JOHN DICKIE COLUMN: Leaders playing the populist card

Generally I don’t have heroes; there are a number of people I admire, and a number whose vision excites me, often for conflicting reasons, writes John Dickie.

Wednesday, 5th January 2022, 1:51 pm
Despite his election defeat, Donald Trump still has a loyal band of followers

However I do make one or two exceptions; people who speak to us over the years. Such as Antonio Gransci, the Italian Marxist, political leader and victim of Italian fascism.

In his prison diaries he wrote: “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will” (I wonder if I’m the first person to quote Gransci in the Chron?) It describes perfectly the mood that many of us on the socialist left feel at the moment. To sort of reinforce him, I’ve been reading Fiona Hill’s book, ‘There is nothing for you here’, which paints a fairly gloomy picture of the world as it currently spins round.

Hill was born in Bishop Auckland, Co. Durham, the daughter of a miner-turned-hospital porter and a nurse.

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She chronicles (endlessly) her deprived childhood and the deprivation of the North East (endlessly). However, a clever girl, she got a place at St Andrew’s University and a scholarship to the Kennedy School at Harvard (bijou declaration of interest... I, too, spent a short time at the Kennedy School doing a module, but nowhere as significant as Fiona’s).

She became an expert on the break-up of the USSR, spent some time in Moscow, and then became a specialist on Russian and a special adviser in the White House to three presidents.

Hill can be a tedious writer some of the time, but her comments on Trump do appear to capture the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age, quite accurately and, if you like, reflect the pessimism that seems to be shaping the moment.

The pandemic is a hideous, almost careless afterthought for the times we live in. If I believed in fate or some old superstitious faith then it might be time to get on my knees and rend a few garments. What is depressing at the moment is the convergence of a particular virus of populism. Of course we have always had populists hanging about the upper echelons of power. History is littered with ‘leaders’ who thought they had a divine right to rule. In less sophisticated times they came, they tormented and they passed, one way or another.

Hill points out that Trump was of a different order. He is a brutally ignorant man, a liar and a dissembler who sold millions of Americans an illusion on ‘Make America Great Again’ with a baseball cap and a T-shirt. Left to himself he would splutter and burn out and end up on trial (indeed he may yet), but he spoke to the poor and dispossessed of the ‘rust belt’ states, blaming their poverty on the educated citizens of the coasts.

Populists always find someone to blame and a ready audience to believe the message. The crisis we are in is that he is not alone. Putin is playing the same game, blaming governmental failure (his government) on everyone else. And guess who is also a playmate? Look no further than 10 Downing Street.

Ironically, Hill doesn’t mention Johnson, but rather Farage, but then he was merely the harbinger of the current prime minister who convinced millions of folk in the de-industrial North that their conditions – levelling down if you will – were someone else’s fault... Europe, migrants, the price of fish.

Putin’s answer to an economy riddled with failure to modernise and him giving his oligarch mates huge chunks of state assets was to blame other countries, foreigners, the usual taradiddle.

The common thread right now is cheap populism, demagoguery and a gullible populace. The characteristic is that populists tend to move towards authoritarianism. Trump admired autocrats; he saw running a country was like running a family business, and with a nod to fellow billionaires.

Putin and Trump shared the same political base – older, more male, less well educated and with a sense of grievance – and both played ‘the regular guy’ card.

We may think Trump is history. Sadly he has a huge war chest, an adoring fan base, and a Republican Party cowed into submission by Trumpism. Putin has given himself a lifetime presidency and also has a cowed populace happy to submit to the richest man in the world.

If there ever was a time for pessimism it is now, and yet, the people of Chile have just said it’s time for change once again. They have displayed optimism of the will, so maybe...