Divide and conquer
The most successful populist leaders are masters at exacerbating socio-cultural division and conflict. They use differences in income, race, religion, region, nationality, or any other rift in society to drive a wedge between different groups and foment indignation and political outrage. Populists are not afraid to fuel social conflict—in fact, they thrive on it. An indispensable ingredient of the populist recipe is the “us” that embodies the nation, represented by the populist leader who promises to confront the “them,” who have allegedly harmed “the people.”
The late Hugo Chavez used to denounce the opposition as “squalid,” “traitors to the homeland,” and the “oligarchy.” Italy’s Beppe Grillo, the head of the Five Star Movement, a political party, routinely referred to traditional political and economic elites as “the caste.” Brexiters speak with disdain of “Brussels bureaucrats,” while Donald Trump condemns Washington’s “swamp.” Populists denigrate “the others” not only when they falter, but even when they are successful. They need to feed the forces of political, social, economic, and racial polarization.
Magnify the nation’s problems
Exaggerating a given country’s dire situation is an indispensable rhetorical tactic for the populist, whose central message is that everything his predecessors did was bad, corrupt, and unacceptable, and that the country urgently needs drastic changes that only he or she can deliver.
Trump’s reference to “American carnage” in his inaugural address, or his repeated invocations of the weak economy or the foreign-policy mess that he inherited, are good examples, but far from unique. Putin, for example, lamented the break-up of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical disaster” of the 20th century and stressed its horrific effects on the Russian nation. Marine Le Pen and Argentina’s former President Nestor Kirchner also leveled accusations against those who came before them. Claiming the mantle as the only one qualified to undertake the urgent corrections the country needs is a common element in populists’ propaganda.
Criminalize the opposition
Populists often treat those who oppose them not as fellow citizens with different views, but as traitors who don’t deserve to be heard or maintain their full political rights.
Consider Venezuela’s Leopoldo Lopez, a charismatic opposition political leader who has been languishing in jail for over three years, or Russia’s Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a businessman whose political ambitions threatened Putin, and who was sent to jail for eight years. Amnesty International considers the detentions of both Lopez and Khordokovsky to be politically motivated. They are but two examples showing the propensity of populist autocrats to jail their opponents.
In Turkey, Egypt, Malaysia, or South Africa, opposition leaders are jailed or die under mysterious circumstances. After all, eliminating political rivals is an old trick. Even democratic leaders have at times stated their wish to imprison political rivals. One of the most popular mottos at the height of Trump’s campaign was “lock her up”— a threat to incarcerate Hillary Clinton.