The threat of populism is always seen as a distant cloud that will go away until it doesn’t. Until it’s a storm changing everything. Jeremy Corbyn, Donald Trump and Brexit has made the once laughable and impossibly ludicrous feel terrifyingly possible. Where we once dismissed it, we now take it seriously.
This is the post-truth society, summed up by Michael Gove saying during the EU referendum that society had “had enough of experts.” Appealing to logic, facts and reason is now seen as elitist, a way of maintaining the status quo. The new brand of politics is rooted in directly pitching to people’s emotions than evidence, eschewing rationality and reason for political fantasy. It taps into the festering resentment welling up within societies, feeding into the growing disconnect between politicians and people to suggest that the truth is subjective and designed to distort the wishes of people. Reality in their eyes is a matter of opinion, shaped more by judgements than what is real. If you say it’s factually proven that immigration is a source of wealth for the country, the populists will decry it as stripping wealth away from ordinary people. No amount of evidence will change that opinion.
Populists use the fury of the people to dismiss their political opponents, not by debunking their arguments with facts, but by simply dismissing them as enemies of people. Trump denigrates his rivals and critics as not attacking him, but attacking the people. Populists make themselves the messengers of the people, the spokesperson finally taking it to the elite. That creates them a protective bubble that other politicians do not have. They can easily pass anyone criticising them off as threats to people. Populists project the other side as completely bad and therefore undeserving of respect and an audience. Their trick is to feign honesty to the people whilst smearing everyone else as dishonest and deceitful – all the while they ignore facts and reality. It allows them to make for simplistic solutions for a complex world, to ignore reality in favour of emotion, and ensure their own deficits are quite easily ignored. They represent the people. The other side don’t. Therefore any criticism of their populism is really an attack on the people.
Donald Trump is able to convince his supporters that the criticisms of his misogyny, blundering incompetence and climate change denials are all “fake news.” The news outlets are false and therefore untrustworthy. Extreme opinions, once marginalised on the fringe, become normalised as honest reflections of what the people are thinking. Hillary Clinton and her supporters did not realise the political whirlwind they were caught up in, and casting Clinton in the role of the establishment figure proved to be a catastrophic failure. Lies about Clinton were told, and believed, because again truth in this new political world isn’t determined by facts and evidence but emotions and opinion. Clinton is a centrist, so she must be a liar.
In Britain it has worked as explosively. Brexit is the epitome of post-truth populism. One side battled in vain with statistics, logic and reason but lost to a side that simply appealed to people’s angry imagination of a different world. And no matter how difficult reconfiguring a new world would be, society chose it, opting Leave. Slogans like “take back control” were direct messages to both white supremacists against multiculturalism and to the open masses that they could kick an oblivious political establishment where it would truly hurt. That disconnect once again. This was a chance for the people to shock the supposed elite and they did. It’s no wonder the Remain side were cast as elitist during the referendum and enemies of the people after it, when we warned about the social and economic consequences of a speedy and ill-conceived Brexit.
Jeremy Corbyn has used this to similar effect. Every criticism of him is seen as an attack by the Blairite elite on him. He represents the people, seen as a divergence from the rest of the Labour Party machine. Criticisms of him are smears, a conspiracy to unseat him and swing power back to the people. The people who have criticised him for his silence over Brexit, anti-Semitism and Syria are depicted as the opponents of Trump and Brexit are. Chris Williamson MP, a man who regularly shares the content of conspiracy theorists, anti-Semites and misogynists on his social media, denounced cries of anti-Semitism within the left as “bullshit” designed to undermine Jeremy Corbyn. This he did despite ignoring polls from British Jews themselves who feel that Labour is hostile to Jews.
These are figures who recognise that the world is messy and complex and require grim solutions at times. But they also recognise that the shredded confidence in mainstream politics means that people want things to change, irrespective of how difficult or dangerous it may be. They have charted their climb up the political ladder to the top by casting themselves as different and spinning truth-based criticisms as smears and lies designed to destroy the people.
If the Democrats in America and Labour in Britain want to claim power then they need to understand the scale of the situation facing them. They need to recognise that politics which deals in actually being honest with people about the truth isn’t enough. People want more. They want to know their politicians feel as angry and aggrieved as they do.