March of the Populists

Nirvaan Nadeem thinks about the cultural environment across the globe that has led to the rise of a new kind of political leader

March of the Populists
What is common between Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, Boris Johnson and Imran Khan? They are big mouths: a nightmare for their advisors. You never know what impulsive outrageous pearls will come out of their mouths and spread like wildfire through social media. Mostly they are right-wing, unpredictable, full of contradictions and claim to be shakers of the status quo. What is also common about these narcissistic publicity-seeking leaders is that they are democratically elected. The electorates know what they are – and still elect them. Why on Earth?

The emergence of this new brand of political leaders is not an isolated phenomenon. The fact is that the age of the chocolate hero is gone. The era of soft, lyrical romantic songs has passed. The “gentleman hero” has been replaced by the antihero. Criminals are now revered, not just in politics, but also in the movies. El Chapo Guzman, one of the most notorious drug lords responsible for destroying thousands of innocent lives, has been immortalized in the hit Netflix series, aptly titled El Chapo. There are scores of other well received movies and dramas on the exciting and awe inspiring lives of all sorts of gangsters, drug dealers and murderers. Whereas in movies such as the Godfather trilogy, the emphasis was on the struggles and difficulties of the young gangster-to-be, today’s brain-polluting movies and dramas actually glorify the actual criminal acts themselves. Thank God we were spared the axe-wielding screaming heroes of Lollywood when the industry was axed down by its horrifying output. But Bollywood is unashamed at producing gangster heroes such as Don, Gangster, Khalnaik and Gangs of Wasseypur. Songs are even worse. They capture the minds of the youth through enchanting music and install the villains as heroes in their subconscious. Not stopping at the too frequent use of abusive language, these songs glorify taking drugs such as crystal meth, shooting people randomly and treating women like slaves. All the socialization and ethics sermons are thrown out of the window. Just take a look at the terminology of today’s teenagers on Instagram, and you will get the picture. Word for word, derogatory terms are copied from today’s hate filled songs in normal conversations and picture captions.

El Chapo Guzman after he was recaptured by Mexican authorities

Likewise, in the world of politics, populism is on an upswing. We are in the midst of a “populist epidemic” so to say. Right now, the most important democracies in the world are ruled by populist men: Narendra Modi in India, Donald Trump in the United States, Joko Widodo in Indonesia, and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Boris Johnson in the UK. The situation is fairly similar in our own Pakistan.

Recent studies have shown how populists come to power on the back of promises to root out corruption. From Brazil’s “Carwash” scandal, Rome’s “thieving politicians”, Trump “draining the swamp” to our very own slayer of the “Sicilian Mafia”, all have the same premise. Since the 1990s, in fact, of all populist leaders that have come to power, only 17% have stepped down voluntarily, even after losing an election. Some have remained in power for decades, after, of course, amending or changing their constitutions. Hitler must be a workable role model for them. Philippines’ Marcos and Argentina’s Peron have been more recent examples of that route.
Since the 1990s, in fact, of all populist leaders that have come to power, only 17% have stepped down voluntarily, even after losing an election

Why has this populist bug gripped the globe? Why have people suddenly started voting for obnoxious, rude and downright crass politicians?

Apparently, people love a good and bloody fight. They don’t want their leaders to mince words, be polite, smile and be respectful. They don’t want political correctness, nor do they want unnecessary formalities. In the age of the two-minute attention span, politicians cannot afford to go into long discussions on the nature of the economy, development principles and socioeconomic paradigms. People want excitement. They want passion, energy and zeal. They want to see in their leaders what they see in their favorite movie stars and rappers or video games.

Perhaps they are justified. Perhaps the common person is fed up of smiling politicians, talking about the good of humanity, self-sacrifice and hard work – when every one of them has amassed billions doing the complete opposite. Sometimes even I feel that I would prefer someone to insult me on my face rather than smile and do it behind my back.

The advent of social media has been a game changer. It was not possible for politicians to get across their perspectives in a timely and accurate manner, what with all the red tape, filters of advisors and ministers, and the annoying bureaucratic hurdles. It was also easy to deploy a largely unified and easily manipulated means of public discourse and perception. That has changed. Now, not only does everyone have a voice, but the actual seedy thought processes behind politicians’ sweet words can easily be exposed and reach millions, if not billions of people. How can one talk about working for the good of the common people when there are videos of one mercilessly beating many of them? How can one proclaim in rallies what a simple life they live when there are hundreds of pictures of their lavish lifestyle? People can see that the noble, polite and humble politician is in fact corrupt, immoral and arrogant. They would much rather prefer someone who speaks, or gives the impression of speaking, as he would behind closed doors. People identify more with the Trumps, Khans and Modis because this is closer to how a common person speaks. Unmeasured, sometimes aggressive, sometimes blunt. Maybe in reality they are worse than the “smiling thieves”, but they have become masters of following the trend, having a firm grip on the popular pulse, and adjusting their personas accordingly. Having the best social media teams, of course, helps.

Narendra Modi brandishes a sword at a rally

While there have been many populist leaders in the past, never before have they swept the globe in this manner. Never have so many influential countries, both in the east and the west, developing and developed, been led by populists at the same time. It is no coincidence then, that with much of the world’s population, especially the youth, listening to the same songs and watching the same TV shows that glorify violence, crime and abuse – and all the while worshiping idols which tweet out senseless banter mistaken for pearls of wisdom. The era of the “gentleman” is over indeed.

People now prefer narcissism over humility. The more brawls actors and sportspeople get into, the greater their celebrity status. People follow, nay adore, controversial, aggressive and narcissistic celebrities, and as we can see, it applies to our politicians as well.

Content has become meaningless in politics, on a politicized mass media and on a rudderless social media. They endlessly talk politics but not a word about the systemic problems of the capitalist economy. Nothing about making the have-nots actual stakeholders in the system. They exploit the masses’ discontent with the status quo but have no solution. “Build the wall” and your problems will be over, says one. Get out of EU and the kingdom will become a paradise. “End corruption” and the state will become an ideal Riasat-e-Madinah, says our own . Who cares how much growth you brought about in the GDP, how much of the budget you allocated for health and education or even how much you decreased the tax burden for the middle classes? The populists, all over the world, have realized that only one thing matters: the image. What matters is how much gel is on your hair, how eloquently you speak, how much your face is glowing and how many tweets you release every day. It is not what you say but how you say it and how loudly you say it. People respond to your confidence, charisma and body language. Your gestures matter more than your words and your baritone matters more than your content. You make eye contact, connect with the audience and have a good hairdo, too. All you need after that is a massive team of social media gangsters to pounce upon dissident voices.

“Truth is not the first casualty of war alone, it is the first casualty of populism”

(Anthony Daniels)