With the increasing polarization of Americans, and the newfound wave of popular support for far-right populism as birthed by Donald Trump and his supporters, it is becoming increasingly difficult to ward off disinformation and reconcile the misled masses as all engines of research, education, and public outreach become antagonized beyond measure.
Just as most geographic regions of the world have seen a new wave of populism in recent years through both autocratic populist leaders and populist candidates outside of local political machines, the US is no exception. Donald J. Trump, the 45th President of the United States, began his entire political campaign on the basis of galvanizing the low-income, mostly uneducated bottom quartiles of voters in rural America and stimulating their rage and support by exploiting their prejudices and disconnection from the technocratic, urban centers of the US.
The model and principle behind this is nothing new, and has been the modus operandi for populist politics for centuries. The populist’s narrative will divide society into two halves: the ordinary pure people going about their day, and the evil elites which strive to exploit their labor and resources in any way they can and ultimately lower their livelihood for their own greedy gain (1). This entire design is faulted and based on an illegitimate premise. Even in the event that a technocratic dictatorship exists and suppresses the “pure” people, the political opposition will always comprise many voices and diverse ideas, rather than one group which one populist can represent. Therefore the ‘voice of the people’ which populists claim to echo are only those of one group of interest. If the voices of all groups of people were equally heard in the political discourse, populism would cease to exist and liberal democracy would arise.
Despite the discourse being tailored to one group, populism still does not adequately serve this group, rather only stirs up fear and emotion from the given group that will consolidate as power which only benefits the populist receiving the support (2). The example of Donald Trump is especially painfully ironic, in that Trump is billionaire businessman based in New York City, representing the Republican Party which is definitionally the party representing the white-collar well-off America, and favors tax-cuts for the highest bracket of income earners as well as perks for large corporations. The only way for someone of such background and with this premise to win the hearts of the bottom half of society is by warping their perception of reality to the extent that they become oblivious to the aforementioned reality. And this is exactly what Trump did. Despite the cold truth that Donald Trump and the Republican Party can only benefit the wealthy and the “Corporate America,” poor and rural White voters regularly buy into Trump’s politics as support for White Supremacy, despite the fact that Trump’s politics do not really benefit or upwardly mobilize their support base (3). Achieving such a feat requires much effort to persuade these audiences, and the more time goes on, the more extreme the narrative needs to get in order to maintain its pervasiveness.
From describing political opponents as pieces of the “elite” and “system” responsible for financial crises and poverty in economically strained areas such as those whose industries have been outsourced, to describing professionals and scholars as liars who only serve the “elite,” Trump-style populism has garnered a deep hatred for anything technocratic or “urban” and antagonized it as the source of “troubles” in general. As this populism developed, social media and virtual networks were added to the list of evils due to their promoting of scientific and technocratic findings which echo the truth. As the warped reality of populists derailed entirely from reality and started presenting nonsensical theories and accusations casually as given truths, social media and network companies felt obligated to curb and control the spread of flagrant lies and nonsense on their networks through censorship. This initiated a positive-feedback loop as now populism’s followers could see their views being instantly shut down and censored, confirming that the media companies are the evil that they are said to be, since why else would they be so quick to censor the subversive information that exposes their evil nature? Supporters of this new populism openly accuse social media companies of serving to spread partisan propaganda and silence the voices of truth by ‘pretending’ that it is misinformation and shutting down accounts of anyone who disagrees (4). With the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, populism gained a new front on which it could broadcast its augmented reality. Health and medical information that came from medical and educational institutions was immediately identified as material from the “elites” and it instantly became on-brand to believe and promote the exact opposite of whatever it was the health organizations were promoting. Given the pre-existing implications of medical systems and the nature of big pharmaceutical corporations in America, the ground was ripe for sowing distrust in coronavirus information and the vaccines long before the pandemic and vaccines actually emerged. With all of these developments underway, the narratives of Trump-style populism are as extreme as ever despite Trump’s Presidential term having long since passed. As described by some, Trump’s populism has created a world of hate, untruth, and recklessness (5) that is eroding democracy and creating a completely false fantasy of a reality. With such large chunks of American society living in a world in which all professional organizations which they are out of touch with are demonized along with all educational and scientific institutions which are described as machines for creating propaganda and lies that further try to deceive them from how badly the “elites” are trying to destroy their freedoms and well-being, the solution appears nonexistent. With every effort to offer some sense and reconcile these masses, one would further be bolstering their distorted world. Every word of justification would be read as apologist propaganda to further deceive them. Given the gaping chasm between their view of the world and the real world, every explanation of reality would involve arguing to them that all of their information is false, which would easily read as more propaganda seeping from the elites. This modern American instance of populism shows that when populism is cultivated and given a chance to begin growing, it becomes increasingly difficult to counter, and at a certain point, any effort to reasonably argue against its faulty premises only serves to cultivate it even further.
(1) Müller, Jan-Werner. 2016. What Is Populism (Links to an external site.) Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press
(2) Harris-Perry, Melissa, “Populism Remains Popular, at Home and Abroad (Links to an external site.)“, Podcast, The Takeaway
(3) Harris-Perry, Melissa, “Populism Remains Popular, at Home and Abroad (Links to an external site.)“, Podcast, The Takeaway
(5) Berman, Sheri. 2017. “The Pipe Dream of Undemocratic Liberalism (Links to an external site.).” Journal of Democracy.
Very in depth perspective, I wonder what you believe is the solution. I like to believe that the way to counter populism is through a nuanced understanding of the political arena but most people cant. Therefore if education isn’t going to solve it does that mean quasi-populism should be taken advantage of to counter its worst form? By that I mean should the government focus more on cultivating a sense of civic nationalism to compete against fiery rhetoric from those promote ethnic and religious nationalism? I believe people yearn for meaning and purpose, without our nation providing the youth opportunities to directly feel like they are apart of the community or a historical narrative, they will flock to new ideologies that promise them feelings of inclusivity.