The Upside-Down World of Populists

It is rather puzzling why the supporters of populist political actors seem not to care at all about obvious and undisputed facts (or their lack thereof) that concern their candidates, while mainstream supporters tend to withdraw their support at the slightest hint of an allegation of misconduct?

Consider the following examples, although others abound: the U.S. president, Donald Trump, publicly accuses his predecessor in wiretapping his Trump Tower. The allegations are consequently officially disproved and rejected by the FBI director James Comey, and by both Republican and Democrat leaders in the House and Senate. Yet, Trump supporters continue to believe it is all a cover-up by “fake” media and “corrupt” establishment. No loss of credibility or love, it seems, for Trump by his supporters. Sticking to his claim might have even helped him consolidate further his base. During the same congressional hearing, the FBI director reveals that the Trump campaign ties with Russia are subject to official investigation. Again, his supporters are not moved. Just like in other cases, such as Trump birther’s claims against Barak Obama, the infamous Hollywood Access videotape obscenity brag, the alleged Russian hacking of elections and Michael Flynn’s related resignation, the lack of transparency and refusal to publish his tax returns, the potential conflict of interests with his business, etc. PolitiFact, a fact-checking website, claims that whooping 49% of Donald Trump’s statements are either “false” or “pants on fire” false. Yet, his supporters remain deaf and blind to the facts.

In the meantime, clearly “fake” news has the ability quickly to deliver blows to his mainstream opponents. When the same FBI director just 11 days before the 2016 elections mentioned that the agency is looking into newly found evidence “in connection with an unrelated case” regarding Clinton’s emails investigation, without actually saying that there is any probable cause for a new investigation of misconduct, this announcement was more than enough to shake the Clinton campaign and allegedly to change the mind of enough voters who might have otherwise pushed her into the White House. In brief, a public official (in this case, the same one, too) hints of possible misconduct, and her supporters flock away, concerned about their candidate’s credibility.

Francois Fillon and his wife, Penelope
In Europe is no different. In France, the support for the former prime minister and center-right presidential hopeful, Francois Fillon, tanked immediately after an allegation surfaced in a satirical newspaper that his wife had received close to €500K ($540K) over a period of eight years from public funds as a parliamentary aid. Despite being a widely used practice for French MPs to hire their family members legally under the current French law, and despite the protests by the family to have done nothing wrong, Francois Fillon’s chances to win the presidential race in a month are now all but gushed. In the meantime, when years worth of journalistic investigations into the financial dealings of the Le Pen family and the far right Front National party with Russia have revealed that the party and its leaders – Le Pen father and daughter – have received millions in financial aid and loans from Russian oligarchs and Russian banks close to the president Vladimir Putin, these disclosures didn’t seem to make the slightest dent in the ever growing popularity of Marine Le Pen. As a member of the European Parliament, she is now under investigation for misappropriating over €300K ($335K) of EP subsidies earmarked for work on European legislations, to pay her aids to conduct domestic political campaigning.
Marine Le Pen, leader of Front National at a
meeting with the Russian President, Vladimir Putin
FN constituents don’t seem to care. She is still considered one of the two main challengers for the top position in the country, and her popularity doesn’t seem to suffer from the fact that she has abashedly met with the Russian president Vladimir Putin last week in order to receive his official endorsement – a precedent in the French political life by any measure ¬– and in response, praised him back, called for lifting the sanctions on Russia, and openly endorsed the annexation of Crimea, an act of war that has changed the European borders by means of aggression for the first time since the WWII.

How Fake News is the Same as Propaganda During War

Today, the U.S. President and his aides call CNN and BBC “fake news”, while they themselves are guilty of disseminating false accusations. Populists in Europe call for the removal of corrupt politicians, while engaging in corrupt practices themselves, borrowing millions from foreign banks to fund their own shady dealings, and unashamedly abuse public funds for their own campaigns. The thief runs and screams, “catch the thief”. Populists’ supporters seem to consider truth to be overrated, and not to care much. They live in an upside-down world where ‘post-truth’ trumps facts altogether, and fake news is widely believed, while all else is rejected as ‘fake’.
The tempting explanation here rests on the assumption that in the age of globalization and instant communications everyone has her own truth. But, this would be only part of the story, first because it suggests that those who believe fake news are either too naive, or too dishonest, and second, because it doesn’t account for the disparity of responses to unpleasant news regarding their preferred candidate that exists between the supporters of populists and mainstream politicians.

To understand what hides behind the rest of the story, one has to examine the concept of propaganda, especially in wartime, and interpret “fake news” as an element of that propaganda. For what is worth, the populists are revolutionaries who rally political support through calls for a cosmic war of good vs. evil, i.e. ’the people’ against the ‘corrupt’ elites and their ‘adulterated’ systems. In populists’ worldview, elections are the battlegrounds, where the sources of information are nothing more than propaganda weapons. Not just the populist politicians, but also their electorate, see themselves at war with the rest of the system. Only that the rest of us are still lame participants in what we continue to believe to be a process of ordinary democratic politics and not a war. And, for us, the news that is objective, and comes from verified mainstream media or trusted public officials (ex. Comey), has the power to cast a shadow of doubt over our preferred candidate, without a priory rejecting it as “enemy’s propaganda”.

To be sure, propaganda is defined as information that is biased, half-truth, or tainted, used deliberately to mislead an audience in order to promote a political cause or a view and to influence a political outcome. When at war, people are discouraged from listening to alternative sources of information other than the official ones, or risk to become traitors. So they don’t believe anyone or anything, but the designated sources of information, and ignore everything else, even if it sounds plausible. During peacetime, however, the access to free and objective information is a key requirement for any democratic system, and people pay attention to revelations or allegations about misconduct or corruption, especially when made by reputable media with a myriad of editors on staff, or by reputable high public officials.

Populists are in the State of War, the Rest of Us – No

Today populists’ supporters are in a state of war, or a revolution if you’d like: for them, all news is “fake news” unless it comes from sources that are close to their political center, while everything else is immediately cast away as “enemy’s propaganda”. The supporters of the mainstream candidates are not at war, and they look at any piece of news as essential information that could inform the right choice for their vote. They can become outraged by alleged abuse of power or office by political leaders, such as in the case of Francois Fillon’s wife payments, or withhold their support for their preferred candidate when a top public official, like James Comey, publicly announces that FBI is getting new evidence in the case against her.

The good news is that since the earth-shattering election of Donald Trump as a U.S. president the difference of worldviews and perceptions between the two electoral groups slowly starts to change, especially in Europe, where an army of radical populist parties is on the rise. The bad news is that instead of the populists’ supporters to exit the state of war, and to abandon their revolutionary zeal for a more balanced political engagement, the rest of the constituents raise their own weapons for a decisive battle. Finally coming to terms with the fact that not just politics today are besieged by a wave of populist revolutionaries, but the democratic system itself is under fire, they too slowly rise for a fight.

Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch Freedom Party, after losing in March elections
In the Netherlands, for months the ultra-nationalist radical Party of Freedom of the populist Geert Wilders was a leader in the polls for the national elections. Two weeks ago, however, it surprisingly lost, not least because many undecided Dutch voters ‘jumped into the fight’ to prevent an unpredictable populist and his party from rising to the highest offices in the country. Similarly, in December the Austrian voters decisively rejected the populist candidate for a president – even if it is a lame and largely ceremonial political position – fearing that his election would have opened up a box of worms in the Austrian politics, similar to the rise of Jorg Hider and his populist Freedom Party of Austria in 1999. There is no doubt that the Austrian and Dutch voters have seen Donald Trump’s post-election impact on the American democracy as an example worth to be avoided, and have carefully observed the dire consequences from the ‘sirens’ call’ of the Leave populists in the UK that caused the current Brexit debacle.

Amidst all this, there is also another good news. Democracy, as a political system, was never meant to be a peaceful one. In its bare essence, it represents a civilized way to replace the pitchforks and scythes in a civil war with ballots. But the feistiness, polarization, and flexing of the muscles is still part of its idiosyncratic dynamic. Over the last few decades, the voters in the consolidated democracies in Europe and the United States gradually became more and more lethargic, turning in ever lesser numbers to the polling stations, and shirking their civic duties as active participants in the political dynamics of their respective countries. If anything, populists with their revolutionary zeal have invigorated the political environment once again, provoking the ever more dormant constituents to take an active social stand and assume greater responsibility for the political processes in their countries. The upcoming elections in France in a month, and then in Germany will offer the next test for this hypothesis.


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