Last month, one of The Economist’s cover stories highlighted the advent of “The new nationalism” in the world. In fact, this description needs to be qualified because the key figures at stake, if we go by the magazine’s list — Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan etc — embodied the triumph of national-populism, and, to some extent, authoritarianism.
While each national situation is specific, these new Caesars share common features illustrating different facets of these “isms”. To begin with, they have all conquered power by contesting elections. While de-democratisation is the order of the day globally, coups d’etat are not staging any comeback, elections remaining essential to political legitimacy. The question for these personalities is how to win them. Here they have capitalised on a whole set of common factors.
First, they have projected themselves as new men against old political establishments, whereas they were often already in politics for some time (but not centrestage) and part of the establishment (but not necessarily of the political establishment — of the business elite, for instance).
These new figures have exploited the resentment of the voters vis-à-vis the existing “system” in the context of rising inequalities and a socio-economic situation marked not by an open crisis but by frustrations, usually due to rampant joblessness. Sometimes the growth rate was still robust, but did not result in job creation meeting the expectations of the voters — because of de-industrialisation or mechanisation.
The national-populists played on these anxieties by making the most formidable promises and playing fast and loose with the truth — hence the notion of “post truth democracy” — in a way that is designed to make it hard for the citizenry to distinguish fact from fantasy. They call to mind the populists of the 1970s who, in Latin America and South Asia, from Juan Peron to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, mobilised the masses by committing themselves to structural reforms which never happened. But today’s populists do not indulge in socialistic references. They did not even present programmes, but bullet points encapsulated in slogans which are “empty signifiers”, to paraphrase Ernesto Laclau, such as “Making America Great Again”.
But the new leaders are populist in another way: In their capacity to relate directly to the people, situating themselves above parties and institutions. To establish this direct link with the people, they need both effective messages and channels of mass communication. Targeting the Other is the most effective message. All these leaders cultivate a nationalistic style with a xenophobic overtone which may have an ethnic or religious flavour. This register is effective because of the competition between “us” and “them” on the job market, but also because of the popular fear of the Other due to terrorist attacks and other conflicts. Hence the instrumentalisation of the threat posed by migrants, separatists or Islamists. The new national-populists keep promoting themselves as the protectors of besieged nations and even, sometimes, foster tensions for making their discourse more relevant.
The other repertoire they systematically resort to is managerial: They claim that they can run their country as a company, and sometimes emphasise that they’ve been successful businessmen themselves. To look like a CEO helps them to distinguish themselves from the old political establishment and to endow their promises on the economic front with some credibility. It also helps them to get support from the corporate sector.
Indeed, most of these leaders have risen to power with the help of sections of the business community, “crony capitalists” expecting benefits from this investment. Hence one of the contradictions of this new dispensation: While demagogues promise to fight the old state, they are themselves more business-friendly than market-friendly.
Businessmen fund the costly electoral campaigns of national-populists. They all resort to expensive international PR companies and invent new channels of communication, including holograms, in order to saturate the public sphere.
After reaching power, these new leaders continue to relate directly and constantly to the people, establishing a cult of the personality. His face and his body language inundate the public scene. More importantly, he maintains a semi-permanent state of popular mobilisation and piles on “decisive” moves. The opposition’s space mechanically declines, also because the centre of gravity of power shifts from parliaments to the seat of personal authority, not to say anything about the intimidation of dissenters who can be easily dismissed as traitors. Since the national-populist embodies his nation, those who fight him are considered anti-national.
National-populists undermine institutions by definition because they capitalise on the legitimacy coming from the people’s mandate for fighting alternative power centres enshrined in the constitution. Hence, attempts at reforming the legal framework, like in Turkey and in Sri Lanka, where Mahinda Rajapaksa drastically changed the procedure for appointing the judges.
National-populism is a phenomenon that is too new for conclusions to be drawn so far as its final outcome is concerned. Lessons can only be learnt from the trajectory of some of the oldest representatives of this league, Putin and Erdogan, who have taken over power democratically in countries which had benefited from the democratisation process of the 1990s with some of the most authoritarian historical backgrounds. While these cases may be somewhat extreme, they suggest that national-populists tend to accumulate power in their hands to such an extent that no checks and balances can survive. Constitutions have eventually to be reformed or twisted. Freedom of expression is gradually contained in the name of national interest and state security. Intellectuals and the judiciary are the first casualties — and then political opponents are at the receiving end.
Last but not least, these new demagogues have had little hesitation in resorting to force (including private armies, militias). Their wars have been internal to their countries first — to repress separatists and terrorists — but external too, subsequently, either because of their aggressive nationalism or because their instrumentalisation of popular sentiments degenerated in forms of violence one can control only up to a point.
Less extreme cases — like Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand or Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka — suggest that national-populists have sometimes had to leave power because of the resilience of opponents and their own mistakes. Often, authoritarian leaders make mistakes because of their very modus operandi: Gradually insulated from the real world, they do not listen to advice, and nobody dares to tell them the truth anyway. As a result, naked kings may initiate moves which can boomerang. When such developments occur before the complete devastation of the democratic legacy, democracy can be revived, like in Sri Lanka today.