What is so wrong with populism? This question has bothered me for quite some time. Is democracy not about the majority ruling? Therefore how can the majority rule without popularity? And doesn’t popularity, coupled with majority support, actually imply legitimacy?
I have been thinking about these questions a lot because of a universally unpopular character, Donald Trump.
I do not think there has ever been a United States president more unpopular than Trump. George W Bush Jnr. was probably more ridiculed than Trump, but not as despised.
It is so difficult to find anything positive to read about Trump. The majority of the news is either making fun of him or quoting another hate-filled media statement or tweet. South African comedian Trevor Noah has carved out a global career ridiculing Trump.
Statements by the mogul-turned-president are reported without any context and because he tweets so much, his 140 or 280 character tweets are usually all we read. There seems to be no attempt at analysis.
The classic image of a bull in a china shop, destroying everything in sight, and not caring about the consequences, is constructed. We are also reminded that he is a pompous spoilt brat and was lucky to have received an inheritance from his father. He is trailer trash in the White House! Trump though, does nothing to convince us that he isn’t an overbearing bully.
He has been insensitive, openly racist and boorishly sexist.
He is either threatening Mexico, or insulting Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Theroux. Who can forget Trump saying that he found his daughter, Ivanka ‘hot’ and if he was not her father he would be dating her? It’s as though he has stepped right off the pages of a comic-book.
But there’s a constant nagging thought at the back of my mind. He cannot be that bad and yet still be elected president of the US. Obama invaded Libya, ordered ten times more drone attacks than Bush Jnr., bailed out Wall Street bosses, etc, but was not treated with such disgust.
This unfair reporting cannot be correct.
The Trump presidency has been responsible for some remarkable things. Firstly, he pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which Obama had signed. TPP had allowed private American companies to sue governments if they tried to change clauses in this agreement.
Secondly, in the June G7 meeting, Trump insisted that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) have a sunset clause. The other G7 members, like Angela Merkel, wanted the agreement to unfairly last indefinitely.
Thirdly, Trump has engineered a rapprochement and thawing of relations with North Korea. He has ventured where no other Western leader has dared to tread. Fourthly, he has developed a friendly relationship with Russian president, Vladimir Putin. Russia and the United States have enough nuclear arms to blow up the earth a number of times. We should be thankful that American and Russian presidents are getting along.
Although these actions and their probable outcomes are good, it is by accident and not design.
These actions do not mean that Trump is just misunderstood and a good guy.
Any efforts to correct the unfair and unbalanced global governance system should be supported but Trump’s actions are not aimed at redressing the inequality.
On the contrary Trump is attempting to construct a new world order with individual countries lining up to have bilateral relations with the U.S. It is relations based on power, without the semblance of co-operation.
Trump is essentially destroying the global multilateral system and placing himself at the centre of the world. It is like a Japanese anime movie come to life. Indeed, a recipe for an unstable world.
Inadvertently, Trump reveals the dangers of populism and what could happen if we do not embrace a progressive internationalism.
When you rely on populism, you play to the lowest common denominator, and you can only do that for a limited period before sliding into demagoguery. Populists generally always become demagogues.
There is no accountability, no respect for systems and institutions. Trump’s populism is based on support of the white middle and working classes of the US, because of the failure of the establishment to share the benefits of the economy. So every time he cheeses off Angela Merkel or even the snobbish liberals in Hollywood, it looks like he is fighting for those middle and working classes.
Depending on which position you occupy on the spectrum, you can choose who to hate. You can hate Trump or the foreigners or the snooty Europeans, or the lazy Africans and Mexicans etc.
His populist actions though, will not undo system failures it only masks it by creating an environment of hatred and mistrust, resulting in increasing inequality and meaningless fights.
Real change does not make friends, rather it creates durable institutions and fair systems.
* Donovan E Williams is a regular social commentator and activist.