Defining populism is not easy. It is simplistic and doesn’t address complexities. Populists seem to be against everything and for nothing.
Photo by samantha-sophia on unsplash

I was in Berlin the day that America went to the polls in November 2016. I was staying with two friends, a Brazilian man and a Hungarian woman. My Brazilian friend shook me awake early in the morning saying: “You are not going to be happy – it looks like Donald Trump has won the election.” I felt sick. I was already struggling emotionally with my country’s decision to turn its back on its European neighbours. The murder of Labour MP Jo Cox, a week before the UK Referendum on continued EU membership, and after a divisive campaign which scapegoated migrants and refugees causing a spike in race-related hate crimes, felt like a new low in politics. Now, here was a billionaire real-estate tycoon with a long history of misogyny winning the hearts and minds of the American people. My mind raced over all the things that would be at risk – women’s rights, Obama Care, African-Americans, the Amazon and global peace and security.

I spent the day (November 9th) at the Allianz Forum next to the Brandenburg Gate, as an invited speaker at ‘A Soul For Europe’, a conference which focused on the theme of ‘Cultural Identities on the Move’. I listened to impassioned speeches from fellow MEPs and several former presidents of the European Parliament. Martin Schulz, a stalwart supporter of arts and culture, sent a video message referencing his humble beginnings as a German bookseller.

My own session focussed specifically on ‘Arts and Culture for Europe’. The programme read as follows:

‘A positive European self-confidence should be guided by its democratic achievements against the hostile, partially racist and populist movements that are increased by the refugee crisis, but also have other causes. Arts and Culture in particular convey another visionary image of Europe that needs to be upheld against those who refuse and fight against it. Cultural activities can and must help to convey tolerance and mutual understanding in an acceptable way.’

The European Youth Orchestra played in the coffee break and the day ended with a concert from the Berliner Ensemble, performing songs from diverse cultures with refugee children as part of a project called MitMachMusik. I wept as the children smiled and danced and clapped on the stage in front of us. Indeed they would not know that the world was sliding inexorably into a dangerous ‘us and them’ situation where vulnerable children, just like them, on the Mexican border would end up inside cages, parched and hungry, separated from their parents at the mercy of the richest country in the world. 

When I left the Forum it was dark and people were gathering across the street outside the American Embassy. They were lighting candles and laying flowers. Someone had left their distinctive US passport on the pavement with ‘RIP DEMOCRACY’ scrawled across it. Some people were holding up handmade cardboard signs with slogans like ‘Not in my name.’ It was a defining moment, but we should have expected it. The polls had indicated a close result and the unremitting attacks against Hillary Clinton had been ramped up – after all she was an audacious woman seeking power in a man’s world, and she was also Bill’s wife! But why was the Trump election so much more of a watershed moment than the UK referendum? 

Many of us felt that the UK constitutional crisis would turn out to be a blip in history, that the immediate market shock and the social chaos that engulfed us before, during and after would be a warning to democracies everywhere that if you ignore the drip-feed of poisonous anti-other rhetoric you too could fall victim to right-wing populist provocation. But then came the US elections, and following that the rise of Jair Bolsonaro in Brasil. Meanwhile, the French continued their flirtation with Le Pen and the AfD made substantial gains in Germany. Salvini stepped into Berlusconi’s populist shoes and took Italy to the brink where it continues to teeter on the edge, whilst Sebastian Kurz did deals with the far-right Freedom Party in an Austrian coalition government. The Polish Law and Justice Party dismissed an independent judiciary, attacked women’s rights and demonised LGBT people. In Hungary, Orbán continued his populist shift to the right – thumbing his nose at the EU whenever he was called to give an account of himself. Meanwhile, President Erdogan of Turkey jailed thousands of opposition voices including journalists, academics, artists, trade unionists, and civil servants: changing electoral law and the constitution to suit himself. 

In November 2015, almost exactly a year before the US elections, I was involved in a parliamentary delegation to the city of São João Pessoa in Brasil to participate in the annual Internet Governance Forum (IGF) organised by UNESCO. I had not fully understood its significance until I walked into our first meeting – to find myself in a room with representatives of the US government. We were there to discuss the renewal of the multi-stakeholder agreement that helps to keep the internet open and widely available as a tool for all sections of society, in line with the ‘common good’ vision that Tim Berners-Lee had imagined when he invented his transformational communication tool. The IGF agreement still had a year to run but, in the words of one policy adviser, “We need to do this now because if Trump wins the American election there’s a risk the US will not sign up.”

The same US policy advisers were back at the IGF in Jalisco, Mexico, the following year, visibly cowed by the oncoming onslaught of the Trump administration, unable to offer certainty about any aspect of post-Obama internet policy. They would all be out of a job in the New Year when Trump was sworn in and their expertise, knowledge, networks and international diplomacy skills would be all but trashed on the bonfire of ‘America First’. The renewal of the IGF multi-stakeholder model a year ahead of time was their enduring heroic act. 

In line with his nationalist populist stance, Trump’s shift away from multi-lateralism has seen the US completely pull out of UNESCO after years of financial wrangling and disagreements about the status of Palestine. Cutting federal support for UNWRA which provides vital aid for Palestinian refugees was part of the same punishment regime, and US withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal was largely seen as further destabilisation of the Middle East, whilst withdrawal from the bilateral INF Treaty with Russia helped move the hands of the Doomsday Clock closer to midnight. Bowing to pressure from the ultra-right, pro-life lobby Trump applied a global gag regarding crucial aid for the poorest countries, thereby blocking support for vital health programmes which use planned parenthood models – shown to lower maternal deaths as well as prevent unsafe abortions. His attacks on the World Health Organization have been unrelenting since the coronavirus first emerged in Wuhan, giving his conspiracy theorist friends the green light to promote stories about Chinese virus labs releasing the pathogen as part of a communist strategy to take over the world. Trump, the arch populist, is not a team player at home or abroad, and his example is copied by belligerent populist leaders elsewhere, who declaim their own nationalist slogans in a bid to win the support of so-called ‘ordinary people’.

Ever since Trump declared that the EU was his enemy, I knew that we must be its critical friend. This is important in the context of a discussion about populism because the EU has its populist detractors on the left as well as the right. However, defining populism is not easy. It is simplistic and doesn’t address complexities. Populists seem to be against everything and for nothing. 

Populists of all political colours fiercely criticise the so-called elite who are removed from the society they purport to represent. They claim to speak for the ordinary man or woman, and yet many are often the epitome of the very elite they purport to scorn – wealthy individuals from privileged backgrounds with big business backers.

In politics you need to have answers, ideas, policies, a project. Right-wing populist politicians and parties generally answer with retrogressive ideas, if any at all. Nigel Farage’s UKIP toyed with the death penalty, hated tobacco control, supported fox-hunting and backed scrapping paid maternity leave. In Spain, Italy and other Roman Catholic countries, right-wing populist parties such as Vox and The League promote anti-abortion and homophobic views. 

Climate change denial is another common trait among populist politicians, and this can be seen in both right and left populist movements. Take Claire Fox, for example, a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party in her younger days and former editor of Living Marxism, a now-defunct magazine that condoned sectarian violence in Ireland and defended the Serbian ethno-nationalism that resulted in genocide and mass atrocities across the Balkans. Fox is rabidly anti-EU. Despite posing as a ‘leftie’, she joined forces with former commodities trader Farage and was subsequently elected as a Brexit Party MEP in July 2019. This then saw her sitting alongside the likes of veteran former Conservative politician Ann Widdecombe, also a newly elected Brexit Party MEP. Fox is associated with the media platform Spiked Online and the Institute of Ideas, both of which have received funding from the wealthy Koch Brothers who own stakes in fossil fuels and backed Trump’s campaign. Their tentacles reach far and wide encompassing a global network of dark money linked to power and privilege.

Nathan Robinson writing in the Guardian had this to say:

“It’s hard to describe just what a negative force the Koch brothers have been in United States politics over the past several decades. They have used every means at their disposal to subvert democracy. They funded academic posts, thinktanks, lobbying groups, fake grassroots operations, and political campaigns. They used their tremendous wealth to push a radically far-right economic vision in which government protections and welfare programs would essentially cease to exist.”

Whilst most of us have been infinitely moved by Greta Thunberg’s passionate call for urgent action to save the planet, Fox and friends have publicly derided the girl who spearheads a global movement which continues to inspire and mobilise millions of schoolchildren, their parents, grandparents and teachers.

The French ‘Gilets Jaunes’ street movement appealed to many Leftist sensibilities but soon became a target for populist disrupters keen to pin the blame for rising fuel prices on migrants and refugees who they blame for all misfortune rather than addressing failed social and economic policies. In fact, anti-migrant sentiment has been firmly at the rotten heart of the recent rise of populism across Europe and much of the developed world. Nigel Farage standing defiantly in front of a Vote Leave poster depicting a long line of refugees lit a touchstone amongst Britons looking for someone to blame for job uncertainty, falling living standards and rising crime. 

Islamophobia has permeated the fabric of our society: so much so that leading politicians nonchalantly use abusive language to describe Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab and niqab. Boris Johnson infamously described Muslim women as looking like ‘letterboxes’ and he has never apologised for this comment. He is Prime Minister of a country that includes a large Muslim population, many of whom run successful businesses vital to the economy. Johnson was recently treated for Covid-19 in an NHS hospital that relies on migrant labour with a high proportion of Muslims in the workforce. It is astonishing that he cannot make the connection between his racist comments and the growth of far-right street movements. Following his recovery and release from hospital, Johnson stood outside 10 Downing Street to join in with the weekly ‘clap for carers’ and then went back to work advocating that migrant health workers should pay huge amounts of money to access the NHS for their own health care. Even members of his own party felt this was not a good look in the current crisis, with a disproportionate number of BME people dying from Covid-19 including frontline workers.

When Thomas Mair pulled a gun on the Labour MP Jo Cox outside a library in a market town in the north of England in 2016, he shouted ‘Britain First’. Cox was well known for her work with refugees and for her support for remaining in the EU. Mair was later found to have a cache of far-right materials in his home and on his computer which demonised Muslims and preached white supremacy. When the Christchurch, New Zealand mass-murderer rampaged through two mosques in March 2019 he had already written a twisted manifesto of hate (‘The Great Replacement’) inspired by white genocide conspiracy theories. The shooter, Brenton Tarrant, a 28-year-old Australian, supported Brexit, Trump and Serb ethno-nationalists. He opposed the Global Compact for Migration and was discovered to have spent time in Europe prior to his deadly attack, even donating money to Generation Identity, the new populist youth movement.

Links between the organised alt-right and far-right extremists are well-documented by organisations such as the UK’s Hope Not Hate, and the Southern Poverty Law Center based in Alabama, the home of the Afro-American civil rights movement. Right-wing populist politicians often try to distance themselves from far-right extremists, preferring to be seen as spokespeople for the ordinary man/woman in the street rather than associated with the violent outright thuggery of patriot street movements; but internet searches soon turn up links and alliances that point to well-funded and highly organised networks of influence. Conservative politicians such as Trump and Johnson inhabit the fringes of these networks, and enjoy the support of populist puppet-masters such as Steve Bannon, the strategist largely responsible for Trump’s successful election campaign who also offered advice to Johnson.

Bannon was a founder of Breitbart News, a right-wing news, opinion and commentary website. I knew nothing about Breitbart until I found myself in it, along with a photo stolen from my twitter feed accompanying a bizarre mixed-up half-story about me defending so-called ‘EU propaganda’ otherwise known as the highly successful EU flagship Erasmus+ youth exchange programme. The article accused me of being a ‘white racist’ for my work promoting intercultural dialogue and youth engagement in the deprived North East of England. More worrying than the ridiculous article were the 122 comments underneath the article, many of which were offensive, sexist and threatening. Populist politicians often throw out soundbites that describe non-nationals in pejorative terms, and sections of the media whip this up into a xenophobic frenzy with provocative headlines. The result is a seething mass of populist anger expressed in comments posted online.

Having got Trump inside the White House, Bannon turned his attention to the rest of the world, successfully helping Bolsonaro’s divisive presidential campaign in Brasil largely through the use of false messaging via WhatsApp. Then he focused on Europe where he continues to invest time and money. His newest project is the antithesis of my life’s inclusive, dialogical work with young people – an alt-right ‘gladiator school’. Working with Dignitatis Humanae Institute (DHI), a Catholic lobby group, Bannon and his British acolyte Benjamin Harnwell have recently won a legal battle to establish an Academy for the Judeo-Christian West in a former monastery south of Rome. 

The influence of the church is another common feature in populist movements. This is particularly marked in the Balkans where Serbian orthodox church leaders are fanning the flames of ethno-nationalism in places like Montenegro, quietly cheered on by Putin who will be the biggest winner yet if EU enlargement fails to happen fast enough across the whole of former Yugoslavia rather than piecemeal, as at present. I well remember my first visit to Bosnia Herzogovina in 2015. I flew into the northern city of Tuzla and took a taxi to Srebrenica. Much of the road goes alongside the River Drina which marks the border with Serbia. I was shocked to see that nearly every lamppost bore an admiring poster of Putin. The next day I would witness Serb leader, Aleksandar Vučić, narrowly escape death by stoning as he left the 20th anniversary memorial service for the Muslim genocide victims, dodging missiles from an angry crowd. Ethnic and religious conflict continues to provide a rich picking ground for populist provocateurs, especially in the Balkans, and it occurs to me that Bannon’s Trisulti Monastery is not many miles away across the Adriatic Sea. 

The ‘Gladiator School’ is however, mostly going to rely on online classes and this should not come as a surprise as it is in the digital sphere where the populists have been winning the war. Bannon was famously Vice President of Cambridge Analytica, the political consulting firm that combined misappropriation of digital assets, data mining, data brokerage and data analysis with strategic communication during electoral processes. This was used by Cambridge Analytica in the Trump campaign, the Vote Leave campaign in the UK referendum and also in the Kenyan presidential elections in which I was an election observer for the European Parliament. 

It is these complex relational webs between people, places, organisations and money that define modern right-wing populists along with their use of the world-wide web. Many are strange bedfellows harbouring grudges and obsessed with single issues, some are ambitious politicians who fail to make it in the mainstream and sidestep the establishment, taking public sympathy with them. Increasingly they have tuned into the dissatisfaction of the demos and offer glib answers – ‘Take Back Control’, they urged in the Vote Leave campaign. But beyond simple slogans they offer very little. 

Populists are in love with the idea of democracy, especially when they can successfully claim the empty space vacated by non-voters. It must be remembered that Trump won the popular vote in an election where less than 50% of the electorate turned out. 

The use of democracy to undermine democracy is one of the greatest threats we face in a post-truth, post-Brexit, post-coronavirus world where civil liberties have been curtailed under the guise of a health emergency and mass surveillance. Our response as a society must be to demystify politics whilst also demonstrating the complexities of a globalised world. We must show that politics is everyone’s business and encourage greater engagement in quality democratic processes that extend the franchise, especially to include young people, whilst providing citizenship and sustainability education such as the UK Student Climate Action Network’s ‘Teach the Future’ initiative.

Thinking back to that November 9th 2016 conference in Berlin, I still believe that arts and cultural organisations have a significant role to play as facilitators for reflection, discussion, debate and respectful disagreement. Participatory arts can develop the individual and collective confidence required to explore complexity, to speak truth to power, to demand accountability, and the creative imagination to come up with people-powered solutions that politicians can then build upon and legislate for, with budget lines in the treasury department. Dangerous demagogues will then be consigned to the dustbin of history and Bannon’s Gladiator School will be a tourist theme park where you can take the kids on a Sunday afternoon so they can dress up like Russell Crowe.

A longer version of this article was commissioned and published by Grand Place magazine, a project of the Mario Onaindia Foundation in Zarautz. 

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