Two distinct populisms are at work in the world today

US Politics: The US form of populism threatens entropy, not sinister order

Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte holds up a Covid-19 vaccine. Photograph: Ezra Acayan/Getty

Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte holds up a Covid-19 vaccine. Photograph: Ezra Acayan/Getty

 

Last month Rodrigo Duterte warned Filipino vaccine-dodgers that he would inject it “in your butt”. Neither the risks to efficacy nor the potential tort deterred this most vivid of presidents.

Other members of the strongman club are more demure but not less insistent. Hungary’s Viktor Orban is making a third dose available from next month. Israel’s vaccination rates led the world under a now-deposed populist. When the Law and Justice party of Poland censured one of its MPs for getting jabbed, it was not capitulation to science that was his crime. It was queue jumping.

The global race to vaccinate is having a use beyond the narrowly medical. It is delineating two populisms that my trade likes to group into a Nationalist International. The first kind is serious about the business of government. “Authoritarian” in the roundest sense, it turns the brawn of the state on social ills, real or perceived, not just political rivals. Even where it fails (the Philippines has fully vaccinated 6 per cent of its people), it tends not to be feral libertarianism at fault.

This paternalist spirit has no place in the other populism. President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil embodies it, as do the US Republicans, some of whom took until last week to commend the vaccine to their voters. This is populism as cussed and near anarchic defiance of received opinion. It is ruthless in the pursuit of power but lax to the point of dereliction in its exercise.

On both counts, Donald Trump is the apotheosis of the movement. He elicited foreign help to remain president. He fights to reverse or at least discredit his lost election. His thirst for office is such that he is primed to run again in 2024. When it was his, though, his attitude to the awesome machinery of state was often one of boredom. His central legislative feat was a tax cut, not a wall against Mexico. Even before the pandemic, he was more absentee landlord than Big Brother.

Endless nuance

Distinguish these populisms as Old World and New (fittingly, Britain’s version has bits of both) or as “heavy” and “light”, but distinguish them. They have in common an impatience with the rules and norms of civic life. But from the very first question of politics – the proper relationship of the state to the individual – their substantive differences begin.

Very often, simplification is benign and even necessary. Large audiences are difficult to inform except through narrative. In the decades leading up to 2016, public spending hardly fell in the developed world. Still that phase is called “neoliberal”. Better broad strokes that draw the eye than the tedium of endless nuance.

The conflation of the two populisms is different. It creates a false picture of the fate that threatens to befall America. In dystopic accounts of a far-right US, the country runs like hideous clockwork. Minorities are relocated. Surveillance invades the home. Men in epaulettes chortle. Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America is a classic of the genre, as is the television adaptation of The Man in the High Castle.

Perhaps it is rash to rule out such a future. The intellectual dog’s breakfast of modern Republicanism may yet congeal into a strict, coherent theory of government. Until it does, though, there is something of Godwin’s law at work. The Nazi warning is being applied to circumstances that don’t fit.

Failed state

On current form, US populism threatens chaos and entropy, not sinister order. A large minority of cynical voters, even when inflamed by a major political party, is not enough to subdue the whole nation. What it can do is frustrate all attempts at collective action. The implications for public health are dire enough, without weighing what they might be for climate change and the electoral system.

Averting this future will take immense and varied work. But a good start is to perceive the problem as it truly is. Confusing it with those of other countries just allows the threat to pass undetected. So does invoking the one historic reference point that crowds out so much teaching of the past.

In some countries, populists cherish the grandeur and dignity of the state. In the US, they can hardly bring themselves to fund the Internal Revenue Service adequately. Even Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis – the able Trump, by repute – barred public and commercial premises from demanding proof of Covid-19 vaccination.

You need not oppose him to see the difference with the conventional authoritarian impulse. Picture a dystopia extrapolated from US populism in 2021. It is not a super state you see. It is a failed one. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021

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