Populist Autocrat Dictator Demagogue Despot

1. Where the populist wave tides to?

in Conflicts 2019 · EN · Nation 2019 · Politics 2019 · Skepticism 2019 · Trump 2019 · USA 2019 35 views / 6 comments
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GEOMETR.IT    project-syndicate.org

* Strong support for immigration and globalization in the US sits uneasily with the view that “populism” is a problem. In fact, the term remains vague and explains too little – particularly now, when support for the political forces it attempts to describe seems to be on the wane.

STANFORD – The dysfunctional politics of Brexit in the United Kingdom, and the midterm election reaction against President Donald Trump in the United States, are generating second thoughts about the populist tide sweeping the world’s democracies in recent years. In fact, second thoughts are long overdue.

Populism is an ambiguous term applied to many different types of political parties and movements, but its common denominator is resentment of powerful elites. In the 2016 presidential election, both major US political parties experienced populist reactions to globalization and trade agreements. Some observers even attributed Trump’s election to the populist reaction to the liberal international order of the past seven decades. But that analysis is too simple. The outcome was over-determined by many factors, and foreign policy was not the main one.

Populism is not new, and it is as American as apple pie. Some populist reactions – for example, Andrew Jackson’s presidency in the 1830s or the Progressive Era at the beginning of the twentieth century – have led to democracy-strengthening reforms. Others, such as the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic Know-Nothing Party in the 1850s or Senator Joe McCarthy and Governor George Wallace in the 1950s and 1960s, have emphasized xenophobia and exclusion. The recent wave of American populism includes both strands.

The roots of populist reactions are both economic and cultural, and are the subject of important social science research. Pippa Norris of Harvard and Ronald Inglehart of the University of Michigan have found that cultural factors long antedating the 2016 election were very important. Voters who lost jobs to foreign competition tended to support Trump, but so did groups like older white males who lost status in the culture wars that date back to the 1970s and involved changing values related to race, gender, and sexual preference. Alan Abramowitz of Emory University has shown that racial resentment was the single strongest predictor for Trump among Republican primary voters.

But economic and cultural explanations are not mutually exclusive. Trump explicitly connected these issues by arguing that illegal immigrants were taking jobs from American citizens. The symbolism of building a wall along America’s southern border was a useful slogan for uniting his electoral base around these issues. That is why he finds the idea hard to give up.

Even if there had been no economic globalization or liberal international order, and even if there had been no great recession after 2008, domestic cultural and demographic changes in the US would have created some degree of populism. America saw this in the 1920s and 1930s. Fifteen million immigrants had come to the US in the first 20 years of the century, leaving many Americans with an uneasy fear of being overwhelmed. In the early 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan had a resurgence and pushed for the National Origins Act of 1924 to “prevent the Nordic race from being swamped,” and “preserve the older, more homogeneous America they revered.”

The publication is not an editorial. It reflects solely the point of view and argumentation of the author. The publication is presented in the presentation. Start in the previous issue. The original is available at: project-syndicate.org



  1. The populists rightly distrust the elites because they act in their own interest. However, the populists have no ability to rule. I want the best of both – capable and trustworthy leaders and I think we can get it if we change the way leaders are hired and fired.

  2. Dr. Nye, I think that one critical mistake now being made by the “globalists” is that they very simplistically regard it as a way to tap into a cheap(er) source of labor – even if this de-facto brings back some things that were outlawed in the -nineteenth- century: slavery, and “involuntary servitude,” a.k.a. “indentured servants.” It is transparent to all that this is the true and only impetus between Europe’s “immigration” and the USA’s equally euphemistic “non-immigrant visa” and “guest worker.” This is not the time to look the other way.

    Also lost in all of this is the notion of sovereignty, national autonomy, and the need for redundancy in robust international economic systems. Instead we commit John Ruskin’s famous error and “consider price alone.” We reflexively call it “protectionism” when a national leader argues that the leaders of every nation should, without exception, put “their country first” in everything that they do … ignoring the fact that the person who said this made billions of dollars in personal wealth for himself, chiefly as a negotiator. His experience, unprecedented in the entire history of politics, gives him life-lessons to teach us all, even if he is not gifted in tact.

    What we get for it is international “sole sourcing” – e.g. a United States that is now -incapable- of building telephones, computers, underwear, shoes and socks. Something as natural and predictable as an enormous typhoon in the Pacific had downstream implications that lasted for months because companies had nowhere else to turn.

    In the end, it is a question of balance. International trade is a valuable and positive thing, but not if it is done at the expense of your own country. Global awareness and global perspectives are desirable things, but not if only one nation wins. In the debate that you discuss in this piece, both sides have valuable and important points which, in fact, are not contradictory nor exclusive of one another. Both perspectives need to listen carefully to one another to identify a forward path in which both sides benefit and truly prosper. The “prosperity” we speak of now is hollow, empty, fragile, and un-sustainable. We must do better than this. And we certainly can.

  3. I would also like to add to this discussion that this talk is often filled with “straw men” and stereotypes – words like “populist” and “elite” (to me …) definitely qualify. I suggest that we should therefore try to put our conversation’s boots firmly on the ground at all times – talking about definite incidents, definite objectives, and definite problems or issues. We mustn’t find ourselves talking about, and with, clouds.

  4. “In fact, the term remains vague and explains too little – particularly now, when support for the political forces it attempts to describe seems to be on the wane.”

    Populism has been a word that has been used as a convenient label for branding that applies to absolutely nothing. The term does NOT just remain vague and explains too little- it is deliberately vague and explains absolutely nothing. This word has been used as a label to “twist the focus” from the do-nothing US administration and other politicians, and “regimes” that are doing absolutely nothing positive for the society, nor the state that these politicians are SUPPOSED to represent.

    Now the “twist” is to throw BLAME onto the public, where blame does NOT belong. The use of the word is only a propaganda technique to distract and further develop a smoke-screen to distract from reality of corruption and greed.

    The POTUS is a totally incompetent 72 years of age, old man-that can barely function on any reasonable level. He is functioning because his staff is protecting a dysfunctional human-being, that is not competent, and cannot even handle basic reasonable cognitive engagement activities. The man can’t even read basic scripts. His prepared statements are just repeats of simplistic “pats-on-the-backs” of his buddies. That is all this man is capable of doing.

    Supporting this man in this present position is the absolute antithesis of sanity, by the people in the White House. These are people that only want money in their pockets for themselves, their immediate families, while they are creating a hell-storm for the rest of the nation.

    The scenario is absolutely bizarre. This article does not even scrape the barrel of nothingness, that Nye is supposedly writing about.

    Nye writes words about nothing of any consequence, which I’m sure is totally intentional. The writing is just another tear-off for the circular file, full of nonsense.

  5. Joseph S. Nye, Jr. seems to believe that Trump’s disruptive presidency would not have a huge impact on America’s political system in far-reaching ways, thanks to its resilience. Trump’s hostility to immigrants reflects the views of Stephen Miller, his 33-year old far-right senior policy adviser. On the whole, “attitudes toward immigration improve as the economy improves, but it remains an emotional cultural issue.” Trump taps into the country’s psyche and divides the nation when it serves his purpose.
    The author says, although Trump embraces economic nationalism and “America First” in his foreign policy approach, some “65% of Americans thought that globalization is mostly good for the US, despite their concerns about jobs,” according to a September 2016 poll. The Chicago Council on Global Affairs has been asking Americans yearly since 1974, “if the US should take an active part in, or stay out of, world affairs.” The number of “isolationists” has been declining constantly. In a 2018 poll, some 70% Americans supported the US playing an active role in global affairs.
    Trump’s win was partly a populist reaction to the liberal internatonal order that stands for globalisation and free trade for much of the post-war year. The author says, “one should not read too much about long-term trends in American public opinion into the heated rhetoric of the 2016 election or Trump’s brilliant use of social media to manipulate the news agenda with cultural wedge issues. While Trump won the Electoral College, he fell three million short in the popular vote.” No doubt Russia’s disinformation playbook lent him a helping hand too.
    In fact populism has a long and durable tradition in American politics. It is in many ways an appealing doctrine, and “as American as apple pie.” Trump’s campaign rhetoric echoed the 1892 platform of the People’s party – known as the Populists – from its denunciations of media and “imported pauperised labour” to its insistence that the nation had been “brought to the verge of moral, political and material ruin”.
    Trump won because he was told, that many of the “plain people” – a phrase from the Populists’ 1892 platform – felt ignored and despised by the elites of both parties. An increasing numbers of citizens believe that the economic and political systems of their country are rigged against them. Trump had the ear of many union members who felt threatened by free trade and globalisation.
    Historian note that many successful presidents, from Franklin D Roosevelt to Reagan to Bill Clinton, have been populists to some extent. But leaders of both parties have also been wary of populism’s tendency to slide into demagoguery. History has shown that populists find it difficult to resist scapegoating minorities and outsiders, offering simplistic and unrealistic solutions for complex issues and destroying trust in social or government institutions.
    Trump in many ways resembles previous populists who ran for presidency, such as Patrick Buchanan – who also campaigned on the slogan “America First” – and Alabama governor George Wallace. But there has never been a vigorous populist in the White House, with the exception of Andrew Jackson, whose portrait now hangs in the Oval Office, because Trump cites him as his hero.
    Trump also reminds of Barry Goldwater, the rightwing Arizona senator who was the Republican presidential candidate in 1964. Like Trump, Goldwater was an anti-establishment firebrand with a habit of making extreme statements on sensitive subjects, such as race and nuclear weapons. After presiding over a divided party convention, the prickly Goldwater refused to pivot toward a more measured, level-headed “presidential” posture. Like Trump, he had no interest in reaching out to groups that were sceptical of his candidacy, such as minorities and college graduates. He also appealed to the less-educated voters in the white working class who had not previously taken much interest in politics.
    The author says “the lesson for policy elites who support globalization and an open economy is that they will have to pay more attention to issues of economic inequality as well as adjustment assistance for those disrupted by change,” both at home and abroad. While “strong support for immigration and globalization in the US sits uneasily with the view that populism is a problem,” one can be hopeful that “support for the political forces it attempts to describe seems to be on the wane.” It remains to be seen whether this development is universal.

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