Populism: End of an Era – or Just a Pause?

14 June 2023

Populism: End of an Era – or Just a Pause?

By Gwynne Dyer

We’re going to miss the populist ‘big beasts’ now that they’re gone. Who will now tell us that “Voting Conservative will cause your wife to have bigger breasts and increase your chances of owning a BMW M3”? (Boris Johnson) Who will describe Barack Obama as “handsome, young and also suntanned”? (Silvio Berlusconi)

Who, for that matter, will advise us to inject disinfectant into our bodies to protect ourselves from Covid-19? (Donald Trump) Or reveal that “I have five children. There were four boys. The fifth, I got weak, and a girl came.” (Jair Bolsonaro) It’s a great loss to both the entertainment and the outrage industries, but we’re going to have to learn to do without them.

Jair Bolsonaro was defeated in last October’s election in Brazil. Donald Trump is out of power and under indictment in the United States. Boris Johnson has been rejected by his own Conservative party and effectively expelled from parliament in the United Kingdom. And Silvio Berlusconi, the grand-daddy of all the populists, died in Italy on Sunday.

If you squeeze your eyes tight shut and hope very hard, you might even conclude that the heyday of the populists is past.

Apart from Berlusconi, who got started early because of the self-immolation of the traditional Italian political parties in a massive corruption scandal, they all got their start after the 2008 market crash, and by 2019 they were all in power.

The one trait they all shared was a constant, almost reflexive flow of shameless lies, but there were big differences between them too. Berlusconi and Trump were very rich before they entered politics; Johnson and Bolsonaro are only modestly rich, and owe that to their recent political prominence in one way or another.

Johnson never toadied to Russian leader Vladimir Putin, though the others adored him. Only Trump summoned his followers into the streets to try to reverse an election defeat by violence (although Bolsonaro also dabbled in those waters). Johnson and Berlusconi were deliberately and spectacularly politically incorrect, but not genuinely racist like the other two.

What they had in common, and brought them all to power, was an unerring instinct for what one broad category of voters wanted to hear. Not the poorest of the poor, but the older and less well educated parts of the broad middle class, who were taking big hits financially in the aftermath of the crash.

They wanted their economic pain to end, of course, but they also wanted the villains responsible for their plight to be identified and punished.

The populists gave them lots of villains to hate: the ‘radical left’, immigrants, foreigners (all populists are nationalists), and assorted ethnic, racial and religious minorities. Mysteriously, they failed to include the very rich in their list, but not for lack of intellectual rigour. It’s just that they mustn’t bite the hands that feed them.

However, after reaching ‘peak populist’ around 2020 they went into a rapid decline. The Good Old Days never really came back after 2008, but economies stabilised and something resembling pre-crash ‘normality’ returned. If normal service has been restored, then why do we need this constant agitation?

There are still some populist-ruled states in the West – Poland, Hungary and Israel – and plenty more outside it. India, a fully functioning democracy for most of its independent history, is now in thrall to Narendra Modi’s project to reduce the country’s several hundred million non-Hindu citizens to second-class status – a classic populist stratagem.

What we cannot know is whether the populist wave is really passing, or whether this is just the lull before the next storm.

It feels over in the UK, where Johnson is totally discredited and the Conservative Party is heading for almost certain defeat in the next election. However, both Joe Biden in the United States and ‘Lula’ da Silva in Brazil won by quite narrow margins last time, and a second-generation populist, Giorgia Meloni, is already prime minister in Italy.

One might add that neo-fascist parties are currently running second in the opinion polls in both France and Germany, although neither country is facing a national election for several years.

All it would take is a lengthy recession, triggered by the current wave of inflation and made worse by wholesale job losses if the Masters of the Universe roll out AI as fast as possible to cut labour costs. The populists would be swarming back into power all over the developed world, with the rest of the world not far behind.

So we’re lucky that we won’t be facing a major climate crisis at the same time. Imagine if we had to deal with the onset of El Niño weather on top of the already rapid warming we have been experiencing in recent years.

Oh, wait a minute…


To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“The one…two”)