LONDON – I am old enough to remember when the best thing about populism was that it was not popular. Nativism, in any form, did not hit many political bull’s-eyes. Economic protectionists didn’t win elections. Voters, even those concerned about immigration, based their choices on economic and welfare issues, which the media reported on with relative accuracy.
Today, however, we seem to be moving toward a different sort of politics. The most frequently cited examples are the United Kingdom’s vote last year to leave the European Union and Donald Trump’s presidential election victory in the United States. Both Poland and Hungary also provide worrying examples of politicians using nationalist and populist rhetoric to advance goals that reek of incipient authoritarianism.
Of course, there is a difference between the use of crude nationalism within actual authoritarian regimes and within democracies. Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin use nationalism to consolidate support, just like Western politicians might, but they lack democratic constraints and can all but ignore the rule of law.
Xi locks up his critics. Putin’s critics are often killed, though, if you believe Trump, the Russian security services have nothing to do with that. And, even if they do, Trump argued in a recent interview, it’s nothing to condemn. “There are a lot of killers,” Trump declared. “You think [the US is] so innocent?”