Beware the populists

February 16, 2022 11:33
Nigel Farage (right) (Photo: Reuters)

The charlatan preaching from the pulpit of devout followers. The pseudointellectual massing followers through a popular podcast – or, indeed, YouTube channel. The buffoon projecting his insecurities through throwing lies left, right, and center at investigations into his many parties (including, of course, with his very own staff in the Prime Minister’s Office back-garden – a “garden party” for recreational work purposes, of course).

The marauder who ransacks the shelves of hoarders, only to be revealed to be the greatest hoarder amongst them all. The perennial sycophant who delightfully sings the praise of their master, before an unsuspecting audience that laps up the lies they preach. The rabble-rouser who delights in their violent ends.

What do they all have in common – save from the fact that they exist? ‘Tis that they are the byproducts and beneficiaries of the onslaught of populism across the world.

Populism itself need not be a derogatory phrase – indeed, at its core rests the emphatic argument that power ought to rest with the people, and that the Establishment is not to be trusted, but instead castigated as an Other that is inimical and hostile to the interests of the 99%. And in some cases, populists are right – they are right that the rules are rigged, that the system itself is inherently prejudiced and exclusionary, and that there exists oppression in the way the game is wired and plays out.

Yet across many more instances, populists are wrong. Populists are wrong in thinking that the root of all evil and problems and malaise and cantankerous debauchery and poison and venom can be… reduced down to a few simplistic, naively developed explanations. Don’t like the government’s policies? Obviously – per these populists’ ideology – the answer rests with a particular individual. Don’t like the pandemic? Obviously, per these folks’ advocacy, we are to believe that ‘tis merely an elaborate hoax and conspiracy designed to line the pockets of privileged Big Pharma with the dividends of un-truths.

The trouble with these assertive statements, of course, is that whilst they may be rooted in some degree of truthfulness and benign motivation at their core, the many layers of half-truths and un-truths that cake them render them fundamentally a fallacious description of the world we inhabit; indeed, of a shared reality that populists often seek to eagerly politicise in scoring cheap, quick victories. We can’t solve crises of moral leadership through rambunctious allegations – just as we can’t put out a fire by dowsing the house in ethanol. It makes things worse – and then some.

Populists are also rather vindictive creatures. By definition, they ride off the backs of their constructing an Other – an Other that they ostracise, lynch, and metaphorically assassinate (or, in some cases, literally). The Other is framed as inferior, as vulgar, and as fundamentally inimical to the interests of the majority, which is in turn construed by populists to be whomever most resembles their likely selectorate and backers. From Muslims to Jews, from Chinese to Roma, these persecuted peoples have been persecuted for no fault of their own, but for the fact that they make for easy scapegoats and convenient victories in the aftermath of a string of defeat. If you’re looking for someone to blame, you obviously can’t blame or hold accountable whomever it is that most resembles you – for the risk of that blame game spreading to you is far too high. Instead, it must be the case that there exists some immutable difference, a resolute barrier separating you from the target of your persecution: hence the tendency of individuals, especially populists, in invoking shibboleths and visceral distinctions to ground their campaigns of harassment.
We live in an era of globalisation – yet the mental states of populists, as well as those who devoutly adhere to them, remain innately de-globalised, and anti-globalist. And I don’t blame them for their cognitive myopia and sentimental ferocity. For many who rally behind the ilk of le Pen, Farage, or their counterparts closer to home here in Hong Kong, these are folks who have been eschewed by the system of dividends, who have been chewed and spat out by the well-oiled engines of globalisation, who have fed them to the proverbial wolves of downward proletarianisation and transient working hours. I may not agree with what they believe, but I do have some sympathy for those who find themselves resorting to populist lies and myths as a source of hope. Desperate times call for desperate measures, after all.

Yet if there is a group of individuals that I will not, cannot, and shall never forgive – it’d be those who exploit the bandwagon of frustration, of grievances, of rightful anger and unrightful vitriol – in fuelling their own political agendas. I shall ne’er forgive those who bend truths into untruths, untruths into truths, and who seemingly view their antics as indicative of heroism and candour, when in all honesty, ‘tis but self-interested posturing. Beware the populists – and beware, in particular, their opportunistic grievance politics. It isn’t the elites they’re coming after, but the “wrong” kind of elites. And that’s the problem.

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Editor-in-Chief, Oxford Political Review