Populism is not characterized by a specific political agenda, nor is it directly tied to a particular side of the political spectrum. A populist calls for the abolition of certain institutions, such as government, and claims to represent the common working class — often the “silent majority”. They see the world as made up of only two types of people: the good and the corrupt.
Just as a populist sees the world as divided, they try to divide their country even further. They force the social elites to act against the public. They seek to disrupt social order.
From this description alone, it is evident that Donald Trump is a textbook populist. Whether it’s calling the media the “enemy of the people” or running his campaign on the mantra “America first,” it is clear that Trump has been dividing the American people from the moment he stepped foot onto the political pedestal. His inauguratory speech was a foolproof example of his populist ideology: he explained how under Obama’s administration, the “politicians prospered, but the jobs left,” and how “the forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer.”
Donald Trump is only one politician that sailed to power on a rising wave of global populism. Politicians from places such as the UK, France, the Netherlands and Germany have evoked historical, though rarely positive, change in their respective countries through populist strategies. One prime example of this movement is Brexit.
In a 2016 referendum, the UK voted to leave the European Union by a vote of 5.19% to 48.1%. The Leave campaign was driven by the idea that the public could “take back” their country, and their success will undoubtedly shape the course of European history. One of the campaign’s most vocal advocates, parliament member Nigel Farage, has said himself that “Brexit was the first brick that was knocked out of the establishment wall.” He is also an avid Trump supporter. Farage spoke at Trump rallies during the presidential campaign, and even said after the election that Trump’s victory was “Brexit times three.”
Another destructive example of populism in our modern world is the Philippines. The infamous President Rodrigo Duterte, who won the Filipino presidential election on May 9th, 2016, has become one of the most notorious global figures of our era for his vulgar statements and barbaric war on drugs, which has resulted in the death of over 12,000 people (and counting). During his campaign, Duterte slammed institutional aspects of Filipino society and culture, specifically the oligarchy. He claims to be fighting the “monster” that is their established government.
President Duterte is not only a populist but an authoritarian. Authoritarians rule through the unyielding obedience of their subjects, which is often enforced through sickening brutality. They have little regard for individuals and instead focus on their power, even if it means restricting the rights of their citizens. Authoritarian leaders from the past include China’s Mao Zedong and Germany’s Adolf Hitler. They can be characterized by their neglect of minority rights and the majority’s opinion. They dictate what their citizens can and cannot have. The discussion rarely goes beyond that.
The US has a strong set of rules that would make it nearly impossible to take away civil liberties such as freedom of speech, religion and of the press. No matter how much he dislikes it, and no matter how much he tries, Donald Trump would find it impossible to shut down the media outlets he deems “fake news” or to truly stop US citizens from practicing Islam. Our country’s constitution was specifically designed to shut down dictatorships before they are created, and while it is by no means perfect, it diffuses the danger of populism in the US. No matter how much one politician tries to shake up the establishment, the backbone of our country will remain intact. But many countries across the globe were not lucky enough to be built upon the same foundation of democracy. And the fact that it takes only a subtle shift in action to change a populist leader into a dictator is exactly what makes populism so dangerous.
Populist view basic civil liberties as unnecessary — “a needless obstacle to defending the nation from perceived threats and evils.” They often cannot accept that they are not the voice of their nation’s majority, and would rather sacrifice the truth than admit to being wrong. Populism has proven to provoke a dangerous amount of nationalism, disregard for political correctness and complete indifference to human rights. The more people express their “discomfort” with the growing diversity in their neighborhoods, the more they complain about not being in the majority anymore, the more their populist governments will listen to them.
And the more the government listens to xenophobism, the more Muslim bans we get.The more immigrants are unlawfully deported. The more women and LGBTQ+ people are assaulted and forced to remain silent. The more black teenagers are shot by police.
If we sit back and allow the global rise of populism, we surrender ourselves to a world that distains human rights. And we cannot allow that to happen.
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