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Populist Regimes Across The World Hold Sway Via ‘Politics Of No Politics’

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It was a cold day in December 2016, when the US Presidential election results came in and, to the world’s surprise, Donald Trump became the President-elect.  His clean sweep in the elections, and even in some of the states which normally vote for Democrats,  flew in the face of all the predictions about Senator Hillary Clinton’s victory.  I had a chat with Dr. Adil Najam, a respected scholar and my friend, and asked him about the reasons why Trump had clean swept the elections. Adil responded that although many reasons were at play, perhaps the most significant of all was that the world had become too obsessed with “politics of no politics”.  He added that new theories of political sciences need to be developed since the present theories increasingly fail to explain the phenomena that are unraveling across the world.

Adil was very right.

Around the same time as Donald Trump became the President of the United States, we saw other populists across the world coming into power one by one.  Irrespective of their backgrounds, views, bravado, lies and deceit, people overwhelmingly voted for populist leaders, be it in India, Pakistan, Brazil, or even Britain, to name a few examples.

Time Magazine, in its April 2011 edition, wrote about 10 gambles of Trump’s which all went bust: Trump Airlines, Trump Vodka, The Bankruptcies, The Hair, The Marriages, Trump Mortgage, Trump: The Game, The China Connection, Trump Casinos, and The Middle East ‘Policy’. This among countless other reasons made everyone wonder how Donald Trump had successfully made it to the position of the President of the United States in the elections held five years later. Experts see certain reasons for the Trump-phenomenon.

In November 2015, two prominent Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton published a paper in which they analysed mortality rates (deaths per 100,000 Americans) among different races and education levels from 1999 to 2013.  Their thesis revealed that among the Black Americans, the mortality rate fell by almost 27% and among the Hispanics, the rate declined by a little over 19% during this period.  However, this mortality rate increased by about 9% among white middle-aged 45 to 54-year-old Americans, and by 22% among those with a high school diploma or less from this category.  Case and Deaton attributed these dramatic spikes to drug overdoses, suicides, and liver diseases due to excessive use of alcohol. Especially among the less-educated, drug poisoning tripled between 1999 and 2013; suicides due to depression went up by 78%; and death by liver diseases due to alcoholism increased by 46%.  Meanwhile, according to the paper, in countries such as Canada, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany – where the population is predominantly white – the death rate among middle-aged people decreased over the last 20 years.

Coincidently, a Washington Post-ABC poll during the mid-2016 (months before the elections) revealed that 46% of Trump supporters were disproportionately White Americans without college diplomas.  Polls demonstrated that the same kind of people — older, less-educated whites — were the ones who gave Donald Trump an edge over other contenders and were easily bought by Trump’s fear-mongering and his promise to “Make America great again”.

After assuming office, Donald Trump went on to further polarise the American society and extend his narrative.  He pulled back from important international agreements; mishandled the COVID-19 global pandemic by insisting that it was nothing but a kind of flu that could be treated by simple prescription and over-the-counter drugs; failed to support adequate stimulus to the economy; stopped funding social security; attempted to take away workers’ healthcare; denied workers’ minimum wage increase;  intensified the rhetoric against Iran and pulled back from the nuclear agreement with Iran; and, finally, refused to accept the 2020 election results, going so far as to tell his Vice President to invalidate the election results. On the day the Senate met to certify the elections in a joint session, Trump’s supporters stormed the Capitol Hill building on his instigation. This was a completely unexpected and unprecedented breach in US history.

After four years of Donald Trump’s presidency, many of his voters have realised that populism is little more than rhetoric and doesn’t deliver any good to any country. Unfortunately, the damage his presidency has caused is irreparable. The social and cultural faultlines in the US, which were already very strong,  became even stronger and it can be expected that the coming days would witness more troubles, especially in race relations. The President-elect, Joe Biden, has huge tasks cut out for him. He will have to deal not only with COVID-19, the economy and foreign policy issues like Iran and Afghanistan, but also the fissures and bruises that President Trump’s self-serving policies have caused the American populace. To his credit, President-elect Biden has already begun this job. He has begun nominating the members of his cabinet and the White House. He has started working to fulfill his promises to build an administration that reflects the nation’s diversity. He claims that his cabinet would be the most diverse cabinet, the like of which – in his words – no President ever had before.

But Donald Trump won’t concede victory to the President-elect yet. In his tweet from the @POTUS handle, which was subsequently deleted by Twitter, he called his voters “the 75,000,000 great patriots”. He also dropped such remarks as that he will “have a big announcement soon” and that he was looking “at the possibilities of building out our own platform.”  However, the 75 million voters are not all who agree with his views.

The voters in the US have a strong trust in their system. People largely believe that the system, though flexible, is very resilient and that individuals do not matter too much.  Predominantly, Americans give the second term to an incumbent candidate. Before Trump, George Bush (senior) was the President who lost after the first term, but there were lots of reasons for his defeat.  First, the Republican party was in power for the last 12 years (eight years of Reagan, four years of Bush), the second reason was the bad economy in which people were losing their jobs and facing economic hardships, which George Bush could not gauge very correctly. The third reason was the entry of a third party in the elections, led by American business magnate, billionaire and philanthropist Ross Perot. Perot was one of the founders and the CEO of Electronic Data Systems and Perot Systems. He won over 19.7 million votes (18.9% of total popular votes) – mostly from the fence-sitters who had leanings towards the Republican party – much more than the most number of votes bagged by any third-party candidate before. Some political pundits believe that the charm of the Democratic candidate Bill Clinton and his Vice President nominee Al Gore was another reason for the defeat of George Bush (senior).

I know some people who voted for Trump in 2020 not because they are – in Trump’s words – the “great patriots” but because they want to see him serve out a full term.  However, Joe Biden should be praised to have bagged 81.3 million votes against an incumbent President, which is very unusual.

Coming to our side of the world, populist leadership is not an unknown phenomenon for Pakistanis.  The people of Pakistan witnessed a very similar situation in 2014 when armed hooligans of PTI and PAT, on the orders of Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri, attacked the parliament with batons and bulldozers.  In the US, when the Capitol was attacked, all the media, agencies, and even Trump loyalists (other than 7 or 8 exceptions) condemned the incident and demanded tough punishments for those who breached the security cordons of Capitol Hill and for the President who had instigated the masses.  Twitter and Facebook blocked his accounts without anyone asking them to do so.

In Pakistan, however, the media was having special transmissions and providing 24/7 coverage of the insurrection. Big names in media were preaching how right these mobsters were and how they were fulfilling their constitutional rights. Patriotic songs were playing when they were attacking the Parliament and taking over the public-owned TV station. Agencies helped those thugs to settle their own scores with the government.  One of these parties came into power following the widely-perceived-as-rigged general elections of 2018 and, in many ways, a Trump-like demagogue became the head of state. Within two years, he has created more polarization than ever before, brought the economy to shambles, and made the Parliament completely insignificant.

Rula Jebreal, an Italian-Palestinian journalist, wrote in September 2015 in the Washington Post: “Italy’s longest-serving prime minister, Berlusconi, started as a wealthy demagogue on the brink of bankruptcy, whose celebrity was — like Trump’s — rooted in both real estate and popular entertainment culture. Berlusconi presented himself as Italy’s strongman, speaking like a barman, selling demonstrably false promises of wealth and grandeur for all. He made the electorate laugh while stoking fears of communists and liberals stripping privileges and increasing taxes.”

The world must understand now – the “politics of no politics” phenomenon has miserably failed them already.

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Naya Daur