The Allure of Populism—and the Confusion with Fascism
Populist: 1) A member or adherent of a political party seeking to represent the interests of ordinary people. 2) A person who supports or seeks to appeal to the interests of ordinary people. Adj. Representing or appealing to the interests and opinions of ordinary people. Derivatives: Populism.
Fascism: An authoritarian and nationalistic right-wing system of government.
(Source: Oxford English Dictionary)
Photo: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and wife, Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau
Sometimes a little clarity and precision is helpful before wading into a controversial area. Populist leaders, and populism as political movements, have been around a long time. With events occurring recently in the United States and parts of Western Europe, it’s a good occasion to pause to reflect on the accuracies in media reporting when it comes to the use of the term “populism” and how some commentators are mixing it in with the detested and overused word “fascism.”
The rise of fascism in post-World War I Germany was the consequence of the Treaty of Versailles and the onerous load that was placed on that nation to pay reparations to the Allied powers. The rub-your-face-in-the dirt treatment to the Germans, a proud people with a long history, combined with a populace susceptible to a charismatic World War I corporal by the name of Adolf Hitler, led eventually to World War II.
Reflect on this for a moment: Loss of national pride places a populace in a very vulnerable position to the emotional appeal of a charismatic leader.
Hitler capitalized on Germans’ pain and humiliation, and became in some ways a populist leader among his followers, except that he was not as much interested in representing the interests of Germans but more focused on prosecuting his distorted plan to re-make Germany as a pure Aryan race.
To be clear, Hitler was not a populist politician.
A number of factors and events have given rise to populism’s surge in recent years. Globalization, and its accompanying effects on global trade, the labor market, and domestic industries (manufacturing in particular), have amplified people’s fears. Add on the role that technology is playing in enabling most jobs to be done anywhere on the planet, and you have a potent mix to stoke the fears of citizens. Introduce a charismatic politician who cleverly knows how to manipulate the public and you have a potentially dangerous situation for a nation.