To quote Oscar winner Peter Finch in the movie 'Network', 'I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!' Not a bad summary of the anger that has dominated global politics over the last 18 months. There are at least three contributing factors to this groundswell of disaffection, each of which has been simmering for decades, but which seem to have simultaneously boiled over during this political cycle.
One is growing income inequality and the sense that the 1% has rigged the economy in their favour. From steelworkers in Ohio blaming a mill closure on US trade policy, to civil servants in Greece watching austerity destroy their pensions, the common refrain is that, although globalisation may have lifted tens of millions out of poverty in China and India, it's been at the cost of stagnating incomes in the developed world. The evidence suggests this anger is well-founded. In 1970s America, a 30-year-old had a 90% chance of making more than their parents at the same age. In 2016, that number had fallen to only 50%.
The second contributor is anger directed at cultural drift and the feeling that society is changing faster than people can adapt. From gay marriage, to aggressive political-correctness, to an embrace of multiculturalism, there are many people who've seen the certainties that anchored their worldview vanish before their eyes. This yearning for simpler, better times doesn't need to be rooted in overt racism, homophobia or xenophobia. Instead, it's the fear that the England John Major evoked in his famous quotation of Orwell as 'a country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers, pools fillers, and old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist' has been replaced by something alien.
Further out on the spectrum of fear is the conviction that we're engaged in what Samuel Huntington called 'a clash of civilisations', in which the foundations of Christian Western society are under attack from radical Islam and other existential threats. This ground is occupied by a broad coalition of white supremacists, anti-Semites, and ultra-nationalists spewing vitriol and conspiracy theories. It's also the basis on which you see Steve Bannon and other members of the Trump administration cosying up to Putin, because they view Russia as a natural ally in this global fight against Islamic Jihad.
One difficulty in understanding the prevailing sense of anger and fear is that specific policy issues like US immigration and the future of the EU can conflate all three factors. For some, an Arabic-speaking worker in New Jersey is just taking the job of a 'real American'. For others, his hijab-wearing wife is an affront to their 'Brady Bunch' conception of American society, and the more paranoid may fear he could be part of an ISIS sleeper cell.
Likewise, a Romanian taxi driver in Leicester can personify everything from a loss of sovereignty to rampant economic migration, to an explanation of why the English soccer team is a perennial disappointment. One clear failing of mainstream politicians over the last few years has been their instinct to lecture anyone who challenges the orthodoxies of globalisation and social liberalism and chide them for their prejudiced and retrograde views rather than trying to really understand their motivations.
We've also done a poor job of creating a taxonomy for explaining how this anger is manifesting itself in specific political movements. Words like fascist, authoritarian and populist get thrown around, but to lump Bernie Sanders in with Donald Trump as a populist is not only to be loose with language, but also to fail to identify where the real threat to our democracy lies.
Sanders's presidential campaign focused on only one of the factors identified above: the visceral sense of economic betrayal. While he did make common cause with Trump against both Wall Street and global trade, he was clearly on the opposite side of the debate on cultural and immigration issues. Sanders's European equivalents are Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece; political movements trying to address the inequality, structural unemployment and general sense of economic malaise in southern Europe, while trying not to demonise anyone, except maybe the German and Eurozone technocrats imposing austerity on them.
The far more dangerous response to the rejection of politics as usual is the emergence of true populism in the form of regimes that look a lot more like Hugo Chavez's Venezuela than typical Western democracies. For all his clown-like behaviour, this is the real danger of the Trump administration. His campaign built a winning coalition by tapping into all three sources of anger. His 'Great Wall', his vilification of trade, his disdain for multilateral organisations, and his central promise that he would 'Make America Great Again', all became Rorschach tests for the diverse anxieties of primarily older white Americans. Once elected, the hope was that Trump would be normalised by the office. Instead he's now governing the way many feared he would – as a true populist.
Princeton politics professor Jan-Werner Muller has offered a clear definition of what populism actually means. His central thesis is that populism is by its nature anti-democratic and anti-pluralist. The populist claims that he and he alone represents the homogenous and always admirable 'real people' in their fight against corrupt elites.
In Trump's convention speech he even used the phrase 'I alone can fix it'. Any opposition from other politicians or the press is therefore illegitimate, because it is by definition undermining the will of 'the people'. In contrast, true democracies are pluralist and founded on an ongoing debate between contrasting viewpoints. Policy choices are settled at the ballot box, but then relitigated at the next election. Disagreements get heated and personal, but they’re legitimised by a system that protects dissenting views and within which there is a reasonable expectation of rotation of power.
On this definition, although Bernie Sanders was clearly anti-elitist and anti-establishment, he wasn't a true populist, in that he wasn't looking to subvert the democratic process. Trump on the other hand has wasted no time in resorting to 'enemy of the people' rhetoric to try and marginalise the mainstream press. He even had one of his top aides Stephen Miller claim that 'the president's power is not to be questioned'. Quite a contrast to President Teddy Roosevelt who said that 'to announce that there must be no criticism of the president is not only unpatriotic and servile, but morally treasonable to the American public'.
By criticising the judiciary and targeting the administrative state for dismantling, Trump is also rejecting any bureaucratic or procedural barrier to implementing his change mandate. To burnish his populist credentials he's also brazenly claimed a majority mandate, tweeting in November that he had 'won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally'. When challenged on these lies, his response is simply to invoke popular support, not facts: 'Let me just tell you what's important, it's that millions of people agree with me'. That is how populist power subverts truth.
In Britain, Brexit supporters also drew on all three sources of fear and anger, and then cloaked the result in populist rhetoric, with Nigel Farage calling it 'a victory for real people'. As Kenneth Roy has pointed out on these pages, we now have a situation where a relatively small minority of the British population has appropriated a mandate that can't be challenged by the courts, the press, or politicians, because doing so would constitute a subversion of the popular will.
In continental Europe, the most worrying example of rising populism is Hungary, a country that has been sliding towards a one-party state since 2010. Prime minister Viktor Orbán now refuses to debate other politicians based on the logic that 'the alternatives in front of us are obvious. We all know what needs to be done'. He has also crafted an overtly racist constitution that talks about 'proper Christian Hungarians', yet felt no obligation to put that constitution to a referendum, because he alone embodies national sentiment.
Elections are still held in Hungary, but the apparatus of democracy has been compromised, with the cowed media adopting an obsequious tone and barely concealed graft buying off those who might have the power to resist. Unfortunately, Hungary is not an isolated case. A similar trend is emerging in Poland, where the Law and Justice party has been targeting the judiciary as 'enemies of the people' and talking about opposition politicians having 'treason in their genes'.
It's important to clarify that populists are not the same as authoritarians, who dispense completely with the trappings of democracy like a constitution and elections. Instead populists hijack and corrupt the machinery of democracy to suppress dissent. Often they don't even try to hide it. Trump's embrace of alternative facts, his brass neck regarding his tax returns, and his obvious conflicts of interest are tolerated by his supporters because he 'one of us' working against 'them'. Ultimately, the risk is that this type of democratic erosion gradually leads to the real authoritarianism we see in Putin's Russia and increasingly Erdogan's Turkey. Countries where populist rhetoric is combined with a concentration of all political, economic and cultural power and the violent suppression of any opposition.
So what's to be done? The upside of Trump and Brexit may be that they force the traditional political establishments to think hard about why broad swathes of the population think politics is broken and as a consequence politicians might stop treating the disaffected as a bunch of angry nutters to be scolded and patronised.
One implication is that all three sources of anger need to be taken seriously. Income inequality is at historic highs and social mobility is declining in almost all developed countries, so we need to figure out whether the post-war economic consensus around things like free trade should in fact continue, and whether we need to start thinking seriously about redistributive mechanisms like a guaranteed minimum income for all citizens. It also means grappling with tough social issues like what it actually means to be British, American, Hungarian or even Scottish. Even left-wing utopians don't believe that the entire global population should be a single political entity, so lines do need to be drawn.
The hard question is whether those lines should have an ethnic or cultural dimension and touch on things like Islamic dress code or bilingual teaching in schools. Unless we are going to just dismiss the fears and anxieties that have characterised the last 18 months, ultimately many countries in the West are going to need to rethink their social and economic contracts in a way that can attract true majority support again.
Another clear lesson from the recent political earthquakes is that the 'basket of deplorables' demonisation doesn't work, instead it just stokes the anger and reinforces the sense that political elites are out of touch. Legitimate leaders like Trump with populist tendencies need to be replaced through traditional means before the system decays to the point where that becomes impossible. Resisting populism means hard work, inclusive representation, and a respect for ideas, even those ideas you find offensive and wrong. It also means being vigilant about protecting the machinery of democracy, such as voting rights, press freedom, and judicial review.
It may seem alarmist to conjure the ghost of a political Christmas future in which the US, France and the UK look like Hungary or even Russia, but the signs are worrying. Recent research published in the Journal of Democracy showed that in America support for the statement that it would be good or very good for 'the Army to rule' rose from one-in-16 in 1995 to one-in-six in 2014. The uncomfortable truth is that true democracies around the world appear to be on a slippery slope, and that we may in fact be in danger of losing our footing.