THE mask slips, occasionally, on even the greatest showman. President Trump, at the rally to launch his re-election campaign this week, spoke to a half-empty auditorium. Afterwards, in the dark, the dispirited President of the United States was seen with his red tie undone and his “America First” baseball cap crumpled in his fist as he arrived home alone.
This was not how the Trump 24 hours in Tulsa were supposed to end. Beforehand, his aides boasted that they had had a million requests for tickets for the 19,000-seater stadium. In the event only 6200 people attended. Yet Donald Trump, after yelling at staff backstage, had gone out and given one of his most rabble-rousing speeches ever.
After decrying the “Chinese virus”, which he dubbed Kung Flu, he lambasted the “fake-news” media for broadcasting unflattering video clips of him gingerly descending a ramp or using two hands to drink a glass of water.
Critics often suggest his hyper-sensitivity is rooted in some kind of personal narcissism. But in a live-streamed lecture last week, the Cambridge academic Sir Richard Evans posited a more calculated explanation.
The eminent historian of the 19th and 20th centuries was discussing populism, a movement that began among Russian radicals and US farmers in the 1890s, and continued among Peronists in Argentina and Poujadists in France in the 1950s.
It has resurfaced in our own times on the Left — with Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, and the global Occupy movement — but mostly on the authoritarian Right, with Recep Erdogan in Turkey, Marine Le Pen in France, the Lega Nord in Italy, the Brexit Party in the UK, and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.
What unites all these, and President Trump, is a vision of The People versus The Elite, in which the populists present themselves as the purest expression of the silent majority. They attack the Establishment, “the system” or the “deep state”, which they perceive in self-perpetuating elites in politics, business, the media, banks, universities, and the judiciary.
They insist that referendums are more democratic than parliaments that may frustrate their plans. And they use vulgar language to show they do not belong to the polite elite, but are men of the people. They offer simple solutions to complex problems.
They generate a constant sense of crisis — to which they claim to embody the answer. They belittle opponents. They peddle conspiracy theories. They even tell bald lies. “I have done a phenomenal job on it,” says President Trump of Covid-19, which has now killed 121,000 Americans. Yet their supporters accept personal corruption as the price that must be paid for getting things done.
Populists seek to undermine alternative sources of authority: parliaments, judges, awkward journalists and academics, and neutral civil services. They disregard or dismiss experts, which is why President Trump has already had four national security advisers, four White House chiefs of staff, three heads of the FBI, and four attorneys-general.
For populists, emotion and instincts outweigh evidence. That’s why they are better in opposition than actually running things — and why populist leaders have the worst record in handling the pandemic.
Once in government, they eventually run out of road. President Trump appears to have just got an inkling of that fact.