A spectre is haunting Europe and America: the spectre of authoritarian populism.
We should be worried because its most successful 20th century embodiment was Adolf Hitler – until his destructiveness led to the deaths of millions.
Hitler claimed to be the true representative of the people against the politicians, the elites, the bureaucrats, the liberals, the Jews, the communists and every other potential threat to the nation. He maintained that, unlike most politicians, he was genuine and sincere and spoke from the heart. His politics was a kind of anti-politics because, he said, the Weimar politicians had betrayed the people.
Appeals to emotion, authenticity and ‘ordinary’ people lie at the heart of populism, which can be a precursor to more extreme ideologies, especially fascism. It presupposes that there are two dominant groups struggling for hegemony: ‘the people’ and the enemy – the corrupt, self-serving elites, experts and politicians who make up ‘the system’ or ‘the Establishment’, and any other group that is not ‘one of us’.
Populism is essentially anti-intellectualism and anti-reason, both of which are seen as the weaknesses of impractical elites. Culture, Hitler argued in Mein Kampf, is opposed to civilisation and superior to it.
“Civilisation means the application of reason to life”, he wrote, but opposed to this universal principle was what he called ‘life forces’. These were the ‘irrational impulses’ which were ‘more characteristic of the German mind’.
Populist politicians have included the late Iain Paisley, Nigel Farage, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Marine Le Pen in France. But none of them could be considered as extreme as Hitler. Or Donald Trump for that matter.
Now that Hilary Clinton’s health is a major issue, this notorious authoritarian populist could be elected America’s President in two months’ time, and we should be afraid, very afraid.
Trump actually admires Hitler.
In 1990 his ex-wife Ivana was reported to have revealed that he kept My New Order, a book of Hitler’s speeches in a cabinet near his bed. Hitler advised targeting the audience’s lowest common denominator, using scare propaganda, structuring an emotional speech for effect, and inciting rage.
Trump uses all these tactics in his speeches, and his utterances can be even more incendiary than Hitler’s.
This belligerent showman has said or implied that women should be punished for having abortions, Muslims should be banned from entering the United States, Mexican immigrants are rapists and murderers, most criminals are blacks or hispanics, and political opponents should be punched in the face or even shot (in the case of Hilary Clinton if she is elected).
Trump has also had a reputation of racism. Although there is no conclusive evidence, it has been alleged that his father was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and he himself has reportedly said that he hates black guys counting his money and that laziness is a trait in blacks.
In truth, there is nothing more fake than a politician who claims that he is telling it like it is and that he will give the people what they want. History demonstrates that all authoritarian populists in power commit the very sins of which they accuse elites. Indeed they become more sinister elites than the one they replace.
The irony is that so many hard-working or unemployed poor white Americans are putting their faith in a hate-inspiring, bigoted, demagogic charlatan who cares little for their concerns and more for the rich elite which he personifies.
If ‘making America great again’ means reasserting the power of wealthy white males at home and American militarism abroad, then the world should be prepared for daunting times ahead.
• Brian McClinton is a Director at the Humanist Association of Northern Ireland