Populism and nationalism are two separate concepts, yet simultaneously they are deeply interconnected ideologies. Populism, as defined by Jan Mueller, is where a political leader uses anti-establishment (anti-elitist) rhetoric and also claims to be the sole representative of “the people” (anti-pluralist). Nationalism, which has much nuance in its potential definition, can be loosely defined as- some “common thing(s)” that unites a group of individuals to create a collective with a physical representation of large territory that comprises a “nation” with a “people.” In specific examples, Populism and Nationalism do exist separately from one another, but the commonalities in the definitions make it possible for populist leaders to exploit the nationalistic idenities of “the people.” Nations are founded by groups of individuals who unite together (to have a sovereign land) under some shared beliefs, location of birth, shared ethnicity, religion, language or other thing(s), and then the founding people establish “status quos” of culture, social dynamics, political views, etc… The established values of the status quo of the nation often become part of the national consciousness and is partly how a nation’s people define itself. “Nations” have their “people” and populist politicians exploit that nationalistic pride. These populist politicians will claim that they are the true representative of the nation’s people and rally them against the “elites.” The “elites” are not considered part of the “people,” which promotes xenophobia, the fear of “others,” and can potentially cause racially motivated violence. The racial violence can occur since essentially all nations are composed of multiple racial groups, which allows for some awful populist leaders to scapegoat the racial minorities either as “elites” or “not original people,” or both. Populism is such an effective political ideology because it exploits human psychology. Human beings want an enemy, they want to be considered part of a “worthy” collective, and against an “evil” outsider who is trying to destroy their “correct” way of life. Populist leaders can further sow division (and increase their chances of winning political office) by exploiting nationalistic identities. The combination of these two ideologies has potentially disastrous effects on Democracy. To demonstrate why this fear may be correct, let us analyze the Brazilian case of Jair Bolsanaro.
Bolsanaro was elected president of Brazil in 2018. Bolsonaro’s main presidential opponent, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was arrested for corruption charges in 2017. “Lula” was once a highly popular president who enacted social programs that lifted much of Brazil’s poorest out of starvation and wallow, though his administrations consistently had rampant corruption, eventually leading to his own arrest in 2017 (the conviction was overturned in 2019 and Lula is running against Bolsonaro in the 2022 election). Without Lula in his way in 2018, Bolsonaro was able to claim the presidency despite his polarizing public perception. Bolsonaro is deeply sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic and uses incredibly violent rhetoric. Bolsonaro was able to successfully appeal to those with both nationalistic identities and those with populist views. Bolsonaro was the “outsider” who was fighting against the genuinely corrupt elite. He represented himself as the voice of the “true” Christian Brazilians, “Let’s unite the people. Value the family, respect religions and our Judeo-Christian tradition, fight gender ideology, and preserve our values. Brazil will once again be a country free from ideological shackles.” This transphobic rhetoric plays into the nationalistic identity of Brazilians which is deeply intertwined with Christianity. Bolsonaro utilizes another dangerous form of nationalism by claiming that, “The scum of the Earth is showing up in Brazil,” this rhetoric promotes ethnic nationalism which cultivates the belief that the Brazilian people are inherently superior and therefore “others” must be excluded. Bolsonaro expertly used populist anti-elitist tactics to rally against a corrupt government, while also appealing to nationalistic sentiments by creating the opposition of “true Brazilians” by black-listing queer individuals, non-christians, and non-ethnic Brazilians. Bolsonaro used hate to secure power, and if he loses the 2022 election, then the strength of Brazilian democracy will certainly be tested. This haunting quote from Jair Bolsonaro at a campaign rally in 2022 demonstrates the threat to democracy, “There are only three alternatives for me: to be arrested; to be killed; or to be victorious. And I tell those scumbags, I will never go to jail!”
Populism is inherently dangerous. Populist ideologies are potentially costly due to the anti-plursatic aspects of populist leaders’ views. Pluralism, the representation of the people by individuals with varying ideological beliefs, is essential to the health of democracy. Alone, populist ideologies have caused serious slides into authoritarianism, but fortunately the US has avoided that fate. As displayed by the case of Bolsonaro, when populist leaders use particular forms of nationalism, like ethnic or religious nationalism, then those nations are put at serious risk of democratic backsliding, authoritarianism and religiously/ethnically motivated violence. Nationalism is not inherently dangerous like populism, but certain forms of the ideology that promote the belief that some people are inherently superior is very problematic. Populism must be closely monitored, but so too must ethnic and religious nationalism, and how they may make populist appeals too strong.