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Trump, populism and the rest of the world

More than just a reckoning day for the Divided States of America, next week’s election has consequences for the rest of world.

Worsening economic and political relations with China, Russian expansionism, Middle East conflicts and climate change policy are just some of the lenses through which the world is observing the American election.

The election is also a test of populism – the campaigning strategy that claims society is split into the ‘ordinary people’ and the ‘corrupt elite.’ This strategy is not new but was the crux of Trump’s appeal to the ‘base’ by claiming he would drain the Washington swamp of liberal elites and career politicians who failed to deliver for the morally upright ordinary person.

Trump fuelled his support from ordinary people by claiming he was a non-politician, even an anti-politician, who had the brains and business acumen to ‘fight the system’ and to make America great again.

The world watched populism help deliver Trump into the White House, thereby legitimising it as a route to high office and a method to be copied.

And copied it was: Boris Johnson in the United Kingdom, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, the Five Star Movement in Italy, Marine Le Pen in France, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Duterte in the Philippines, and Scott Morrison here in Australia.

Whilst it is possible to have a left leaning populist leader (eg Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez,) the common thread of those above is they are right wing, and usually hard right.

The other common thread is populist leaders perpetuate a constant state of crisis of their making, against an imagined foe of ordinary people – be it immigrants, intellectualism and the left wing.

This neatly sums up the chaos of the Trump presidency, and can also be applied to Johnson and Brexit, Bolsonaro and rainforest destruction, and Scott Morrison and asylum seeker detention.

Trump has given permission for others of his ilk to trash convention and behave like they are above scrutiny. As populism is divisive by nature; any scrutiny is met with accusations of disloyalty and charges of being against us not with us.

Truth is optional or brushed aside as being fake news. Morrison will reject the premise of a reporter’s question if it contradicts his desired narrative. Lying is Trump’s stock-in-trade.

Populist leaders obsess with controlling their strongman public image as it reinforces being in charge of the battle against a foe. The social media feed of Trump’s White House is thick with artfully crafted videos of Trump travelling to mingle with The People and rail against their common foes. This appeals to Trump’s overinflated ego and inner authoritarian.

Trump’s Twitter feed on the other hand is a sewer outlet of juvenile rantings that throws red meat to his most fanatic supporters. It is an irrational stream of consciousness that confirms him as a demagogue, appealing to the prejudices of the ordinary ‘voiceless’ Americans he claims to represent.

Combine the demagoguery with the overinflated ego, and the result is the last four years of chaos, divisiveness and decay.

That’s because America voted for populism and elected a kakistocracy.

What is a kakistocracy? It is 19th Century word describing government by the least qualified, suitable or competent.

The Trump White House is the epitome of a kakistocracy. Trump is patently out of his depth and treats the White House as his fiefdom. He installed his unqualified family members into key advisory positions, fires senior staff who question him, and has no attention span for anything other than his image. Whilst fighting multiple court indictments for fraudulent financial activities.

He holds the White House record for staff turnover and staff charged with criminal offences. And the record for the number of days spent playing golf.

He like all populists suffers from the Dunning-Kruger affect – a cognitive bias in which people with low ability lack the self-awareness to realise they lack ability (in other words if you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent.)

The delusions of adequacy exhibited by populists are therefore not traits of leadership.

There is however a direct line between populism and kakistocracy because leadership is sought for all the wrong reasons.

This will be one of Trump’s many painful legacies. His legitimising of populism globally as a service to the ordinary person, when in reality it deprives an ordinary person of equality and safety.

The US election is a test of whether populism can be rejected, and whether that rejection can then spread out around the world.

Greg Smart

By his own admission, Greg Smart was born 40 years old and is in training to be a cranky old man. He spends his time avoiding commercial television and bad coffee.