Fergus Finlay: Populism, as practised by Johnson and Trump, the worst and lowest forms of politics

Boris Johnson is torn between reason and unreason, between those who believe Britain will be damaged for years by no deal and those who believe sovereignty is the only thing that will set Britain free
Fergus Finlay: Populism, as practised by Johnson and Trump, the worst and lowest forms of politics

Prime Minister Boris Johnson with the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, in Brussels as talks on a post-Brexit trade deal continue.

We’re lucky, I suppose, that Boris Johnson lacks the courage of his lack of conviction. Or maybe not. I wrote here last week that we’d know by now if there was going to be a deal. Well, we still don’t. And we’re all beginning to wonder, I imagine, if there’ll ever be one. Or if it will stick. Or be worth it in the end.

Europe is on the horns of a dilemma right now. It wants a trading agreement with the UK, because that’s in everyone’s interest. But it knows now, beyond any shadow of doubt, that it’s trying to make an agreement with a man and a government it doesn’t trust. Even if it gets over the line, the potential for unravelling is profound.

That’s because it’s negotiating with a man whose every instinct is populist. The reason he’s still in the game is because he doesn’t want to offend anyone. 

He’s torn between reason and unreason, between those who believe Britain will be damaged for years by no deal and those who believe sovereignty, as they define it, is the only thing that will set Britain free. Free to deal with a massive economic downturn all on their own.

Populism as an ideology

People like Angela Merkel know only too well the dangers of populism, especially when it becomes an ideology. They also instinctively know the saying by Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias: “A typical politician is that person who tells people what people want to hear, while the statesman tells people what people need to know.”

Merkel and her colleagues probably watched with awe the irresponsible, but deeply populist, stunt that Boris pulled last week when he ordered navy gunboats to start patrolling the high seas, to protect British fisheries. 

They know full well that Boris doesn’t care about fishermen or their future livelihoods.

Instead, he was trying to do two things. He wanted to run up the flag for the benefit of his Brexit audience, so they could stand and salute while the stirring refrain of ‘Rule Britannia’ — “Britannia rules the waves” — rang out. And he wanted to try and position himself to spread the word, if there is a deal, that it was the gunboats that put manners on Brussels.

All he succeeded in doing was to ensure that he will be despised in some of the places where he wants to have influence. 

Does anyone seriously believe that France or Germany would have seen that stunt and immediately felt cowed by it? On the contrary, it probably took some hard graft to prevent some of the bigger countries from insisting that the plug be pulled there and then.

Protecting the agreement

It was exactly the same with the illegal provisions they were proposing to insert into British law, that could have had the effect of putting the Good Friday Agreement at risk. 

You may remember that Boris has people in his cabinet, such as home secretary Priti Patel, who have suggested in the past that the threat of food shortages could be used against the Irish, because we insisted on a “backstop” to protect the agreement.

In their willingness to use bluster and threat, they forgot that the Good Friday Agreement is more than an internationally ratified treaty. It’s an agreement that was effectively signed in the blood of more than 3,000 victims of 30 years of conflict. The rest of us haven’t forgotten that, and neither, thankfully, has Joe Biden. The US president-elect made it as clear as he could that Boris wouldn’t get away with it. And he didn’t need gunboats to make his message heard.

So nobody knows yet if there will be a deal or not. I’m guessing that, right across Europe — in the parliament, the commission, and the member states — there is an increasing number of people who don’t believe the British are to be trusted to honour any deal. 

Not because the British are an untrustworthy nation, but simply because they are led by a populist charlatan.

Populism the lowest form of politics

Populism is an ugly word. It probably best describes the worst and lowest form of politics, because as we all know from history, it is only a step away from fascism.

The essence of populist politics is a phoney choice and a phoney battle. It’s a battle between something called ‘the people’, on one hand, and ‘the elite’ on the other. 

People who rise to the top on the basis of a populist appeal present themselves first and foremost as the only leaders who are willing to fight this battle against the elite and for the people.

It’s phoney because the elite is hand-painted. If you have expertise, you’re elite. If you’re a committed public servant, you’re elite. If you occupy any position of authority — a judge, say, or a city manager — you’re elite. 

If you’re a journalist who believes, like the great journalists of the past, that facts are sacred, you’re elite. And because you’re elite, you become the enemy.

Populists love these labels, and they love fighting these battles. The funny thing is that, sometimes, the people who rise to the top are the least likely to be ever seen as “the leader of the people”. It’s hard to imagine, for example, two people who more clearly belong to the definition of elite — at least in class and money terms — than Boris Johnson or Donald Trump.

President Donald Trump played on populist appeal as anti-elite candidate. Picture: AP Photo/Adam Hunger
President Donald Trump played on populist appeal as anti-elite candidate. Picture: AP Photo/Adam Hunger

Trump took the concept of populism so far that he invented a whole slew of new terms and new targets. If you didn’t support him, you were corrupt. If you reported on him straight, you were fake news and likely to be painted threateningly as the enemy of the people. If you went about your business as a public servant and refused to be intimidated into bending the rules, you were part of the deep state.

Boxed in 

Now this great populist charlatan of our times has created a trap for himself and for his country. He has succeeded in driving a deep wedge between one half of the people and the other half.

His populist rhetoric, not to mention his narcissistic personality, can’t cope with the fact that he was beaten fair and square in the November election.

So at the weekend he flew over a highly militant crowd, containing some of the most disreputable elements in America, to validate their screeching protests on his
behalf. 

President Trump has failed in his legal challenges to the election result. Picture: AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File
President Trump has failed in his legal challenges to the election result. Picture: AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File

He has bent a significant proportion of the Republican Party to his will, to the extent that some of them will seek to undermine a democratic election, decided by a clear majority, right up to the end.

Yesterday, the electoral college declared Joe Biden the winner of the election, as provided for in the US Constitution.

After Christmas there should be a formal declaration by Congress that the result of the electoral
college stands. But the narcissist populist is now trying to engineer a situation where that joint meeting overturns the will of the people. 

If he succeeds — though I’m sure he won’t — that would be tantamount to a declaration of civil war.

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