What I lay awake at night worrying about is that we will wake up in 2 to 4 to 8 years and find out that Opposition tried and failed to do anything about the catastrophe unfolding all around us, and then realize the failure was – in some significant way – self-inflicted. A lot of my time has been spent thinking about effective ways in which to fight back against a president who despite all his grotesqueries, is a master of populism.
The populist recipe is pretty simple: it stands on the narrative of the wounded little guy who lives an ordinary life vs the bad rich guys with all the influence and who gobble up the lion’s share of the pie. It plays to people’s bitterness with what life has to offer – which is somehow never enough – and assigns blame for it: the “bad guys” are “minorities”, “illegals”, “politicians”, “wall street bankers”, whatever.
Bad guys are cartoons: vermin, thugs, evil masterminds, banksters, liberal latte guzzlers, deluded millennials, nasty women, you name it.
There’s a savior – their ONLY HOPE. Tell the wounded guy that you know how they feel. Rant and rave at them. Forget about policy and plans, just enrapture them with a story – one that starts in anger and ends in vengeance that they can actively participate in. POTUS 45 is a draft dodger who doesn’t even to know what the nuclear triad is, yet his demagogic skills put him in the perfect position to exploit the national neurosis created by the war on terror. By being brazen enough to openly advocate torture — to inflict pain for its own sake —45 was tapping into the revenge fantasies of millions of Americans who have been programmed to fear since 9/11) Ignite their worst passions and create a megalomaniacal and sectarian fervor, and suddenly they are not interested in the improvement of society as an ideal, but the erection of a structure of power which occupies all social spaces and destroys all existing institutions and social structures in the name of some lofty utopian apocalyptic ideal which naturally destroys the society, root and branch.
This is how it how it becomes a “movement”. A “revolution”. There’s something soothing in all that anger. Though full of hatred, it promises redemption.
Populism can’t cure your suffering, but what it can do is build a satisfying narrative around it. A fictionalized account of your misery. A promise to make sense of your hurt. It is them. It has always been THEM. Populism is built on the irresistible allure of simplicity. The narcotic of the simple answer to an intractable question. The complicated problem is now made simple. The problem is us.
5 Simple Rules to Populism:
- Remember who the enemy is.
Populism cannot survive without polarization. It works through caricature, and the unending vilification of a cartoonish enemy.
You are the enemy. Yes, you, with the Intelligentsia latte. Trump needs you to be the enemy, just like all religions need a demon monster, as a scapegoat. “But facts!”, you’ll sputter, missing the point entirely. What makes YOU the enemy? It’s simple: if you’re not among the victims, you’re among the culprits. In your case, you’re that modern bogeyman: the liberal urbanite who thinks all cultures and religions are valid and equal, and who laughs at and condescends to them. You are ‘a citizen of nowhere’ whose utopia is a world-wide kumbaya with artisanal kale and no church.
It’s asinine and offensive, because you do care. But as long as we don´t recognize the problem is not “the message”, but the messenger, we are wasting our time. Our focus has to be on erasing the cartoon you’ve been drawn into. Scrambling it. Undermining it.
2. Remember it’s the Messenger, not the Message.
In their own fashion, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump were both populists protesting inequalities and the corruption of public life without really going so far as to call the entire system into question (Sanders may have spoken of “revolution,” but he still chose to run for president within the two-party system.) Trump’s vicious hostility toward Mexicans, women and Muslims is reprehensible beyond belief . But every major “populist” insurgency is in some ways a warning about serious problems festering in our civil polity. To simply blame the messenger is an exercise in denial. The “populist” whose politics you abhor is always a demagogue disguised as a hero of the masses.
3. Dial down the contempt.
This is a really tough one for me. I think I was weaned on contempt. Even when I don’t feel contemptuous, my crooked eyebrows and permanently turned down mouth belie me. But our organizing principle should be simple: don’t feed polarization, disarm it. This means leaving the theater of injured decency behind. It is really difficult for me to stop going on about how stupid it all is. That’s been my mantra my entire life. Not only to my likeminded friends, but to the Republican electoral base itself. “You voted for that guy? Are you nuts? You must be stupid and nuts.”
My own political awakening was set off back in the early oughts, by the tectonic realization that Dick Cheney and those jackals however evil, were not actually all that stupid.
The subtext was clear: they’ll destroy the country! They’re blatantly lying, they’re sadists who love torture. They’re clearly not smart! They’re also destroying the economy. They clearly have no respect for democracy! For the intelligentsia- you and I – who are enlightened and know how to produce things and do business, we know this, read about this, thought about this. In history, economics, in diplomacy…. Now, learn this word: fascism.
The populist says, “Don’t listen to them”. “Stop letting them do the thinking for you, schooling and fooling you. The only true fact is that the enemies are few and that they lie. Let’s show them they are the ones who are stupid and wrong. Turn off the TV, Listen to me.” AND, We’ve just lost the first battle. Instead of fighting polarization, we ’ve played into it.
- Remember that outrage is not a strategy.
The people on the other side, and crucially, Independents, will rebel against us if we look like we’re losing our goddamn minds. Worse, we’ll have proven ourselves to be the very thing we’re claiming to be fighting against: an enemy of democracy. And have given the Populist and his followers enough rhetorical fuel to justifiably call us spoiled, unpatriotic saboteurs. Non-democratic channels are counter-productive: you lower your message, and give the Populist rhetorical fuel.
I am trying really hard to stop showing contempt for the wounds of those that brought Trump to power; and to be patient with democracy.
- Understand your counter-argument.
I struggle relentlessly – every minute of every day to free myself from the shackles of the caricature the populists have drawn of me. We have to stop trying to prove that our ism is better than their ism. Because, again, the problem is not the message but the messenger. It may not actually be that Trump supporters are too stupid to see right from wrong, it might be that we simply are much more valuable to them as an enemy than as a compatriot. The problem is tribal, right? Our challenge is to prove that we belong in the same tribe as them: we are American in exactly the same way they are.
American party politics has become so polarized and tribal party identification intense, that a GOP national candidate is virtually guaranteed a reliable 40% floor at the polls. That 40% will vote for the Republican on the ballot regardless of whether the candidate has two horns and a tail; considerations as to whether the system will save them from their choice does not enter their heads.
And to not fall into the abstraction trap, a trap I could have built I abuse it so regularly. We can write over and over about morality, principles, the separation of powers, civil liberties, the role of the military in politics, corruption and economic policy. But how do we break the tribal divide, come down off the tweets and the op eds and show them we are real? And no, this is not populism by other means. It is the only way of establishing our standing. It’s deciding not to live in an echo chamber.
It’s way easier to get this wrong than to get this right, and maybe the people getting it wrong will drown out those getting it right. But we really do want to be part of the solution. Recognize WE are the enemy they need.
5. Consider rebranding “resistance”
People have been using the “it’s not normal” thing since 45 was elected. So, when we recast the fundamental building blocks of civic engagement not as “normal”, or as essential tools of public engagement by citizens, but as acts of resistance that we deploy only against extraordinary threats to our system, we risk having those acts tagged as “crazy” rather than normal reactions to attacks on our democracy. Meeting our basic civic obligations as citizens is not the same thing as revolutionary action. These are all things we should have been doing in the first place. We don’t want the basic functions of our political system to be recast as partisan and radical, rather than as fundamental and routine.
The unforgivable truth is that we are where we are because too many of us abdicated our civic responsibilities and let the politicians do what they want. Now they have perverted the Constitution and enacted walls of protection that make it almost impossible to throw the bums out of office, or even cause them to be uncomfortable. Democracy has long been atrophying in plain sight. The collapse of civic responsibility by the non voters heralded the symptoms of illness in social consciousness and government responsiveness. This was the initial proof that many in the voting age public believed their influence was so negligible that they would not give a vote the time of day.