Friday, February 19, 2021

What is Populism? What is Nationalism? Why Now?

Why are populism and nationalism surging worldwide?

A lot of ink has been spilled about Donald Trump and how he is a populist and has a rabid following. Perhaps this is true, but it brings up the question as to why populism has become so popular, if you'll pardon the pun, as of late.  And by that, I don't mean just in the United States, but worldwide.

What is populism? What is nationalism?  And why are both intertwined with the cult of personality? 

I think nationalism is easier to figure out.  It is the same feeling you have for your hometown team, or your home town.  It is the fans chanting "USA! USA!" at the Olympics, or any other international sporting event.  It is the idea of being part of something greater than yourself, of thinking your country - your "team" - is the best, and rooting for your team.

And perhaps there is nothing inherently wrong with this - every person thinks their country is better than others, even countries that, well, are not exactly great, in terms of poverty and crime levels.  Ask someone in Nicaragua what they think of Guatemala, and odds are, they will tell you their country is so much better.  And vice-versa.  National pride - often expressed by soccer fans - is still rampant, even in countries with failing economies and governments.

Trump pushed his "America First!" platform, and it seems the rest of the world followed suit - pushing their own national agendas.  Of course, this is nothing new - every country pushes its own agenda to the extent it can.  What is different about the last few years is how brazen and bold many countries are about asserting themselves, often to the detriment of the greater good, or even to their own detriment. There is a lot of flag-waving going on, worldwide, not just in the USA, but in Russia, Turkey, India, China - among others.

Why is this?  Well in America, I think it is a reaction to a lot of negative press that people have heard for years - decades, in fact.  America is bad because.... [fill in the blank].  Yes, we've done a lot of bad things - invaded other countries in pointless wars that have killed hundreds of thousands of people, if not more.  We've intervened in other countries and toppled elected governments to support the corporate interests of a fruit company - among others.  We've had a history of slavery, discrimination, and racial hostility.

Of course, so has everyone else. Russia and China are no innocent babes-in-the-woods. They've murdered millions as well, and intervened and meddled with foreign governments - including our own.  And those who haven't done these terrible things are not necessarily innocents, they simply didn't have the means to do so, but would if they had the power.

For many Americans, this constant criticism wears on them after a while.  It is akin to Germany after World War I.  Germans were told they were horrible people for their role in the war and had to pay crippling reparations which wrecked their economy for more than a decade.  The first person to come along and tell them to be proud to be German ended up in power.  People want to feel good about themselves, and they get tired, eventually, of people saying what a horrible country they live in, particularly when it isn't so horrible, or no more horrible than other countries are or have been.

That is what brought Trump into power.  The middle-class, mostly white, blue-collar Americans were tired of being told they were bad people for invading Iraq, burning too much fossil fuels, discriminating against minorities, and whatever other horrible thing the news is reporting this week. And make no mistake about it - the news always reports horrible things, because that is what is deemed "news" and what sells.   And in a free country, people are free to criticize their own government and country, so we do a lot of that here - it is our strength and it is our weakness, a weakness exploited by foreign powers, regularly.

Trump comes along and tells these folks they are "beautiful" and that America is "great" and that a little white supremacy isn't such a bad thing - and their monster trucks are just fine the way they are.  After decades of "you're a bad person living in a bad country responsible for all the world's problems!" this message resonated.   I said it before, a long time ago, Democrats have to get off this message of "you're a worthless piece of shit" because the masochist vote is a very slim demographic.

So, nationalism - root for our team.  Rah-rah!  Easy to understand.  And easy to understand why it has taken hold in other countries as well.  But what about populism?  What is it?  Why do people claim Trump was a populist?

Well, populism is a bit of a fraud, I think.  The idea behind it is that the needs and view of "the people" or the common people, come first.   The irony is, every politician who claims to be (or who was anointed as) populist, often only pays lip service to populist causes, and instead favors the interests of the "elite" or wealthy.   Yes, Donald Trump signed a tax bill that cut the tax rates of "the little people" by a few percentage points (15% to 12% - woohoo!) and doubled the standard deduction (while eliminating the personal exemption). Tax cuts for upper brackets were a lot more generous, and for corporations, simply astounding.  Trump's claim of winning the 2020 election wasn't the only "big lie" he told.

But people believe it - and believed it in the past.  One reason people compared Trump to Hitler is not that Trump killed six million people in concentration camps (not yet, at least) but that the political tactics both used are very similar.  Both used nationalism to get people to feel better about their country, and by extension, better about the candidate.  Both used populism to make promises to "the workers" while simultaneously screwing them at every turn.  National Socialism promised VW Beetles to the workers, and built vacation cruise ships and resorts for the "Volk" but at the same time, neutered the worker's unions in service of the large corporations.  And the "Volk" didn't have much time to enjoy their vacations or people's cars, before all were conscripted to a war effort that destroyed the country.

The other parallel between the two is the cult of personality - which we see worldwide today with charismatic leaders whose identity is conflated with the countries they lead.   Putin is Russia.  Modi is India.  Erdogan is Turkey.  Trump wanted to be America.  Many of these leaders would like to stay that way for life, which is why Trump still cannot accept he lost the election.  The fearless leader becomes like a mascot, or a shorthand recitation - meme if you will - of what the supporters see, or want to see, in their leader and their country.

So what's wrong with that?  Shouldn't people be proud of their country, their government, and their leaders?  To some extent, yes.  But nationalism, populism, and the cult of personality are dangerous things, as they allow leaders to go unchecked and unopposed.  Eventually, allowed to do just anything, they end up doing everything - everything wrong, that is.   These things are also wholly un-American in nature.

Many nationalists like to use our "founding fathers" (a relatively modern phrase) almost as religious icons or saints of a Constitutional religion - a Constitution that, like the Bible, many have not actually read in whole, or even in great part.   But an examination of these "fathers" reveals that they did not see themselves as populists, nationalists, or part of a personality cult.   George Washington was supposedly promoted by many to become the new "King" of our infant country - he refused the honor.  While he served two terms as President, he retired from politics after that - a tradition that has largely continued to this day.  We don't have perpetual leaders in this country - no "President for Life" as in Russia, or inherited monarchy as in the UK.  These things are repugnant to our very way of living.

Thus, it is ironic that the folks who follow the cult of Trump claim to be "patriots" and many even profess that they wish Trump to serve as President forever (even Trump admits to this ambition, claiming to want to serve three terms, Constitution or not).   And that is the second irony - many Trumpists claim to be saving the Constitution, but at the same time, wishing to violate its very foundation, in terms of overthrowing the election or merely overthrowing Constitutional processes.

So where does this all lead us today?  Well, I think one reason Biden was able to beat out Trump is that, unlike other Democrats, his message wasn't that "you're a worthless piece of shit."  Hillary went with that message and it didn't work.  She actually called people deplorable.  While they might not have voted for her in any event, it never pays to call people names.  Call out their actions and opinions, but not their underlying character.  It is akin to the tale of two Dads I related earlier.   It is OK and important to tell your kids their behavior is bad.  It only makes things worse to tell them they are inherently bad - there is no redemption from the latter.

And while right-wing populism is on the rise, worldwide, today, left-wing populism also exists (and existed, as illustrated by the vintage cartoon above).  Left-wing populism is more often disconnected from nationalism, however, or at least it is in our country, at the present time. Of course, what constitutes left-wing and right-wing is often muddied.  The Nazis were literally "National Socialists" at least in name, embracing what would be called left-wing "Socialism" today, while at the same time, right-wing fascism today.  Of course, as the German people eventually discovered, the socialism of National Socialism was merely a thin veneer used as a selling point to get the masses to swallow poisonous medicine.  Sort of like how Republicans use social issues and "Make America Great" to sell tax cuts for the rich, to poor voters, while simultaneously cutting their benefits.

These things seem to go in cycles.   Perhaps it takes six or seven decades for people to forget about the horrors of war and nationalism, populism, and the cult of personality.  It is like speculative financial bubbles - people forget about the last one, or a new generation comes up without personal experience with them.  So they pile on to "the next big thing!" which is a "sure bet!" and don't listen to their grandparent's lament about lost fortunes from the previous bubble.

Hopefully, we won't have to go through the excesses of the past to learn the painful lessons about nationalism, populism, and the cult of personality, once again.  And maybe with this last election, America is turning the corner - we'll see.  But what about the rest of the world?   It doesn't seem like things are going so well in Britain with Brexit (a nationalist movement if there ever was one) or in India with Modi, or in Russia, with Putin - just to name a few.

It still could be a bumpy ride.