As you may or may not have noticed, democratic governments are really into autocannibalism lately. With the recent election of Jair “Pinochet should have killed more people” Bolsonaro in Brazil, it is probably time to acknowledge that “right-wing populism” is not an anomaly or accident in contemporary democratic politics but one of its primary vehicles of expression. Given also that Bolsonaro is like Donald Trump on steroids—Trump has yet to openly lament for the days when authoritarian regimes could murder their opponents, at least—it seems like a good time to start identifying where “right populism” ends and “fascism” begins.
Populism is a lot like pornography. It shares a few similarities across movements and borders, but because every concrete manifestation of it speaks to a nationally-and historically-specific set of social fantasies, mostly you will know it when you see it. If we can imagine liberal democracy as a set of rules for self-governing grounded in popular sovereignty, populism might best be described as when “the people” play up their sovereignty in the interests of changing, bending, or smashing those rules according to their interests. (Who “the people” are, of course, depends on who is offering to do the smashing on their behalf.)
Because there is no way to avoid grounding democracy in the concept of more-or-less popular self-rule, populism always remains a permanent feature of our politics. Since it tends to arise in moments of political, economic, social, or cultural crisis, populism might be best understood as a kind of autoimmune response to liberal illness.
In the introduction to Populism and the Mirror of Democracy, political scientist Francisco Panizza outlines four circumstances likely to generate populist movements. The first is a (real or perceived) breakdown of social order, and the loss of confidence in a political system’s ability to restore it. Related to this is when political traditions appear weak or exhausted, or political parties themselves become discredited as vehicles of the public interest. Dramatic economic, cultural, and social changes—particularly demographic shifts among social classes, regions, or ethnic groups—and the turmoil they can generate are nearly always fuel for a populist fire. Last but not least: populism is often linked to the emergence of new forms of representation outside traditional political institutions. (E.g. in the early 20th century, the invention of radio in particular allowed any number of would-be demagogues to “speak” directly to the masses without much mediation from the powers that be.)
Populism then culminates in a kind of “politics of anti-politics.” It defines itself against “politics as usual,” and every time a blue checkmark quote-tweets the news to say “this. is. not. normal.” an angel gets their wings. The further away from “normal” a populist leader seems, the more appealing they become to “the people” they stand for. To a local Canadian example, Ontario premier Doug Ford’s refusal to make any concrete policy pledges and instead just wing it according to the worst libidinal impulses of suburban conservatism is what makes him the ideal populist leader.
It’s also worth noting that when populists talk about “the people,” it is not necessarily coextensive with leftist ideas of “the people” as the poor or otherwise disenfranchised. Populism speaks to anyone who feels like an “outsider,” which in the imperial core means “the people” is more likely to consist of guys who think their trucks have human rights than the actual huddled masses yearning to breathe free. (Small wonder, then, that “People’s Party” was the go-to name for ex-Quebec Conservative MP Maxime Bernier’s protest party aimed at racist dairy enthusiasts.)
Although all of these features feel more or less salient to the current historical moment, it is the new media that deserves special attention. Not every moment of crisis produces a populist movement in response; what I would say populism really requires to take off is a crisis of political representation. And ten years into the mass political adoption of Facebook, Twitter, and their associated social media spinoffs, it turns out that new media may be the key.
This goes further than simply recognizing that Donald Trump is to Twitter what “Bible Bill” Aberhart was to radio. We may even perhaps be so bold to as to argue that social media has created the conditions of a full-blown epistemological crisis in democratic society.
Call it epistemic anarchy. For-profit (and emphatically non-neutral) social networks fill the void left by traditional media sources and we lose the “mass” element of mass media. While once upon a time this was supposed to free our minds and enable some kind of techno-Enlightenment, the way things actually happened is wildly different. Social media is probably better understood as the rope we use to hang ourselves.
Consider for a moment the reports of abysmal adult literacy (like the study where two-thirds of millennials and nearly four-fifths of all boomers were unable to successfully sort fact from opinion), or the indications that the online culture wars are literally intractable (like this study suggesting exposure to differing political opinions online actually increases polarization). There is also growing evidence that internet overuse is literally breaking our brains. In addition to being wonderful platforms for the proliferation of magical thinking, misinformation, and gaming marketing algorithms to subvert democracy, they also work well as mechanisms for organizing literal acts of violence. (Shoutout to Facebook and Whatsapp for enabling massacres in Myanmar, lynchings in India, and general political chaos in Brazil.)
While human beings don’t need to be Extremely Online in order to turn into monsters, the emphasis on new media is important for understanding why democracy currently seems to be eating itself. Newsprint, radio, and television were all once upon a time novel mediums for a leader to bring disparate groups together into a single communion of interests dubbed “the people,” but the social media ecosystem stretches these mechanisms to their atomizing extreme. The Leader is outside the System, and he moves around the elite gatekeepers of the status quo to speak directly to his followers online. Thanks to the decentralized nature of the medium, all the heavy organizational lifting is done by the (often self-authorized) communities that spring up in the wake of the leader’s political intervention. It’s Fuhrerprinzip all the way down.
Populism is a structural feature of liberal democracies. In moments of crisis—real, perceived, or self-manufactured—it short-circuits democratic practices by grounding its “anti-politics” in the idea of popular sovereignty against “the powers that be.” To tip into something closer to fascism, two mutually-reinforcing things are necessary: nihilist culture and an intractable crisis.
Nihilism, to put it simply, is the militant assertion that nothing matters and fuck you for caring. Garret Keizer writing in The New Republic gives a wonderfully useful definition:
“I would define nihilism as a combination of three basic elements: a refusal to hope for anything except the ultimate vindication of hopelessness; a rejection of all values, especially values widely regarded as sacrosanct (equality, posterity, and legality); and a glorification of destruction, including self-destruction—or as Walter Benjamin put it, ‘self-alienation’ so extreme that humanity ‘can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure.’ … A nihilist is someone who dedicates himself to not giving a shit, who thinks all meanings are shit, and who yearns with all his heart for the ‘aesthetic pleasure’ of seeing the shit hit the fan.”
White nationalism, misogyny, and homophobia are not necessarily distinguishing marks of fascism; parochial bigotries elevated into national virtues is a hallmark of right-leaning populists. Fascism—or proto-fascism if the F-word still make you uncomfortable—arises at the intersection where genuinely nihilist sentiment meets the outraged-but-empty formal dynamics of populist reaction to political crisis. If the crises are sufficiently prolonged, intractable, or existential in character, the greater the growth of genuine fascist tendencies—especially as nihilist sentiment spreads. Fascism’s debt to nihilism is most clear in its embrace of violence; violence is the supreme virtue that imposes order on a meaningless and broken world.
Far be it from me to alarm anyone over the course of a long essay about the collapse of democratic politics, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that a perfect storm is brewing. The epistemic anarchy created by social media’s information overload is a kind of nihilist spawning ground. So is capitalist society, with its unstated precept that there are no values at all beyond the whims of your consumption. To again quote Keizer: the basic premise of a marketized society is that “what you want is what you ought to have, and the quicker you can have it the better. By its very operation, the market inclines us away from principled restraint and toward nihilistic abandon.”
This would all be bad enough without the threat of complete ecological catastrophe bearing down on civilization. It is difficult to understate the magnitude of the climate crisis, which is already in full swing and will grow exponentially worse without some kind of drastic international intervention. This is exactly the kind of politics that is precluded by “nationalist” populisms. If the early days of hothouse earth are any indication, we are not going to handle it very well.
You can see how all these things work as a kind of nihilistic death spiral. Not unlike the planet crossing a 2-degree celsius warming threshold, at a certain point in degeneration a democracy is likely to collapse into an authoritarian feedback loop from which it cannot escape. This is more pronounced in places like Turkey, Hungary, and Brazil, but it is clear that Trump’s America has already made great strides on the road to ruin. Incarcerated children, secret police, and army deployments as immigration policy do not bode well for a future defined by millions of climate refugees. (Tack on the fact that his administration intends to fully lean into eco-apocalypse in a final orgy of industrial superexploitation and you really have reason to worry.)
At the risk of oversimplifying, here is a short illustration of how this process works. Right-wing populist antics undercuts the norms and functions of liberal democracy by basically giving it an end-run. As crises deepen, often the result of populist politicking itself, civic ferocity increases and democracy continues to degenerate. The nihilism engendered by technology, capitalism, and the climate crisis becomes more and more pervasive until it is finally politically permissible for right-wing populists to acknowledge that the only way to secure the future existence of “the people” in the face of looming environmental collapse and resource scarcity is through segregation and violence. This is the point at which reactionary populists become fully-fledged 21st century fascists.
Populism is a kind of mirror through which democracies can examine themselves. The reflection we see now is not merely ugly—it is the face of a monster, the face of the fascist bogeyman who haunts our future. We are not doomed to wear this fascist face, but only if we can stomach to look in that mirror now, to study its grotesquerie, and learn how to discern it even when it is hiding in the dark.
Anyway, I hope this has been a sufficiently spooky read. Happy Halloween everybody.
Follow Drew Brown on Twitter.
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