Here's Why You Can Take The Populists Out Of Power, But Not The Power Out Of Populists

Here's Why You Can Take The Populists Out Of Power, But Not The Power Out Of Populists
In the US, Republicans in Congress were expecting the Senate elections to be a referendum on Trump. If candidates supported by the former president were to lose, this would signal an end to Trump’s hold on the Republican party. To their dismay, Trump still holds an exceptionally strong hold over the electorate. JD Vance, a candidate running for Senate elections from the state of Ohio, was trailing in the polls by 11 points but went on to win the Republican primary convincingly after receiving Trump’s endorsement.

Herschel Walker, a former football star, is a grossly underwhelming candidate on the policy front. Yet, Trump’s endorsement shot him into the national spotlight and propelled him to a primary win in the state of Georgia.

Trump chose his picks based on star value. In his endorsement of cardiac surgeon turned celebrity host Dr Mehmet Oz, Trump talked about his “very successful television show,” and that “women, in particular, are drawn to Dr. Oz.” As a result of this, MAGA supporters embraced Oz despite the fact that he was a resident of New Jersey, not Pennsylvania, and his previously held views on abortion, gun and transgender rights cannot be deemed traditionally Republican.

Why is it that a Democrat championing abortion rights can lose the conservative vote, while a Trump endorsed Republican touting similar views can gain votes from the same demographic?

It shows that while Trump is gone, Trumpism is here to stay. To court the former president and get his coveted endorsement, some candidates have taken absolutist positions, like a blanket ban on illegal immigration. Others have tried to flatter him by speaking up against establishment Republicans. In fact, Vance was explicitly anti-Trump during the 2016 elections but took a complete U-turn as a Senate hopeful in 2022.

Similarly, while Imran Khan might have been removed from power, his popularity is soaring. He is still drawing in massive crowds at rallies across the country and people are buying his foreign conspiracy narrative by the millions, despite evidence to the contrary. If elections were a one-on-one popularity contest, Trump and Khan would both win by a landslide. And while Trump’s base is older working-class whites, and Khan’s base is educated, urban middle-class, there is one theme that connects them both: a disillusionment with the system.

In Pakistan, unlike rural classes which still vote based on familial ties, those in the urban centres are most easily swayed by Khan’s narratives due to education and access to social media. As a result, Khan’s popularity is also concentrated in big cities where his narratives have spread like wildfire. This trend can be attributed to two things: an aversion to dynastic politics, and a realisation that leaders who have alternated power for the past thirty years have not done much to pull the country out of its abyss.

Khan and Trump both invoke ‘them’ as a target for scorn and ‘us’ as the victims of a tyrant state. Both are highly charismatic and have mastered the art of effective delivery which allows them to rally their respective bases and concretise their messaging through repetition. And both depict apocalyptic scenarios of societal destruction at the hands of the ruling elites. Khan and Trump are two sides of the same coin. Even though their brand of politics is highly polarising and destructive for society, they are not the source of communal issues. Rather, they are tactfully capitalising on an agitation that has consistently grown in both societies over the past several decades. Khan and Trump are not the causes of societal rupture, they are the effects.

The fact that mass disenfranchisement has come to a point where there is space in politics for populist actors like Trump and Khan should compel us towards serious introspection. In the US, immigration has been a concern simmering amongst working-class whites for years, and instead of addressing those concerns, Democrats and Republicans alike have brushed them away as racist. That leaves room for a Trump to come in and promise extremist solutions, which take hold in the electorate because it feels like a breath of fresh air. The same people who were previously being told to shut up, now feel seen and heard.

On the other hand, Khan’s base has seen a steadier stream of corruption and scandal stories emanating from their leaders, than they have genuine progress and upward mobility. This forces them to disengage until a Khan enters the mix promising, amongst other things, a break from the past.

The current leaders in office would do well to redirect their focus towards addressing legitimate societal grievances. They need to step away from the constant cycle of placing blame on past administrations. If progress does not catch up with expectations, people will only be compelled towards more extreme options.

The writer is a lawyer. He tweets at @azwarshakeel12