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Why populism?

TRUMP: In the latest issue of Agora with populism as its theme, Donald Trump comes out in two variants: in a very personal version (where he owes just about everything he owns) and as a patrimonial leader in a postmodern USA

(PS. This article is machine-translated from Norwegian)

Agora is undoubtedly the best, in my eyes, magazine in the kingdom. And the magazine has an insanely great subtitle: "Journal for metaphysical speculation". Issues 1-2 are about "populism", and as usual it is over 600 pages, but this issue, like all of Agora's issues, is not just about the topic "populism". There are also many book reviews in the magazine – both about populism and about everything from Bob Dylan and Sigmund Freud to Simmel as well as French literature through 1000 years.

The instructional preface states: "This issue of the Agora is nevertheless based on the premise that populism is a concept that is not only meaningful, but also absolutely necessary, to understand the current political situation." The publication is based on new literature in the social sciences, history and political theory. The preface also mentions that many of the contributions are characterized by “what in a broad sense can be called a rhetorical turn in populism research. […] A specific type of political rhetoric based on an opposition between the people and the elite ».

Another precondition for this issue is that "populism cannot be seen independently of the historical context". In many of the contributions, only the rise of populism in recent years can be "understood in the light of the political situation in the West, characterized by a neoliberal consensus, economic stagnation, growing class differences and a growing democratic deficit". Here it is rather suggested that instead of talking about populism, they will write about "populisms" – which also applies to both so-called left-wing and right-wing populism.

The populism of anti-populism

I will try, as it is called, to appear in a couple of articles. The first one I will say something about is by the American sociologist Roger Brubaker, who is a professor at the University of California. The title of his article is "Why Populism?". He begins his article by naming many of the Western politicians who have been preoccupied with populism – such as Austrian Norbert Hofer, Frenchman Martin Le Pen and Dutchman Geert Wilders. In the same slang come a number of right-wing parties from Sweden, Germany, Hungary, Poland and he could also discuss many of the right-wing parties in Finland and Norway.

There is, or in many cases, something slick and calculating about populism.

Then there is the left he addresses, because they too have been concerned with populism – such as Bernie Sanders in the United States, Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom, Jean Luc-Mélenchon in France, the Podemos party in Spain and the election alliance Syriza in Greece. He also mentions "the genuinely indeterminate Five Star Movement in Italy".

Brubaker is also skeptical of the "easy use of loose and charged words." As he writes, populism can obviously be seen as an ideological reflex and as a form of intellectual laziness. I will nevertheless argue that 'populism' is still a useful tool – and absolutely indispensable for understanding the current situation. However, this raises a number of new questions: What explains this accumulation in time and space of phenomena that can be described as populist? Why here? And why now? ».

And then he tries to answer his own question "Why populism?". He answers it by saying that there are really two questions, the first is about populism as a concept and the second is about populism as a phenomenon in the world. Much of this is about what ignites many right and left parties.

Trump's variant of populism seems to be a very personal version – and there he is superb to give the impression that he is a Breial billionaire; most recently it was revealed that he owes just about everything he owns, and thus appears to be a bad businessman, one of the rednecks. It is a populism that is falling, or rising, all the time the United States is on the threshold of many riots, as there is great dissatisfaction in America.

Brubaker goes into the very problematic of populism as a concept: “Populism researchers have put forward three main reasons for being skeptical of populism as an analysis category. The first is that the term populism is used for completely different political projects with completely different social bases and political practices. Movements that have generally been considered populist have been to be found on the left (as has often been the case in North and South America) and on the right (as has often been the case in Europe); others are hybrid movements that combine elements from left and right. Their social base can be in the countryside, (like the United States in the late 1800s or in Eastern Central Europe in the interwar period) or urban (as in most cases in Latin America). "

What is common, he writes, for all those who are concerned with populism, is that it is about those at the top versus those at the bottom. It is a question of this metaphysical concept of "the people", "ordinary people": "Speaking on behalf of the 'low-class people' (who have not heard it before) against those at the top may seem to imply a policy of redistribution. Speaking on behalf of the will of the people against ruling elites may seem to imply a policy of re-democratization. "

This is what Trump is trying to give the impression of – that he is against them at the top, and that he himself is at the bottom, and he manages to give the impression that he is in the same boat with those who are broke, and in the boat that sinks – when he is aboard a huge and expensive cruise ship, with his billionaire friends. But no one sees or cares about that, and that is where Trump is at his best or worst, some would say: "In both the left and right variants of populism, economic, political and cultural elites are described as both being 'on the outside' and 'on top' ", Brubaker writes and continues:" They are only seen as living in comfortable isolation from ordinary people's financial struggles. "

At the end of the article in the Agora, he points to an interesting example of what I would call counter-populism: Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte's open letter to "the entire Dutch people" was "published in all the major newspapers seven weeks before the election." Rutte used simple, direct language to declare that he identified with the discomfort felt by the hard-working 'silent majority' in dealing with immigrants who 'abuse our freedom' to behave in 'abnormal' ways. He further urged immigrants to 'behave normally or leave the country' ". All in all, certainly to hit Geert Wilders and his party. It does not say anything in the article about whether this helped, but he probably would not have used this if it did not. In this sense, it is, or in many cases, somewhat slick and calculating about populism, whether it comes from the left or the right.

To appear like a bully

Professor Dylan Riley's article is aimed sharply at the American president and is then called "What is Trump?". He takes care of what everyone is talking about and as this magazine tries to understand, both left-wing and right-wing populism. Since it is the latter that grows the most in the world, I think this is where the shoe hits. Riley hits well, although it is now becoming quite common to say exactly this about the bully in the White House: show-like, impromptu political leadership, addressed to his 56 million twitter followers, and his racist messages accompanied by a generally rowdy behavior. "

Riley compares, which is more unusual, Trump with the French bourgeois king Louis Napoleon and his grip "on the fragmented French peasantry". Riley describes Trump as a patrimonial leader in a postmodern United States, because the interesting thing is how he manages to give the impression that he is not a wealthy and dubious businessman, but part of the struggling people: "The combination of a charismatic leader who rules in a patrimonial way over a legal-rational bureaucratic state, in a political system which in its democratic forms is predominantly oligarchic, is in its very structure, and in many different ways contradictory. Trump's lack of coherence as head of state is thus not just a manifestation of a problematic temperament, if this never contributes much. The inconsistency is a structural effect of the type of figure he appears to be, as he controls the type of political-cultural order that postmodern America actually is. "

The funny thing about Trump, which Riley also comments on, is that he has acted as an injection into American democracy and has revitalized many American newspapers, or the existence of civil resistance in the White House, which was certainly not tendentious. But getting fifty states to stick together is difficult, while America has a very violent history. The hatred between Republicans and Democrats is now so great that it seemed directly destructive. As Riley concludes: "There is no Trumpian ideology or 'cause' that the loyalist can join when he leaves office. After all, the president has his own political background from the party apparatus of the Democrats in New York. "

What is Trump's populism does not seem to be conceived, but something that lies in his genes if not his memes, in that he appears like a bully, and it is this un-presidential-like that his fans love. It is somewhat reminiscent of what journalist Simen Ekren said about Berlusconi's popularity in Italy: "He is perceived as good entertainment."

And we can not forget that Trump is a famous TV star as host and host of his own show The Apprentice, where he fired everyone who failed to act like a money changer. The easiest thing would have been to answer the question: What is populism? And then «Donald Trump». But then one should also include the Brazilian president, the Hungarian prime minister, the Philippine president, among others, as well as the American democrat Bernie Sanders, maybe even the party leader in the Center Party…


Agora is a journal of philosophy, humanities and social sciences that has been published in Oslo since 1983. Agora publishes extensive thematic issues within a wide range of topics, with emphasis on literature, philosophy and politics. The editorial staff currently consists of Lars Bugge, Oscar Dybedahl, Stein Sundstøl Eriksen, Frode Hel land, Janicke S. Kaasa, Kaja Schjerven Mollerin and Geir O. Rønning.

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