Vladimir Putin’s right, in his illuminating interview with the Financial Times last month, to present Donald Trump as more symptom than cause in changes to the political tide. But, whilst there’s a clarity and candour to Putin’s suggestion that the benefits of globalisation in the US have accrued exclusively to the population’s moneyed margins, it’s inadequate alone as a truly generalised account for the growth of populism elsewhere.
Despite broadly favourable outcomes in recent European elections, nativist discourse is in unquestionable ascent beyond the US. From advanced Anglo-Saxon economies with growing inequity in wealth distribution, through impoverished states in South Asia facing food and water insecurity, and on to the social democratic utopias of Northern Europe, with their advanced education systems and cradle-to-grave welfare states, various brands of nationalism are powering through the electoral gears.
The 21st Century strongmen bear limited resemblance to their 20th Century postwar forebears: rather than the top-down imposition of autocracy on a suffering population — through homegrown coup d’état, or one engineered by cynical Nixon Doctrine alliance — the new generation of aspiring dictators is being ushered in from the bottom-up by a global constituency of nativist tribes, increasingly fervent to delineate themselves from one other, and doing so in comically similar language.
The insidious polarisation of grassroots populations threatens a truly global liberal order more than the actions of the cartoon villains they elect. The issues by which people choose to identify themselves are cleaving the body politic in two; while working class nativists and middle class metropolitans compete over attendance numbers at street protests, the allied polemicists of each gather on both sides of the debate and do little to advance it. The internationalists are trapped in a fruitless cycle of exposing populist non sequiturs, blind to the fact that the movement’s adherents had started with the conclusion and worked their way back to the reason.
Hope rests on the return of real politics: informing voters, and persuading them. Eisenhower’s valedictory address referenced the threat of the incipient and cynical alliance between business, the military, and government; the new threat is the subsumption of politics into the public relations and marketing industry of the digital era.
Electioneering now involves merely canvassing public opinion, and then navigating it. The old guard of mainstream corporate media points to the threat of Russian interference, over-reading a minor subplot in a greater odyssey: Politics by the fissile materials of audience segmentation, and the related innovations in marketing intelligence of the digital age, reveal and reinforce the ideological fault lines in the population; the socially radioactive effluence of populism is the true cost of the method.