The dangers of Populism


As you may know, prior to the festive season, Donald Trump got himself into some hot water, with some very unchristian comments aimed at Muslims. He said, he’d like to ban all Muslims from the US “until we can figure out what’s going on” (of course this very statement shows how clueless he and his supporters are as regards recent US foreign policy in the region). Needless to say, this was seen as going too far, even by the fairly high bar of Republicans. Even Bill O’Reilly thought it was racist!

An all too common problem for Republicans candidates is the need to outdo one another in terms of taking increasingly insane positions. The GOP bigot brigade expect a candidate to be a bible thumping, pro-gun, global warming denying, young earth creationists, xenophobic who rejects vaccines and “science. Consider that the major black mark against Mitt Romney in the 2012 primaries was that he was able to speak French (yes, it almost cost him the nomination, a skill that would increase your chances in any other country!).

Of course, GOP candidates need to be careful not to go too far, or they’ll find the comments they made in the primaries spat back at them by the democratic nominee later in the presidental campaign. Hence most will engage in what’s called “dog whistle politics” where they will make statements that don’t sound racist, but they’ll include racist code words which their fellow bigots will decode and understand.

Trump by contrast doesn’t go for dog-whistling, he’s come out and said what all the other candidates are afraid to say openly, because he knows this is what the Tea Party types want to hear. The fact that he’s killing his own chances of ever winning the presidency by doing so doesn’t matter too him. Nor does it seem to register that he’s doing great damage to the GOP’s chances of winning, regardless of who gets the nomination. I can all but guarantee, even if Trump pulls out graciously in a few weeks time, Hilary will bring up his comments in the presidential debates during the main campaign. This will scupper things as the GOP’s strategy for winning in 2016 is to continually yell “Benghazi” until blue in the face.


It’s hard to decide whether Trump is doing all this because he’s a megalomanic moron or because he realises that his best hope for success is to get himself thrown out of the GOP race, thus giving him the excuse to run as an independent. But either way the damage that he, or others in the Tea Party nutter brigade, are doing to the GOP is significant. Ultimately Trump is using the very same tactics the Republicans have used against the democrats and turned them on his own party.

Blinded by the Right

For sometime the right-wing strategy has been to use media outlets like Fox News to stoke up populist fears over various fringe issues, such as abortion, gun control, science denial, migration, the deficit. They are also not afraid to lie and exaggerate where necessary (e.g. whitewater or swift boating against John Kerry). They stoke the lowest fears among the public while ignoring more meaty and important issues. Its classic bait and switch.


A common tactic is to take a deliberately absolutist approach, that any rational analysis will tell you is insane. e.g. guns, Obama is not arguing for a ban on guns (nor is Hilary), just some regulations (like in other gun owning countries without mass shootings on a daily basis). However the right wing media portray this as all or nothing, no laws at all or a complete ban. Ya, and do they favour the same policy with cars – either a total ban on private cars or that people should be allowed to drive with no license plate on either side of the road they like while drunk and no speed limits?

The real welfare queens

Another example, one that tells us a lot about the realities facing America, is the issue of the deficit. The only US president in recent times who has run a budget surplus was Bill Clinton. He did that by cutting back on much special interest spending (notably the defence budget) and raising taxes. In effect, he did the opposite of what Republicans propose to do.

Its worth noting that many of America’s Republican leaning states tend to receive more federal money than they raise in taxes. And if you’re white and vote Republican you are far more likely than anybody in the US to be reliant on welfare of some kind, certainly more than any recently arrived migrants.


This has long been the dilemma of the US. Since the Civil War, its leaders have had to reconcile with the fact that the US consists of several very wealthy trading cities and states (mostly by the coasts), while much of the interior of the country is comparably poorer (by US standards) and whose main source of income is feeding resources (mining, agriculture, energy, etc.) to these cities. Of course globalisation means we can get these resources from other parts of the world at a fraction of the price.

The solution past governments, both Republican and Democrat, have come up with is essentially a form of socialism. They deliberately funnel money the way of the less prosperous regions of the US in the form of farm subsidies, tax breaks and sweatheart deals to corporations (many of whom count uncle Sam as their largest customer), large federal building projects, defence contracts, military bases, medicare and medicaid (essentially a massive giant subsidy to America’s private health system).

These measures effectively serve to render many red states economically viable. Although inevitably the economic downturn has hit these regions rather hard, much harder than other parts of the US. Hence the simmering populist anger the Tea Party is topping into.

However, any attempt to radically cut public spending in the US would inevitably hit these Tea Party types the hardest. New York and San Francisco would barely feel such cuts, but rural Kentucky would go bankrupt. Hence republican policy here is essentially impossible to implement. The only winners would be the very plutocratic elites who fund the GOP, who would seek to profit from the economic chaos that would result.

Similarly to tackle the issue of migration that Trump stokes. As Peter Sutherland pointed out in a recent lecture, the US has taken in 780,000 migrants (legally) since 2001 and yet only 3 of those have committed any act of terrorism. And ultimately the US needs migrants coming in to keep the wheels of industry turning. The country is ageing and facing a pensions time bomb,  unless lots of new workers come in and start paying taxes and taking up job vacancies….or they push up taxes significantly (and that ain’t going to happen!).

So the dangers of this Populism in the US are all too evident. Even if a Tea Party candidate did get elected, he’d quickly find his policies impossible to implement, at least without causing enormous economic damage to country, with those conned into voting for him likely to lose the most.

Furthermore the danger of pandering to the mob, is that the mob is fickle, as many a Roman Emperor discovered. Take climate change. The sands seem to have now shifted and 58% of Republicans now favour action on climate change. Any GOP candidate who is a hardline climate denier (which is pretty much all of them) could well struggle to take certain swing states if this becomes an election issue.

So its for this reason that one part of me actually hopes Trump, or some other nut job like Ted Cruz or Rand Paul gets the nomination (or Trump runs as an independent), just so the Tea Party can get shot down in flames.

Lessons in the UK

And here in the UK there is a lesson too be learned from this. In effect much as pandering to the populist mob has gradually allowed the Tea Party to take over the GOP asylum, we see the same thing with the UKIP mob gradually taking over the Tories. The Tories have now committed to a number of policies that would have many in industry deeply concerned and has John Major seriously worried.

The latest market data shows that the FTSE 100 is down 5% on this year. While many blame this on falling oil prices, I cannot help but notice that the DAX, CAC and Nasdaq are all up over the year (by an average of 10%), while the Dow Jones is level. One has to speculate as to whether speculation about the EU vote is to blame. Needless to say a 5% drop before we’ve even voted should be troubling.


The Tory policy on Europe threatens to do serious damage to the UK’s economy, undermine its foreign and defence policy, alienate its allies and, ironically enough, reduce the country’s ability to veto legislation in Brussels (ultimately post-Brexit, it will be a case of accepting verbatim future EU legislation or being locked out of the world’s largest economy). There’s also a strong chance of the UK itself breaking up. Cameron’s negotiations are failing precisely because they were unviable to begin with.

And will pandering to the bigot brigade help the Tories? No! The likelihood of the referendum is a close vote to stay or leave. A close vote to stay will merely give the eurosceptic’s an incentive to seek another one straight away, likely splitting the Tory party and massive losses from the Tories to UKIP next election (the take over of Scotland by the SNP in the wake of losing the independence campaign being a case in point). While a narrow vote to leave will mean an economic downturn, lots of people loosing their jobs, which the mob will quickly blame the Tories for (quite rightly)…and vote for Corbyn!

Cameron should have taken the opportunity to confront the UKIP’ers in his own party back when he was in coalition with the Lib Dems, but that window has now passed.

Forgetting the lessons of History


And throughout Europe right-wing populism is also on the rise. All of these parties have one central flaw – they seem to ignore the last 70 years of economic and political history, in particular the bit between 1930 and 1945. Ask many what was the cause of World War 2 and they’ll say Hitler. However the truth is that its a little more complicated than that.

For sure, Hitler was an insane lunatic who should never have been put in charge of a country….but then just look at the lunatics we’ve got campaigning for high office today (e.g. Trump!) or indeed already in office (Putin!). The real lesson is, how did Hitler get into power in the first place? He got there because there had been a major economic crash in the 30’s and this left many disillusioned with mainstream politics. Many angry voters therefore thrown in their lot with populist party’s such as the communists and national socialists (who ironically were sponsored by the same greedy capitalist who everybody was angry with in the first place!).

And much like today’s populists, the nazi’s political philosophy had a major fatal flaw – it was built entirely around a series of insane racist myths, wholly divorced from reality. What the nazi’s were trying to do defied the laws of economic gravity and was ultimately incompatible with the workings of a democratic capitalist state, hence why they were very quick to get rid of both. And the only way to fund this now Oligarchic regime was to invade other countries and steal their stuff. And it was a lack of strong global institutions (such as the UN or EU) that ensured the world was slow to react to the threat they posed (an important factor for those opposed to the EU or UN to consider) until it was too late.

Those who ignore the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. Populism is thus a dangerous road for a politician and voters alike. While yes it might seem fun to stir the pot a bit, but ultimately politics isn’t a joke. Such populist propose policies that simply do not add up, they do not offer workable solutions. The consequences of electing them will either be chaos or an end to democracy as we know it. And the only people who will benefit from the resulting power vacuum will be the already rich and powerful (who are sponsoring a number of these populists) who will become all the more rich, powerful and corrupt. In essence the opposite of the very desires of those who vote for these parties.


10 thoughts on “The dangers of Populism

  1. Reblogged this on In Saner Thought and commented:
    2016 has been called the election of populist……populism is a popular term batted around in the media….but what is populism?

    any of various, often antiestablishment or anti-intellectual political movements or philosophies that offer unorthodox solutions or policies and appeal to the common person rather than according with traditional party or partisan ideologies.
    grass-roots democracy; working-class activism; egalitarianism.
    representation or extolling of the common person, the working class, the underdog, etc.:

    But is populism the best thing for the country?


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