The success of Republican billionaire candidate Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential campaign is not an isolated phenomenon – across Europe and in Russia there has also been a shift in favor of populist messages.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at the Treasure Island hotel and casino in Las Vegas. Photo: AP
In the U.S., the 2016 presidential primaries are wrapping up, while Russia is actively preparing for elections to the State Duma this September. These seemingly very different campaigns have one thing in common: the shift towards a surprisingly simplistic and even vulgar form of political populism.
The central figure of the American presidential campaign has been the Republican billionaire candidate Donald Trump. The entire nation is yet again engaged in discussing and condemning his appeal to deny all Muslims entry into the U.S. after the Orlando massacre (the June 22 mass shooting in the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, which killed 50 people).
Bernie Sanders, the popular Democratic candidate, is also in the mix. Surprisingly, ever since Hillary Clinton won the Democratic nomination, the American media has been speaking of her a lot less than of her unyielding rival. Sanders, like Trump, set the tone of the current campaign to a much greater extent that Clinton, not to mention other traditional candidates. Sanders, who refers to himself as the “socialist revolutionary,” is being increasingly compared to Trump, the Republican right-wing presumptive candidate.
The Washington Post opinion writer Jonathan Capehart stated that “Sen. Bernie Sanders, the vanquished Democratic candidate for president, and Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, share the same DNA.” Indeed, both Trump and Sanders are classic populists even though they formally are polar opposites on the political spectrum.
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Their remedies are indeed similar. Trump is willing to cancel half of America’s trade agreements and make allies pay up. He believes that Washington does not need NATO, which has become too expensive for the U.S. Nor does he see merit in agreements with Japan and South Korea, which he considers economically unviable. Trump’s program also stipulates that Saudi Arabia’s failure to send its military against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) should prevent the U.S. from buying its oil.
Sanders makes a lot of similar points, but from a socialist standpoint. He advocates free higher education, equal pay, medical insurance for everyone, and bringing jobs back to the U.S. These are definitely noble causes, but the problem is that while they are absolutely unfeasible for America, they are attractive to a lot of voters.
And who knows who will get the votes of Sanders’ supporters come election time? The issue here is that Trump’s populism and radicalism might be more appealing than Clinton’s platform. And then the person who only a year ago was perceived as a mere demagogue could become the next President of the United States. That prospect is scary, but quite real.
It appears that Russia is overrun with populists even though the consequences of that are less severe than in the case of the U.S.
Sociologists unanimously report the drop in the rating of the ruling United Russia party and the spike in popularity of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) and its leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky. So what are the reasons behind the second (or maybe even third) comeback of the longest-standing Russian politician, whom experts often treat as a political clown?
Possibly, Russians have just grown tired of the ruling United Russia party because these representatives talk a lot, but fail to deliver. However, there may be a different explanation that hints at a shift in the fundamental mindset of the population. Alexei Roshchin, an expert with the Center for Political Technologies, believes that the political discourse in the nation is shifting.
“The main reason is the overall primitivization of national political content and a massive simplification carried out by the Kremlin in order to uproot the opposition," he said. "In this context, for some voters the current leadership and United Russia are too complex. At some point, people who are used to the ideology of supreme authority and nativism cease to support the ruling party and switch to a more basic, primitive and impactful ideology expressed by the LDPR.”
This type of primitive ideology is akin to remedies put forth by Trump in the U.S. For example, in February 2014, Zhirinovsky made some derogatory comments about Kazakhs and suggested the creation of a Middle Asian federal district in Russia that would include Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan.
The LDPR leader’s utterances on the Caucasus have been even more radical. In his opinion, the terrorist threat coming from the region can be curbed by “fencing in the territory of the Caucasus with barbed wire.” This suggestion is reminiscent of Trump’s notorious campaign pledge to create a “great wall” between Mexico and the U.S. to keep out immigrants.
“I will build a great wall — and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me — and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words,” Trump promised.
The moral compass is out of whack not just in the U.S. and Russia, but also in the Old World. Austria, the cradle of European democracy, came close to electing right-wing populist Norbert Hofer as its president, while the left-wing populist Podemos party is gaining momentum in Spain. Its slogans are similar to the ones used by Venezuela's former president Hugo Chavez.
It has been said that Hofer’s popularity dramatically increased last year due to the immigration crisis. The overwhelming majority of Austrians are resolutely against the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa who could, according to them, harass women in the street and act out in public.
However, that explanation is insufficient to understand what is really happening. Many Europeans seem to have gradually ceased to distinguish between the left and right, white and red, democrats and demagogues. To a certain degree, populism is advancing upon Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and France.
Andrei Kolesnikov, an expert with the Carnegie Moscow Center, refers to those who vote for populists as “swingers.” Previously, the term was used to describe couples that consensually switched sexual partners. Nowadays, European voters are likewise swapping out politicians looking for, as Kolesnikov puts it, “something entertaining, sometimes completely mental, if not vulgar; these are swing voters.”
Latin American populism
By the way, Latin America has finally developed a different attitude towards populist politicians. Maybe voters there just got deadly tired of leftist populism propagated by Fidel Castro (Cuba), Hugo Chavez (Venezuela), Evo Morales (Bolivia), Daniel Ortega (Nicaragua) and other Latin American leaders, but the public rejects even the so-called neo-populists.
Just recently, Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of imprisoned dictator Alberto Fujimori, lost the Peruvian election. Naturally, many voters feared that she would follow in her father’s authoritarian footsteps, but on top of that, her ideas on crime prevention were skeptically received by her compatriots. For example, Keiko suggested the construction of jails high up in the Andes as a way to isolate prisoners and prevent escapes.
Earlier, Argentinians voted against the populist model implemented by Cristina Kirchner, who was often referred to as the “female version of Chavez” for her demonstrative contempt of media and courts, willingness to bribe voters and overt narcissism that has always been a trademark of authoritarian populist leaders.
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The same trend applies to Brazil, where the leftist populist Workers’ Party ruled for 13 years. Initially, the Party recorded major successes in the social sector, but then it “failed to reach its goals,” prioritized the pursuit of personal wealth and ignored widespread corruption.
The famous Peruvian political scientist and journalist Alvaro Vargas Llosa, the son of Nobel Prize-winning writer Mario Vargas Llosa, told Russia Direct that, “The populist surge on the continent that occurred in response to the rise of Chavez in Venezuela has subsided. Now the region is moving towards a more liberal right-of-center development model. Current changes in these countries should bring about a model with stronger and uncompromised state institutions and a more liberal social and economic policy.”
Thus, the former seventh heaven for all kinds of demagogues - Latin America, now could be an example by its pushback against populism. It remains to be seen, however, when or if there will be a pushback against populism in either the U.S. or Russia.