The wrath of Populism

    FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump takes questions during the coronavirus response daily briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S., March 19, 2020. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

    Tista' taqra bil- Malti.

    The term ‘populism’ was self-assigned by the now-defunct People’s Party in the US during the late 19th century. The People’s party was a left-wing agrarian party promoting collective economic action by farmers. In the 1920s the term was introduced into the French language to describe a group of writers who showed sympathy towards ordinary people.

    More recently this fluid style of politics was ascribed to Donald Trump, in the US, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson in the UK, Matteo Salvini in Italy, Viktor Orban of Hungary and many others who made it to the hall of infamy.

    There is no clear definition of populism as it lacks a coherent set of political ideas or policies. Pope Francis himself admitted that “This is a word that I had to re-learn in Europe, because in Latin America it has a different meaning.”

    Away from getting lost in finding the most fitting definition, there are common characteristics amongst these so-called populist movements and their leaders.

    Who are the ‘Populists’?

    Populist leaders generally possess larger than life egos and present themselves as the people’s champions. Their public addresses and social media messages are plagued with anti-establishment and nationalistic sentiments.

    They promote divisiveness, claiming that on one side there are the “good people”, and on the other side of the fence there are the “corrupt class” or the “dangerous others” and “bigots”. Other sound bites include “we return the power to you” and “one nation”. They appeal to the fears, insecurities, lack of knowledge and dispense lofty promises.  They favour secularism, to promote pseudo-equality principles. They charm people who mostly feel that mainstream politics has done nothing for them and feel that they are threatened by the wave of immigration.

    Their political programmes are almost non-existent.  Instead, they favour references to the past and cultural loss or national identity.

    The lack of space for reflection, a sense of despair and the absence of social imagination-driven primarily by social media have given rise to this form of making daily politics.

    The Jesuit Bartolomeo Sorge, who was the church’s leading expert on politics, in a book published last year “Perche il Populismo Fa Male al Popolo” deems that what gave rise to these populist movements was the political, economic and social crisis. This, he concludes, has led to a social climate that is plagued by aggressiveness and divisiveness. We have witnessed the incendiary and divisive addresses by Donald Trump in the recent US elections.

    Populists call independent journalists, whose sympathy cannot be bought, “traitors of the people doing lasting damage to democracy”.

    Religion as a tool

    The use of religion is simply a divisive tool, like explicitly removing Islam from Europe. It is simply a cultural factor and not a set of values. Months before the 2016 US election, a fake news website masquerading as a local television station posted a story that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump for president. We have also seen ‘exhibitions of faith’ of Matteo Salvini kissing the rosary beads and Donald Trump holding the Bible following the racist murder of George Floyd!

    Contrastingly, in his latest encyclical, ‘Fratelli Tutti’ Pope Francis encourages fraternity as the “inalienable dignity of each human person regardless of origin, race or religion, and the supreme law of fraternal love” and condemns populist movements as “they seek popularity by appealing to the basest and most selfish inclinations of certain sectors of the population”.

    The recent US presidential election knocked out populist politics.  However, we cannot avoid the reality of these movements. People are disillusioned with ‘the establishment’ for a reason. Politics should be there to serve the common good and not the personal interests of politicians and their close associates.

    Pope Paul VI often stated that “politics, though often denigrated, remains a lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity”.

    Politicians must listen to the public, hear their concerns, respect dissenting views and combine sound and realistic policies with an equally compelling vision, and promote the common good and inclusivity.