We need to launch a jobs stimulus program,” the announcement read. Why? “To help all of the populism scholars in these difficult times.” With Joe Biden moving in to the White House, Dutch far-right parties imploding, and the COVID-19 crisis empowering technocrats around the globe, the populism industry had fallen on hard times. With “just 5 billion dollars,” however, “we could have populism scholars retrained as critical race theorists.”
The suggestions from philosopher John-Baptiste Oduor might have been tinged with the usual dose of internet irony, but they speak to the mixture of political relief and professional despair we felt in November 2020. More than anything, questions remained. Was populism really on its way out? Would Donald Trump leave office? And was this the long-awaited end of the end of the end of history?
Early feelings of euphoria were quickly dampened by a new pile of numbers. Rather than shrink into insignificance, in defeat, America’s right-populist president had actually widened his voter base — by 7 million. For someone who purposefully botched the worst health crisis in a century, the achievement was astounding. Nor did he have only white men to thank. Instead, Trump lost support among white men and increased his support among minority voters, from black women to Hispanic men.
In the last twenty years, post-election analysis has increasingly come to resemble black box flight recorder research after a plane crash. Such efforts are the natural outcome of the erosion of party democracy across the Western world, which liquidated the markers that structured mass politics throughout the century, turning them into fluid identities tied to consumption. Voting came to resemble choosing a brand name in a supermarket, with parties having to do their own marketing research. No wonder salesmen like Silvio Berlusconi and Trump flourish under this new regime.
“Populism” might thus be here to stay. But in what form? And under what management? Even before the election results came in, GOP superstars were announcing plans to carry on the Trump crusade. Rather than return to George W. Bush-era free-traderism, the party had to reinvent itself as a vanguard for a new economic nationalism, even with the leader leaving the stage.
Still, like all its populist contemporaries, this “Trumpism after Trump” suffers from a central contradiction. Many voters appreciated Trump precisely for his purely oppositional qualities — a middle finger to Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, the Blob, and the elites who turned the American steel industry into the Rust Belt. Although Trump himself made some fierce policy promises, his disinterest in matters of statecraft was clear from the start: the presidency was just another business venture, his departure “more like a bankruptcy than a (half-hearted) coup,” as Quinn Slobodian noted in the New Statesman.
Many liberal commentators have exploited Trump’s recent vicissitudes to dust off older arguments about fascism. Historian Timothy Snyder speaks of a “Reichstag fire” moment; journalist Sarah Kendzior claims we are seeing a Hitlerian “coup.” And, indeed, there are interesting parallels to be drawn between Trump and the 1930s. Just like Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, Trump is an extremely lazy regent, eager to hand over governance to specialists and officials while he himself works the crowd. But that is where the similarities end. Trump was working with an omnipotent presidency that he inherited from Obama and George W. Bush, who also ordered drone strikes and expanded the scope of executive orders, bypassing a gridlocked Congress. No “norm erosion” there.
Nor do Republicans owe their power to a militant mass movement in a tightly organized party. Rather, they rely on officials stationed at the top of the American state, tinged with elitism since its eighteenth-century inception. Political scientist Corey Robin speaks of “gonzo constitutionalism” rather than fascism: the merciless exploitation of the most anti-democratic aspects of America’s constitutional order, including disenfranchisement and voter repression, without ever considering a literal coup.
Indeed, Trump’s authoritarianism was remarkable for its lack of authority. Instead of leading a true anti-globalist offensive, the president was happy to delegate policy to the GOP elite. Figures such as Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan continued their class war from above, while Trump surfed on waves created by broadcasters. Except for some tariffs and attempts at Atlantic dealignment, the politics of the Trump era were vintage Republicanism through and through.
Trump’s four-year performance left some policy legacies, of course. Tax cuts, China hawkism, and Silicon Valley antitrust initiatives will likely survive into the next administration. A long list of inheritors are now lining up to take over Trump’s torch, from Arkansas senator Tom Cotton to Missouri’s Josh Hawley.
Together with Marco Rubio in Florida, these insurgents seek to rebrand the GOP as a workers’ party and complete US uncoupling from Chinese supply chains. A more generous safety net and right-wing industrial policy are being contemplated in conservative journals like American Affairs and American Compass. Hawley himself asked for direct cash transfers to families to be included in the next stimulus package.
In a recent piece for the New York Times, American Affairs editor Julius Krein advises a rapprochement between Trumpites and technocrats. “For populist policy reforms to succeed,” he notes, right-wing populists “need to drop their naïve and self-defeating pretensions of ‘dismantling the administrative state’” and embrace “expertise,” proposing a technopopulist hybrid.
All of this already sounds like a more coherent Trumpite ideology. But it is precisely the coherence of these legatees that sets them apart from the original. Rather than resorting to raw racism, Trump’s appeal mostly lay in his empty objection to the existing order: an inarticulate “no” rather than a clear “yes.” As more traditional politicians, Cotton, Hawley, and Rubio clearly lack this quality. Posing as protest politicians would be a much tougher sell for them, just as American Affairs would find it difficult to run a piece endorsing QAnon.
Dependence on leaders only encourages a neglect of policy and makes politics little more than a snippet in the culture war. Trump is but the avatar of a more general populist trend here. A “leaderism” has become a general feature of our global political landscape, as parties hemorrhage members and begin to rely on PR tricks.
This new regime presents a shift within capitalist democracies. While postwar parties were set up as tightly organized midfield teams, the new “digital parties” are heavily dependent on their star players. The latter usually occupy the leading position and finish off opportunities in front of goal, in a media landscape as volatile as it is profitable. The rest of the party is then retrained as tributaries who have to defend the net against intruders. Curating an Instagram or Twitter page is just one option here; the populist “hyperleader” is a born media animal.
Hyperleaders have an ambiguous relationship to the parties they hijack. Though they prefer a direct relationship to a base outside the party — see Trump’s Twitter antics — they still rely on party cadres to navigate the state and for governance.
Trumpism is best understood in a global framework here, also on the Left. In France, for instance, Jean-Luc Mélenchon is so central to his movement’s fate — don’t call it a party! — that he would rather flood the field himself than build a football club, which could let other talents emerge by his side. Unsurprisingly, Mélenchon’s advisers chose the handle www.jlm2017.fr for the 2017 election, referencing the leader’s initials rather than the party’s brand name, La France Insoumise (LFI).
The lack of intermediary structures between leader and base is not just a side effect of Mélenchon’s “digital party.” It is its very condition of possibility. With “followers” rather than “members,” the head of the movement (i.e., the leader and his vanguard) makes little effort to build mediating bodies, regularize internal procedures, establish organs to settle internal conflicts, or train new cadre.
Politics, however, is never a cozy meeting between shareholders collecting their payouts. While the digital model is extremely well suited for France’s presidential contests, it makes it very difficult for Mélenchon’s movement to perform in midterm elections, which usually happen at the European, regional, or municipal levels. In these contests, left parties’ perpetual turnout problem — the French working class barely votes anymore if it isn’t for a new president — is compounded by the movement’s lack of territorial anchoring and dearth of recognizable figures at the local level.
There is no need to exaggerate the importance of these midterm polls in French political life. A more serious consequence of Mélenchon’s organizational model, however, is that it forces left-wingers to gamble on an extremely volatile public mood. Without the extended communication network of a traditional party, constantly supplying top executives with information coming from activists stationed in civil society, the movement must rely on professional “feelers” or capteurs — an expression used by a Mélenchon ally in a recent interview. These left-wing PR wizards are supposed to identify an electorate’s “common sense” and come up with topics that will win the party votes.
But what if the “feelers” can’t feel it? In 2017, a police search at LFI’s headquarters spurred its leader to take up a single-handed crusade against state persecution that found nearly no support from other parties, media outfits, unions, or associations. While Mélenchon proclaimed that he “was the Republic,” the Republic itself clearly was not with him. The episode showed the dangers of LFI’s leader-centric approach: when the commander loses his or her credibility, the disgrace can easily redound on the army as a whole. Any populist team will lose if its sole star player underperforms. This dependency is manifest in a question no one in La France Insoumise seems capable of answering: Would the movement still exist without Mélenchon?
The same question can be posed to the new Trumpites. Can Cotton, Hawley, or Rubio equal Trump’s messianic qualities, and on what policy platform?
Cast in the long term, however, the troubles of these populist pretenders are of cold comfort to centrists. Structurally, all of the tinders that first ignited the “populist explosion” in the 2010s — rising inequality, a growing void in civil society, and parties’ sheltering in the state — are still with us. If anything, COVID-19 is likely to supercharge them, with joblessness, underemployment, and social isolation pushing people deeper and deeper into the caverns of our digital, leaderist democracy.
The new post-COVID world won’t be nice to nostalgics. After 2016, liberals increasingly fell back on a promise of political time travel, complaining to nonexistent managers or accusing the other side of foul play. One more Russia probe, one more cheer for “science,” and normalcy would be restored. The 2020 election, despite Biden’s victory, has thrown this fantasy into sharp relief. With more than 70 million votes in his name, Trump proved that incompetency and lying are no impediment to base building or popularity.
Behind all of this stands an even more obvious but uncomfortable truth. Berlusconism, or any variant of celebrity authoritarianism, is the most durable social form of our late modernity. Dancing on populism’s grave is a comforting ritual. Liberals perform it, after all, to forget the monsters lurking underneath.
It is tempting for leftists to join in the festivities. Early November victory marches were held in several American cities, cheering on Trump’s departure from the White House. Left-wing participants justified their involvement with the claim that “Biden’s victory was above all Trump’s defeat,” separating the positives from the negatives in the election. Trump’s end should be celebrated, while Biden’s arrival should not.
This schizophrenia is well-known to French voters, who were called on to support the right-wing candidate Jacques Chirac against his far-right challenger Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002 — a vote “against” Le Pen was not a vote “for” Chirac. Practically, however, the difference between the two was insignificant. The subsequent years brought Le Pen’s daughter Marine closer and closer to power. Today, she is leading the polls for France’s next presidential contest. In the end, the only neoliberal capable of “stopping” the far right in 2017 — Emmanuel Macron — turned out to be pretty comfortable with the National Front’s positions all along. Jean-Luc Mélenchon came close, just not close enough.
Prognoses of 2020 as the “death of populism” might thus end up like predictions about the 1815 Congress of Vienna as “the death of the French Revolution.” Organized after Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo, conservatives hoped that the congress would bury the Jacobin spirit once and for all. The years 1830, 1848, and 1871 were still to come. They had seen nothing yet.