly from his Downing Street desk, Johnson also indulged in the language of ‘betrayal’ and even ‘collaboration’. He claimed of Westminster’s MPs: ‘There is a terrible kind of collaboration, as it were, going on between people who think they can block Brexit in Parliament and our European friends’. Just a few days later, he alleged that ‘Remainer’ MPs were ‘dishonest’ and not thinking of the ‘national interest’.
All in all, both Trump and Johnson like to portray themselves as anti-establishment disrupters or rebels who, in the name of ‘ordinary’ people, will take on both the political elites and the dreaded mainstream media, and in the process restore democratic power to the masses. In this sense, both Trump and now Johnson regard elected rival politicians, along with the media and journalists, as a problem standing in the way of their historic message, and are not keen on spontaneous questions being fired at them, or being quizzed or held to account by opposition politicians or journalists.
Notoriously, Trump has turned the spotlight (so to speak) on journalists at rallies, and has encouraged his supporters to boo and jeer at media commentators, sometimes to chilling effect. Similarly, Trump has simply refused to answer certain questions at his press conferences, or has petulantly boycotted selected newspaper representatives in revenge for what he claims is their ‘Fake News’. Moreover, the President has cut out the media ‘middle man’ and clearly much prefers to announce policy directly to the public through his Twitter account. He is a frequent user of this form of communication, to the point where some commentators have seen his regular employment of this powerful digital tool as heralding a new form of populist ‘Tweetocracy’.
Tellingly, Boris Johnson is also extremely reluctant to be interviewed live by the UK’s top journalists, and his recent use of a Facebook ‘People’s PMQs’ broadcast, while presented by Downing Street as a genuine question-and-answer session, was in reality a way of filtering out any difficult or really searching questions; this enabled the new PM to bypass the mainstream media, and to carefully control the message he wished to beam directly to ordinary voters about ‘Brexit’.
Boris has learnt much from his Master across the Atlantic. In fact, as Catherine Fieschi has argued in her new book Populocracy (Agenda Publishing, 2019), the now infamous Brexiteer slogan ‘Take Back Control’ embodies the ultimate form of populist myth: ‘the people’ are told power can be returned directly to them, whereas the harsh reality is that it will remain in the hands of rather unaccountable leaders, men who – while claiming to speak on behalf of ‘the people’ – actually view liberal democracy and all forms of democratic assembly with deep suspicion and, perhaps, even contempt.
There are worrying signs that Johnson and his advisers intend to frame the next General Election in Britain as a ‘People’ versus ‘Parliament’ election, where MPs will be painted by Johnson as out-of-touch and rather smug members of a political elite, a semi-detached group that is out to deny the democratic will of the people over the results of the 2016 European Referendum.
No doubt this will be viewed with approval by President Trump, who will see it as further evidence that his own version of politics is now being rolled out by ‘Britain’s Trump’. He may very well be right.
Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University, London
(All images: Wikimedia)