Why hasn't Ireland succumbed to the populist wave sweeping Europe? This country remains a member of a dwindling club – one of only a handful of countries yet to elect any far right representatives to national office. Does our history of migration and occupation give us a protective shield against the Nigel Farages and yellow vest movements of this world, or is it only a matter of time?
After witnessing democracy being "done away with by a ruthless populist and his growing band of supporters" in her own country, the Turkish writer Ece Temelkuran warns against simplistic notions of "Irish exceptionalism". "Right-wing populism, right-wing authoritarism or neo-fascism – choose a term according to your ideological liking – is a political insanity and it's coming to everywhere."
There's a great global network of clownish figures that we tend to call charismatic for some reason. Sometimes I do think there is only one man running the world, just that he is in different locations and wearing a different mask
Populism, which pushes a narrative of disgruntled, hardworking “real people” disrespected by a greedy elite, is “the monstrous child of neo-liberalism. So if you are living in a neo-liberal state, you’re not immune.”
It is perhaps understandable that Ireland has indulged in post-Brexit fantasies about exceptionalism, but – speaking over the phone from Palermo, where she has just been conferred with honorary citizenship – Temelkuran says we shouldn’t be complacent. “Ireland and Scotland looked like the adults in the room, and I understand they enjoy the sentiment, the political adulthood, in a way.”
The mass mobilisation of citizens that happened during the marriage equality and abortion referendums in Ireland came about because enough people shared a sense that we had "to correct a historical mistake. The entire country had to come together. People had to fly from Australia, and other parts of the world. . . as the population mobilised towards progression, freedom and liberty." But it would be a mistake, she suggests, to assume such a mass mobilisation would happen again if, say, democratic institutions were under assault.
Temelkuran's book, How to Lose a Country: The Seven Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship, outlines the preconditions and causes of the populist movement that was once about opposition, and is now, increasingly, about government. Does populism ever emerge from the ground up, as a grassroots movement, or is it always driven by a so-called charismatic leader with the goal of power in mind?
“There’s a great global network of clownish figures that we tend to call charismatic for some reason. Sometimes I do think there is only one man running the world, just that he is in different locations and wearing a different mask,” she says, with something between a laugh and a sigh. “We have to start co-operating.”
By “we”, she means “people who believe in the basic human values; the basic human decency. The ones who believe that democracy is still the best option. My expectations, as you can see, are quite low.”
She believes humanity is in the midst of a moral crisis that began in the 1980s. “Sometimes it feels to me as if there was a compassionate fake mask on capitalism and the systems that accompanied capitalism round the world. And now they took away that mask, and what we see is the extreme evil of the capitalist world. . . What is new to me is the fact that the new political leaders do not feel the need to conceal their immorality, and they’re asking for their supporters to wear immorality as a badge of honour.”
At an event to launch the publication of her book in the UK last February, audience members tackled her on why she thought the lessons of Turkey might possibly be relevant to a country like the United Kingdom.
"I said, I'm telling you this is coming towards you. And don't be surprised if you see Boris Johnson ending up as your prime minister. And there was this ironic laughter in the room. Six months later Boris Johnson was the prime minister. We have to accept the fact that nobody, no country, is better than the other country. These things did not happen in Turkey because Turkey is a crazy country. They did not happen in Italy or Spain because they are crazy countries. It happened because we are going through several crises at the same time."
The impeachment could bring down Trump, but it cannot erase the political energy created by Trump. That energy, I can tell you, could create something worse
Those crises, she says, are crises of representative democracy; crises of capitalism; a moral crisis; and a climate crisis. On top of the all this is the manufactured sense of crisis, created by the populist leader.
The daily diet of outrages that comes out of the White House is not accidental, she says. It is part of a strategy designed to wear the public down. "In Turkey, we lost a lot of time being surprised, appalled, shocked and so on. And all of these emotions are so exhausting. People become paralysed and cynical. It gets up to a point where you lose your faith in humankind in general."
Impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump are playing right into his hands, she believes.
“Right-wing populism operates on manufactured victimhood. It takes its political energy from a real sense of victimhood of real people, but then it rides the wave of politics by using the wind of manufactured victimhood. And impeachment is now packaged as a reason for Trump’s victimhood. It is going to be a political tool for him. The impeachment could bring down Trump, but it cannot erase the political energy created by Trump. That energy, I can tell you, could create something worse.”
At every talk she gives, someone in the audience will ask if there’s anything that gives her hope. In general, she prefers to talk about determination. But there is one positive phenomenon she identifies: the emergence of young women as a political force.
“This is the first time in human history [women] have so much education. This is the first time in human history we have this much political experience and, for the first time, we have economic power as well. Not at all equal to men, but we have more economic power than ever before.” For the first time in history, young women “are not embarrassed of being powerful”.
She cites the global dominance of young women in the climate change protests around the world. “This is a completely different wave of politicisation, and it’s very exciting to watch. It’s the worst thing to live in interesting times, but as a storyteller I find it immensely exciting.”
Ece Temelkuran will deliver the Dean's Lecture at Maynooth University on The Joy of Dignity Against the Evil of Banality on Wednesday, October 23rd at 6pm. More information from maynoothuniversity.ie