NOTE FOR CANDIDATES
The word ‘populist’ has lately come to mean white nationalist, alt-right blogger, neo-fascist and so on. These labels are imprecise. So we’ve produced a short Q&A that will help you decide whether you’ve got what it takes to be a populist leader. Good luck.
1) Are you prone to hysterical public denunciations of anyone who challenges you?
2) Are you and your movement chiefly defined by what you hate (or fear)?
3) Do you think ‘the people’ will believe whatever you tell them?
4) Are you willing to twist the truth, cheat and betray the people’s interests in order to win a referendum or high office?
5) Have you ever abused people who look different to you, don’t believe in what you believe and/or love people of the same sex?
6) Do you ridicule ‘elites’ and ‘experts’ – that is, qualified people who are probably more intelligent than you and better at running things (even as you enjoy the support of the true elites – ie bankers, billionaires and foreign kleptocrats)?
7) Are you planning to foment war and chaos in order to rally the people behind the war and chaos you’re planning to foment?
8) Do you read history?
If you answered ‘yes’ to questions 1–7 and ‘no’ to question 8, congratulations! Our six-step guide, ‘How to rule like an autocrat’ is perfect for you.
A handy scapegoat
An angry, elderly, white minority with a distrust of foreigners
An easily mocked ‘elite’ of harmless academics, writers and liberals
A list of lies posing as policies
A billionaire hedge-fund manager or other source of cash
A thuggish foreign regime keen to sabotage your democracy
A complicit or complaisant press
An ideological poobah with an apocalyptic message
Step 1: Choose your scapegoat and vilify them
Your ideal scapegoat will be a small, blameless minority whose very existence infuriates and frightens the majority. Your target will have little, if any, electoral power, thus will be helpless to retaliate at the ballot box when you blame them for your country’s ills (see below).
They – always refer to them as ‘they’ – will be defined by their foreignness, strange appearance, dress or skin colour, religious or political beliefs, or sexual orientation.
Ignore the fact that many of your scapegoated minority will have lived peacefully alongside the majority before you launched your bid for power. Fasten instead on the crimes of a few rogue operators and project them onto the innocent.
Ruthlessly link their removal/banning/destruction with the return of the ‘good old days’, when your country was clean, white and Christian, and not racked by unemployment, drugs, rape, same-sex marriage, medical queues and terrorist attacks.
Heed the errors of past populists. The great Dutch trailblazer Geert Wilders, for example, founder of the Party for Freedom, ill-advisedly called all Moroccans ‘scum’. Experts in scapegoating strategy reckon he should have applied the epithet to ‘anyone of North African appearance’. Wilders won just 14 per cent of the vote and twenty seats in the 2017 election (down four seats from 2010).
Greece’s Golden Dawn has fared little better. The fascist party played their populist hand too early by sporting swastikas, beating up anyone they disliked (gays and Jews, for instance) and reading The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forged anti-Semitic document fraudulently ascribed to Jewish authors, to the Greek parliament. Not even Hitler dared read the Protocols to the Reichstag.
The raw anti-Semitism of Austria’s neo-Nazi Freedom Party and Slovakia’s People’s Party Our Slovakia similarly fizzled. Norbert Hofer, leader of the Freedom Party, lost the presidency to an economics professor turned green activist; Marian Kotleba, of Our Slovakia, won only 8 per cent of votes in the 2016 elections. Had they learnt nothing from Hitler? If their mentor taught them anything, it was to avoid identifying yourself too early with a single target of hatred. In his formative political years, Hitler focused public hatred not only on Jews but also on communists, gays, gypsies and the disabled.
Until recently, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) seemed to offer a more coherent plan – promising to ban all Muslims, close all mosques and shoot ‘illegals’ at the border. It was a case of too little too late. Angela Merkel is expected to easily win the general election this year, despite her ‘crazy’ acceptance of almost a million refugees in 2015, most of whom – who would have thought it? – are now learning German and finding employment to ease Germany’s demographic crisis. True, the AfD won almost a quarter of the vote in state elections last year, but their role in inciting ten violent attacks on migrants every day in 2016 betrayed a certain recklessness.
Nigel Farage seems to have got the balance about right. The UKIP leader helped turn the Brexit vote for Britain with his famous billboard depicting a long line of bedraggled refugees, which Farage borrowed straight from Nazi propaganda. The point being, if a single photo of a queue of Arab refugees and Polish baristas scared the British bulldog out of the European Union, think what a more sustained campaign could do.
Which brings us to the gold standard: Donald Trump. Trump won the presidency with promises to ban all Muslims from entering the country, and to build a ‘big beautiful wall’ to keep out hordes of Mexican criminals: ‘They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists, and some I assume are good people,’ he said.
There speaks the master. With that word ‘some’, Trump dispelled voters’ fears that he hated all Mexicans – a magnanimous codicil to an otherwise brilliant populist campaign.
Step 2: Tap your rich donors and crony regime
Now that you’ve declared your candidacy, and named your hated scapegoat, prepare to launch your campaign. You’ll need money, and a lot of it.
Veteran populists rely on wealthy investors and bankers – that is, the true elites they affect to despise. People like Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley investor (who backed Trump); Carl Icahn, the billionaire activist-investor (Trump); Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate (Trump); Steve Mnuchin, the billionaire former banker and now US Secretary of the Treasury (Trump); Robert Mercer, the billionaire hedge-fund manager and data aggregator (Trump); Wilbur Ross, the billionaire investor and now US Secretary of Commerce (Trump); and Arron Banks, the millionaire businessman behind Farage and Brexit’s Leave campaign.
Of the foreign oligarchs, Russia’s Vladimir Putin is the ‘go-to’ guy for populist finance. As Franklin Foer explained in The Atlantic recently: ‘Right-wing leaders around the world – from Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines to Nigel Farage in Britain to Donald Trump in the US – now speak of Putin in heroic terms. Their fawning is often discounted, ascribed to under-the-table payments or other stealthy Russian efforts.’
Marine Le Pen is a master of the art of fawning. In 2014 the Front National leader accepted eleven million euros in Russian loans, nine million of which came from the Kremlin-linked First Czech-Russian Bank. She applied for a bigger loan from Russian sources to finance her 2017 presidential campaign, promising in return to remove French sanctions against Russia ‘quickly’ if she won. She won 34 per cent in the second round in May, twice the haul of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, in 2002 – but far short of defeating Emmanuel Macron. Lesson: she had not fawned enough. Make sure you do.
Step 3: Appeal to your press pals
If you’re going to win high office or a referendum, you’ll need the backing of a powerful media magnate and their reporters, chiefly to incite hatred against the ‘elites’ (who include the very media magnates and hacks through whom you’ll be inciting hatred – but ignore that).
Start with the British tabloids. The Daily Mail, owned by French resident Lord Rothermere, and The Sun, owned by US citizen Rupert Murdoch, delivered Brexit on a platter – with a little help from The Daily Telegraph, owned by the billionaire Barclay Brothers, part-owners and residents of the tax haven of Brecqhou, the smallest and most secretive of the Channel Islands.
In the US, Fox News, The Drudge Report and Breitbart News should have your calling card.
It’s also worth nuzzling a few influential columnists who share your loathing of ‘elites’ and admire your brazen populism. They include:
Beware, however, of rank extremists and unreliable or failed bloggers. Here are three to avoid:
Step 4: Weaponise the internet and subvert your democracy
One man’s treason is another man’s patriotism. Is it treasonable to use every weapon at your disposal, even if that weapon is a Russian hacker? Not if it’s for the cause of winning.
So take heart from the Trump and Le Pen presidential campaigns, which enjoyed close links with Russian hackers who orchestrated a massive cyber-theft of their opponents’ emails.
The leaders of Brexit deployed a more sophisticated internet strategy that allegedly contravened British election laws. Farage’s Leave campaign used a data aggregator called Cambridge Analytica, owned by the billionaire Robert Mercer (see above) and its Canadian-based contractor, AggregateIQ, to crunch the numbers on the British electorate and micro-target individual voters with propaganda. The methods were similar to a military psywar (psychological warfare) offensive, according to an Observer newspaper investigation by Carole Cadwalladr on 7 May, entitled ‘The great British Brexit robbery: How our democracy was hijacked’.
Read it! It contains great tips on the uses of ‘soft power’, in which Putin is an expert. ‘Soft power’, he told a Moscow newspaper in 2012 before his sweeping re-election, ‘is a complex of tools and methods to achieve foreign-policy goals without the use of force, through information and other means of influence.’ The former KGB chief couldn’t have put it better.
Step 5: Lie
It’s time to roll out your big guns, to destroy your opponent through bald lies and fake news.
Examples are everywhere, from Brexit’s false promise to redirect £350 million in savings a week from leaving the EU to the National Health Service, to the hundreds of lies Trump told during and after his election campaign.
Trump’s boast that he ‘plays to people’s fantasies’ has inspired a generation of young populists and fake-news publishers. ‘He lies in ways that no American politician ever has before,’ observed David Leonhardt of The New York Times.
The fact-checking website PolitiFact reckons Trump told 278 whoppers from the start of his race for the White House to May 2017, of which sixty-five were ‘pants on fire’ dishonest – an astonishing achievement for a first-time populist with no experience of politics. His most sensational fibs concern: Obama’s birthplace; September 11; the Iraq War; NATO; Mexican immigrants; Muslim immigrants; the US murder rate; voter fraud and his groping of women.
Some observers have unfairly concluded that Trump is an empty vessel who must fill his environment with infantile tweets and appeals for praise – a strange case of the vacuum abhorring nature. Vox journalist David Roberts writes of Trump’s mind: ‘But what if there’s nothing to understand? What if there’s no there there?’ This misses the point. Trump is simply playing the classic populist’s card of creating a personal mythology, a mystique. He has always known what is and isn’t in his brain. It’s for the rest of us to find out.
Few populists have lied so well and so entertainingly as Boris Johnson, frontman for Brexit and now the British foreign secretary. Sacked by The Times (of London) in 1987 for making up a quote, he uttered exemplary drivel during the referendum about EU rules on condom sizes, bendy bananas and prawn cocktail-flavored chips, none of them true.
‘Boris invented fake news,’ reckons Martin Fletcher, a former foreign editor of The Times. ‘He turned Euroscepticism into an art form’. During the referendum, Johnson ‘campaigned against the cartoon caricature of Brussels that he himself invented’.
The most effective lie is a repeated lie. The trick is to bludgeon the recipient with falsehoods until they submit. Hitler excelled at this strategy. He banged on about the same thing until the dimmest thug in the beer hall understood him. In the same spirit, before the Brexit vote, the Daily Mail and The Sun pummelled their readers with countless front pages threatening a Muslim invasion unless Britain left the EU. To paraphrase Kelvin MacKenzie, wot won Brexit woz immigration by a thousand miles.
Effective populists lie to themselves. Theresa May, the British Prime Minister, offered a textbook example. On 25 April 2016, as home secretary and mild ‘Remainer’, she gave a powerful speech on why Britain should stay in the EU. Here are some extracts:
The EU is a single market of more than five hundred million people… 44 per cent of our goods and services exports go to the EU, compared to 5 per cent to India and China. We have a trade surplus in services with the rest of the EU of £17 billion… A completed energy single market could save up to £50 billion per year across the EU by 2030. And a digital single market is estimated to be worth up to £330 billion a year to the European economy…that is an enormous opportunity for us all.
Britain would be more, not less, secure in the EU, she added: ‘In the last year, we have been able to check the criminal records of foreign nationals more than a hundred thousand times. Checks such as these mean we have been able to deport more than three thousand European nationals who posed a threat to the public.’ But outside the EU, ‘we would have no access to the European Arrest Warrant, which…has been used to get terror suspects out of the country and bring terrorists back here to face justice.’
Having triggered Article 50, which starts the process of leaving EU, May must now divest her country of those benefits. She is thus living in a state of chronic intellectual dishonesty – unless of course her 2016 speech was dishonest too.
The lesson: if you want to be a great populist you must be prepared to lie to yourself and to the wider world, every day, over and over again.
Step 6: Stoke fears of war and issue apocalyptic threats
After the Brexit referendum, Tory Brexiteers threatened war against Spain if Madrid tried to reclaim the British colony of Gibraltar. Theresa May laughed at her colleagues’ sabre-rattling, as if it were a childish joke.
It wasn’t. Threatening war and mayhem is a vital tool in the populists’ tool kit. All great populists, from Genghis Khan to Team Trump, use the threat of war to unite their country and distract the people from their policies. As they knew, and you should, ‘the people’ always enjoy a good war.
Listen to Steve Bannon, who was the White House’s chief catastrophist at the time of writing. In summer of 2014 he laid out his ‘global vision’ to a conference held by the Human Dignity Institute in the Vatican: ‘…we’re now, I believe, at the beginning stages of a global war against Islamic fascism.’ It would be, he warned:
…a very brutal and bloody conflict, of which if the people in this room, and people in the Church, do not bind together and really form what I feel is an aspect of the Church Militant…to fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity that’s starting, [it] will completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last two thousand [or] two thousand five hundred years.
Putin shares Bannon’s vision, as The Atlantic reported in March 2017. Western countries, Putin said, were sliding toward ‘chaotic darkness’ and a ‘return to a primitive state’, and must be reclaimed for Christianity. Their vision parallels that of the Salafi jihadists, who also think the world is in a time of spiritual darkness. Yet they want to return it to the Golden Age of the Prophet. Bannon and Putin and the Salafi jihadists thus embody the highest expression of populism, the kind that terrifies and unifies everyone: the threat of the clash of civilisations and imminent apocalypse. Learn to use it.
You’re done. You’re ready to launch a winning campaign.
A word of warning: don’t listen to the ‘elites’ or ‘experts’ or even your advisers. Listen to your gut or whatever pops into your head. And if anyone dares tell you that you’re part of a cruel and reckless movement that will ruin or split your country, accelerate the divide between rich and poor, block the movement of people and goods, unleash forces of jingoistic hatred not seen since the world wars and reverse one of the greatest social experiments in the history of the world – the ongoing effort by the nations of Europe to live together, in peace and prosperity, after centuries of violence – tell them to stick it up their Jean-Claude Juncker.
31 May 2017