Populism is like sesame seeds: It can be an ingredient in every kind of political mole sauce, for the convenience of whoever is using the term. For a long time, populism has not been used much as a noun; it has been converted into an adjective, but beyond that, into an insult, as Chantal Delsol relates in her book “Populisms: A Defense of the Indefensible.”
As discussed in the classic “Dictionary of Politics” of Bobbio and Mateucci, Ludovico Incisa cautions that populism is not a doctrine, but a syndrome. A conceptual or theoretical framework for populism has not been worked out. Populism can be right-wing as well as left-wing, authoritarian as well as democratic. Latin-American populism can be associated with welfare-state governments and with military governments (from the Cardenism of Mexico to the Peronism of Argentina).
“Populism tends to ideologically permeate discourse during periods of transition, particularly during the acute phase of industrialization (or today, of globalization). It offers a point of cohesion and stitching together, and at the same time a point of focus and consolidation, with more demonstrations and rallies; populism tends to be presented as a homogeneous formula for national circumstances,” Ludovico Incisa concluded in the “Dictionary of Politics.”
Populism is used today to criticize the Hugo Chávez model in Venezuela, as well as the Fujimori model in Peru, the López Obrador model in Mexico, as well as the Donald Trump phenomenon in the United States. Populism is confused with xenophobia and even with anti-globalism. It is used by leaders of the masses, as well as by opinion leaders.
It is a term that favors elitism or oligarchy in politics (the big decisions are made by the minorities, not by the majorities). It is assumed that those who criticize it are superior because they aren’t “populists.” And it is supposed that the populists worship the people and their decisions.
There’s no way out of the labyrinth of the term when it is confused with fascism or authoritarianism, when we mean “demagoguery” and say “populist,” when we confuse cronyism with populism, or when we speak about a socialist or social-democratic model of the welfare state and call it “populist.”
Enrique Peña Nieto walked into this labyrinth in his most recent press conference with his counterparts Justin Trudeau of Canada and Barack Obama of the United States.
The tangle occurred when a journalist asked the Mexican president if he thought that Donald Trump was like Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini — that is, if the tycoon with the orange toupee could be a new phenomenon, a fascist like Mussolini, or a Nazi-fascist like the German.
And Peña succumbed to his own confusion, or fell into his own trap. Maybe he was really thinking not about Donald Trump but about López Obrador.*
Peña repeated part of his speech at the United Nations. He criticized the appearance “of politicians, of political leadership, that assume populist or demagogic positions, seeking to eliminate or destroy all that has been built up, that has taken decades to build up, to go back to problems of the past.”
“They are selling easy solutions to the world’s problems, but things aren’t that simple,” he added. This was the phrase with which Barack Obama agreed.
Twenty minutes later, the U.S. president started a discussion. He said:
“I care about poor people who are working really hard and don’t have a chance to advance. And I care about workers being able to have a collective voice in the workplace … And I want to make sure that kids are getting a decent education … And I think we should have a tax system that’s fair.
“Now, I suppose that makes me a populist,” he concluded.
In effect, Obama was referring to the general confusion between populism and the welfare state, or to the new crusade by the U.S. right to criticize Obama as a socialist because he is a proponent of this type of public policy.
“Somebody … [doesn’t] suddenly become a populist because they say something controversial in order to win votes. That’s not the measure of populism. That’s nativism or xenophobia or worse. Or it’s just cynicism,” Obama concluded. And, winking at his country’s domestic politics, he said that Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders “genuinely” deserves the title of populist.
The U.S. president moderated his insulting tone with respect to the term “populist,” and put it into context in the debate about public policy and the election campaign in the United States.
So what is Trump? A media populist? A white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, little Hitler? A bundle of cynicism and contradictions? A simple opportunist who is capitalizing on the social discontent of millions who have been excluded from the American dream? A Reality Man who insults, backs off, then returns to get our attention?
This is worthy of further analysis, and not just a response by Peña Nieto in the unpromising setting of a press conference.
*Translator’s note: Andrés Manuel López Obrador was the unsuccessful candidate for the Mexican presidency for the Party of the Democratic Revolution coalitions in 2006 and 2012.