What 'populist' means: There's more to the label, associated with leaders like Donald Trump, than meets the eye

What 'populist' means: There's more to the label, associated with leaders like Donald Trump, than meets the eye

What 'populist' means: There's more to the label, associated with leaders like Donald Trump, than meets the eye

Joining the Dots is a fortnightly column by author and journalist Samrat in which he connects events to ideas, often through analysis, but occasionally through satire.


One of the most fractious electoral processes in the history of what is still the world’s most powerful country is scheduled to end in a few hours with the inauguration of Joe Biden as President and Kamala Harris as Vice President of the US. Donald Trump will, at long last, leave the White House after an incendiary campaign to overturn the election results that culminated in an insane attack by a mob of his followers on America’s parliament, the Capitol. His departure will hopefully mark the beginning of the end for others of his ilk ruling countries around the world, who are loosely called “populists”.

Populist, however, is a useless word. No one can say where exactly “popular” ends and “populist” begins. The distinction, such as it is, would probably be lost on practically the entire voting population. This is in contrast to other words such as communist, nationalist, liberal, and fascist that, even when reduced to labels, continue to carry some meaning in ordinary usage.

Perhaps one reason that the word “populist” becomes useless is because it describes a wide variety of political actors, spanning the ideological spectrum. Political scientists studying it, such as Matthijs Rooduijn of the University of Amsterdam, have found only four characteristics that populists share in common. Firstly, they emphasise the central position of the people. Secondly, they criticise the elite. Thirdly, they perceive the people as a homogenous entity. Lastly, they proclaim a serious crisis.

The trouble is, democracy also emphasises the central position of the people. Criticising the elite is also a characteristic of Leftists in general. Perceiving the people as a homogenous entity is something that the Chinese Communist Party, the Saudi, Iranian, Turkish and Pakistani regimes, and the Hindutva brigade in India, among others, all seem to do. And proclamation of some serious crisis is a staple of every election campaign in which the opposition wants to unseat the incumbent.

What we are up against, in the global rise of what is called populism, therefore, seems to be a deeper crisis in our fundamental ideas than most of us would like to admit. We do not want to see populism as the deepening of democracy or its homogenising impulse as a natural progression in the idea of the nation. Yet it could be argued that this is what it is. Arguably more people at the grassroots are more deeply engaged with politics now than ever before. They are expressing their political opinions loudly and angrily. If they want to drive out immigrants everywhere, or build walls in America and Ram temples in India, isn’t that only an expression of the will of the masses?

The answer to this question cannot be found without grasping the nettle of elitism. The core feature of populism around the world is its hatred for old elites and all that smacks of elitism. This was channeled by authoritarian demagogues who rode ressentiment to power. The disdain for political correctness displayed by characters like Trump talking of grabbing women “by the p**sy” and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines cracking rape jokes in public speeches was them, as sons of the soil, breaking the rules of good behaviour established by elites. Their disgusting talk did absolutely nothing to dent their popularity with their followers.

Nor did their attacks on science, even in the midst of a global pandemic. If the masses in America and Brazil don’t want to believe wearing masks does anything to prevent COVID, well then, they must be right. If Hindu masses are associated with a belief in the ability of cow urine to cure everything from cancer to COVID, then science be damned, cow urine will be celebrated as a cure. If evangelical Christians do not believe Darwin’s theory of evolution because it contradicts the Bible, Darwin must be wrong. If the populist demagogues could, they would probably put the Law of Gravitation to the vote to decide if it’s right.

This is because the issue is not truth or fact at all. The real issue is pride in one’s beliefs. It is about who decides, and how, what’s okay to say and what’s not, what’s respectable and what’s laughable. What the populist demagogues discovered was that there existed a vast reservoir of people who did not understand why their beliefs should be considered inferior to any other. They did not want experts deciding the issue by arcane theory and incomprehensible evidence. It was a matter of standing up for the equality of one’s beliefs, which are after all a part of identity. Why should the belief in the divine efficacy of cow urine or the theory that God created the world in seven days be inferior to any other? Most people have no way of really knowing; the science is beyond them, and therefore it is a matter of one person’s word against another’s.

The modern world, and its institutions and norms, were invented in the 18th and 19th centuries through the diffusion of ideas that spread among new elites created by new systems of education in economies and societies that underwent radical change. Democracy was then not widespread globally. Within the relatively few democratic countries that existed, the franchise was initially restricted to certain sections of the population — usually wealthy and predominantly male. Even in India, where electoral democracy started before independence, it was with a limited franchise and communal representation in the councils of British India. It opened up over time to include the entire adult population. On the whole, this has been an excellent thing, but there has been a noticeable decline in the quality of political leadership over the years.

Where once there was Mohandas Gandhi and Sardar Patel, Gujarat’s and India’s leaders today are Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. The Dalit leadership has travelled from Dr BR Ambedkar to Mayawati and Ramdas Athavale. Jawaharlal Nehru’s Congress is led by Rahul Gandhi. Mamata Banerjee is Bengal’s leader. Her challenger from the Hindu Right, a position occupied once by Syama Prasad Mukherjee, is Dilip Ghosh. Several of the stalwarts of yore, like the ones now, displayed characteristics that might today be called populist, but they differed vastly from the current crop in education, personality and character.

What accounts for the changing profile of the popular leader?