In recent months, the ascent of leaders and movements denounced by their rivals as “populist” has given the world the false impression that those leaders offer some kind of distinct ideology.
So-called populists do run on platforms that challenge the status quo; it is also true that this can lead them to embrace a wide range of positions on crucial issues. The policies promised by Donald Trump and France’s Marine Le Pen cannot be more different than those adopted by Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela, or those promoted by Podemos, Spain’s newest political party. Yet all of these leaders are routinely described as populists.
The fact is that populism is not an ideology. Instead, it’s a strategy to obtain and retain power. It has been around for centuries, recently appearing to resurface in full force, propelled by the digital revolution, precarious economies, and the threatening insecurity of what lies ahead.
Even though populist leaders and the countries they rule are vastly different, populism contains the same ingredients everywhere. We can see them in Vladimir Putin’s Russia and Trump’s America, Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey, Viktor Orban’s Hungary, or Rodrigo Duterte’s Philippines. And despite differences in culture, history, political systems, or the economic circumstances of the countries where populism is now being deployed, populist leaders resort to the same tactics. The policies they favor are as varied as their political tactics are similar.
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.
Play up the external threat
“Wag the dog” is not only the title of a movie—one in which the political advisors of a faltering president fabricate a military conflict against a small country to boost his chances of reelection—but a political tactic with a long, disastrous pedigree. Students of international relations and war even have a name for it: “diversionary wars.”
For populists, it is not enough to create an internal enemy; they also need foreign enemies. This external threat can be a country—say, China or Mexico—or a group, like immigrants or Muslims. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, for example, has said “migration is not a solution but a problem … not medicine but poison; we don’t need it and won’t swallow it.” Orban actually went so far as to build a wall to keep out immigrants. Putin meanwhile accuses the United States and the West of being behind the “Color Revolutions” that shook Eastern Europe in the early 2000s, and the protests that erupted in the streets of Moscow in 2011. Putin also regularly denounces NATO. And Turkey’s Erdogan routinely accuses the “West” of stirring up trouble.
Insist that the foreign enemy has allies at home
Populists often portray foreign rivals as allies of the domestic opposition. For example, Erdogan has explained away last year’s failed coup attempt by blaming it on Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric living in exile in America who enjoys a vast following in Turkey. According to Erdogan, the U.S. government was also involved in sponsoring the coup. When things at home start to go sour for populists, they tend to provoke conflicts abroad as a distraction.
Glorify the military
The populist extols the military as often as possible, while also launching major weapons-procurement initiatives and boosting defense spending. Trump’s frequent references to military veterans, his commitment to increasing defense spending, and his tough talk on international affairs are nothing new when seen in this light. Other populists around the world have done exactly the same—with Orban’s government vowing to make one of Europe’s “most decisive” armies out of Hungary’s armed forces, and Putin touting the Russian military as “stronger ... than any potential aggressor.”
Discredit the experts
“People in this country have had enough of experts,” Brexit advocate Michael Gove said in response to a report compiled by a group of prestigious economists on the costs Britain could incur by leaving the European Union. For Trump, clear scientific consensus has been irrelevant when it comes to climate change, which he once insisted was a conspiracy invented by China (a claim he later shrugged off as a joke). He has also advanced the claim that autism is caused by vaccines, despite what the American Academy of Pediatrics has called “a robust body of medical literature” disproving it. Experts, though, are part of the “elite” that populists blame for the people’s problems and whose influence they want to curb.
Delegitimize the media
The disdain populists feel for experts is nothing compared to the distaste they have for journalists. In some countries, this leads to incarcerations, beatings, and even assassinations. Journalists, like scientists, obtain information that can clash with the narrative the populist finds most convenient. When this happens, there is no better solution than to disqualify—or eliminate—the messenger. While in the United States, Trump routinely accuses the media of disseminating “fake news,” in Ecuador, President Rafael Correa refers to critical media as “ink hitmen.”
The essence of the populist recipe is to undermine the checks and balances that limit populists’ power and hold them accountable. The common wisdom used to be that populists tended to succeed in countries where institutions were too weak to contain them, or where citizens believed that “all politicians were the same” and nothing could be worse than what they had. But the success of populist politicians in some European countries and the United States shows that even mature democracies are no guarantee against populism.
When trying to entice African Americans to vote for him, then-candidate Trump asked: “What the hell do you have to lose?” But in countries where too many have felt that they had nothing to lose by electing a populist, voters often come to regret their decision.
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