Trump may be gone, but Covid has not seen off populism

It is liberal fantasy to imagine that poor handling of the pandemic has lessened the allure of Modi and Bolsonaro. They are learning fast how to subvert voting

When the pandemic struck, newspaper opinion pages were full of pieces predicting the end of authoritarian populism. Surely Donald Trump, Narendra Modi and Jair Bolsonaro couldn’t survive their mishandling of Covid-19? Finally, people were waking up to the reality of what these leaders represented.

Trump may not have lasted, but the expectation that the pandemic might see off populism is mistaken. Liberal observers have long assumed that populists are by definition incompetent demagogues. But populism is not all about promising simplistic solutions in a complex world and, contrary to a complacent liberal narrative, populist leaders are not incapable of correcting failed policies. The threat of authoritarian populism is compounded by the fact that these leaders are learning from each other – though what they are copying are not more effective strategies to combat the pandemic, but techniques for disabling democracy.

When despairing about the rise of populism, liberals have been eager to identify underlying causes. And indeed, there are striking similarities in the way far-right populist leaders govern in different parts of the globe: Bolsonaro, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Jarosław Kaczyński, Viktor Orbán, Modi, and, as a hopefully historical example, Trump. But similar outcomes do not prove similar causes. Rather, the reason for the emergence of what we might as well call a far-right populist art of governance is that leaders can copy each other’s best (or worst) practices. They are busy perfecting the art of faking democracy: ballot boxes are not stuffed on election day, but between them we see voting rules manipulated, media outlets taken over by business leaders friendly to the government, and civil society systematically intimidated and therefore election outcomes are rarely in doubt. Liberals, meanwhile, are drastically underestimating their adversaries.

Populist leaders are not all nearly as incompetent and irresponsible as Trump and Bolsonaro’s handling of Covid would suggest. Their core characteristic is not that they criticise elites or are angry with the establishment. Rather, what distinguishes them is the claim that they, and only they, represent what they often refer to as the “real people” or also the “silent majority”.

India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, being garlanded by BJP leaders.
Questions of citizenship … India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, being garlanded by BJP leaders. Photograph: Sopa Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

At first sight, this might not sound particularly nefarious. And yet this claim has two consequences deeply damaging for democracy: rather obviously, populists assert that all other contenders for office are fundamentally illegitimate. This is never just a matter of disputes about policy, or even about values. Rather, populists allege that their rivals are simply corrupt, or “crooked” characters. More insidiously, the suggestion that there exists a “real people” implies that there are some who are not quite real – figures who just pretend to belong, who might undermine the polity in some form, or who are at best second-rate citizens.

Obvious examples are minorities and, in particular, recent immigrants, who are suspected of not being truly loyal to the polity. Think of Modi’s policy of creating a register of genuine citizens. Ostensibly, this is about identifying illegal immigrants; but especially in combination with new refugee policies that effectively discriminate against Muslims, its actual message is all too clear to Hindu nationalists. Or think of Trumpists who would never really engage in argument with critics, but simply denounce the latter as “un-American”.

Populists reduce political issues to questions of belonging, and then attack those who are said not to belong. That is not a matter of mere rhetoric. Sooner or later, the appeal to the real people – and the exclusion of supposedly fake people – will have effects on streets and squares: Trump rallies have been associated with a local increase in assaults. The concept of “trickle-down aggression” – coined by the feminist philosopher Kate Manne – captures this dynamic.

Populist leaders present themselves as the great champions of empowering the people, and yet always exclude particular people. The shameless attempts by US Republicans to suppress the vote (and subvert election outcomes) are playing on the sense that the “real America” is white and Christian – and that black and brown people should not really be participating in politics in the first place. Meanwhile, Bolsonaro is gearing up to repeat Trump-style claims about a stolen election, should he lose the vote next year; he will have learned that, beyond casting doubt on the legitimacy of those not casting a ballot for you, bringing at least parts of the military to your side might be decisive.

Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán.
Showing the way … Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán. Photograph: Darko Bandić/AP

In Hungary, Orbán has long provided a model from which others can learn how to stretch laws to the limit in order to create pliable courts and media organisations. They can also study subtle tactics of how to mislead the EU and the Council of Europe long enough to entrench partisan advantages.

When Poland’s Law and Justice Party returned to power in 2015, it could reach for Orbán’s manual of how to build an autocracy under the eyes of the EU. Like the Hungarian leader, it learned the lesson that, during its first time in office, it had wasted political capital on culture wars, instead of capturing independent institutions. To keep oneself in power, one must control the judiciary, the election system and TV in particular – once that has happened, one can wage culture wars and incite hatred against minorities to one’s heart’s content.

None of this is to say that the new authoritarian systems are invincible, but we need to better understand their innovative techniques. Some are so dangerous because they are getting technologically more sophisticated: Pegasus spyware, the use of private companies to spread misinformation, or the extensive use of social media by leaders such as Modi (the world’s most tech-savvy populist) are only the most obvious instances. Still more dangerous than digital autocracy, though, is the ability of authoritarians to disable democracy, while at the same time advancing democratic-sounding justifications for their actions.

What is happening in the US and the UK is a prime example. The push by the Johnson government to make the presentation of voter ID mandatory can look reasonable on paper: nobody is against the prevention of voter fraud. Northern Ireland already has such measures in place, as do countries on the continent. But, as we should have appreciated by now, legal measures can be deployed to, in effect, shrink the demos, the political body, for partisan purposes: minorities, the unemployed and especially the poor – lacking drivers’ licences and passports for travel abroad – are most likely not to have the time and resources to secure the required forms of ID. We have also learned the hard way that the staffing of election commissions is not some bureaucratic trifle (as Tom Stoppard observed long ago, “It’s not the voting that’s democracy, it’s the counting”), but can make the difference between keeping and losing democracy.

Why do populists so often get away with these kinds of measures? We have not grasped the extent to which they have succeeded in imposing their distorted understanding of basic democratic practices. The vast majority of those identifying as Republicans regard voting as a “privilege” tied to responsibilities, while Democrats respect it as an unconditional right.

It is not true that masses of people are longing for strongmen and are turning away from democracy. But it has become easier to fake democracy. That is partly because defenders of democracy have not argued for its basic principles well, and partly because they keep underestimating their adversaries.

Jan-Werner Müller is professor of social sciences at Princeton University. His latest book, Democracy Rules, is published by Allen Lane.

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Jan-Werner Müller

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