Who Pulls the Strings of the American Populist Revolution?

In a recent analysis published by Le Devoir, Fabien Deglise argues that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was the principal “collateral victim of Trump’s legal troubles.”

Indeed, we will add, even if its purpose is to announce legal proceedings against former President Donald Trump, Trump has orchestrated a mobilization of the media that has enabled him to gain an advantage over his closest rival for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination in 2024.

So, the case is clear: Each time Trump seems to have made a blunder that would bring him down, the opposite occurs. By a sort of spirit of clannishness, even those who would be tempted by the Florida governor rally instead behind the orange figure of the martyr, perceived as someone who is being persecuted by “the system,” pursuant to a demagogue-populist strategy.

Particularly with the support of the conspiracy and antivax movements, Trump has managed to change the narrative within American political discussion. It’s the famous “culture war,” as described in the 1990s by sociologist James Davison Hunter in his 1991 book “Culture Wars. The Struggle to Define America.”

So, although we often hear about the woke orthodoxy that takes precedence in the media sphere (excepting, evidently, Fox News) and campuses, the fact remains that from a structural-legal point of view, it is the conservatives who dominate political life, as evidenced by the series of decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court in recent years.

Kafkaesque Discourse

For its part, the French weekly newspaper Franc-Tireur notes that certain Democrats seem to have watched and learned and now also mobilize the Trump approach with regard to his seemingly surreal discursive strategy.

The contender for the helm of the Democratic Party, Robert Kennedy Jr., the son of Robert F. Kennedy, doesn’t go in heavy-handed, as an old sports coach might say. Using the powerful symbolic capital linked to his prestigious patronym, he not only argues that the flu shot is 2.4 times more deadly than COVID-19, and, the cherry on top, that the American government has contaminated the water to turn frogs gay!

Delirium? Flights of fancy?

Not quite. These narrative approaches are productive, as Kennedy gained more than 1 million subscribers on social media during the health crisis and, above all, the support of the ultimate conspiracy theory guru, the powerful Alex Jones, as well as certain figures within the Republican Party.

Engineers of Chaos

But more rational minds wonder how we got to this point.

The answer can be partially found in “The Engineers of Chaos,” an excellent 2019 essay by Italian political scientist Giuliano da Empoli. Made popular by his recent novel, “The Wizard of the Kremlin” (a finalist for the 2022 Goncourt Prize), da Empoli wrote an essay investigating the technomaniacs who redefine the rules of the political game, thanks to their mastery of “Big Data,” coupled with their strategy for ultra-profitable polarization in electoral matters.

“Behind the unbridled appearances of the populist Carnival lies the hard work of dozens of spin doctors, ideologues and, increasingly, scientists and big data experts, without whom populist leaders would never have come to power,” da Empoli wrote.

In the dock we have Dominic Cummings, the director of the Brexit campaign; Steve Bannon, who greatly contributed to Trump’s election and who is working to consolidate an international populist presence to combat the global elite party of Davos as a counter-example to George Soros’ model; English blogger Milo Yiannopoulos, thanks to whom transgression has changed sides; and Arthur Finkelstein, a gay Jewish man aligned with ultraconservative Catholic Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

Substantively, the strategy is no longer to unite the lowest common dominator, “but rather, to inflame the passions of the greatest number of small groups and add them together, even without their knowledge.” So, these political strategists from the shadows knew long before the others how to get with the times and seize the changes caused by the arrival of algorithms, moving from the margins to the center of the system.

Da Empoli traces the genesis of this group to the events leading to the Five Star Movement in Italy and its pyramid leadership. The movement profited from Tangentopoli — the judicial revolution which dethroned the ultra-corrupt Italian political class of the 1990s — by creating a strong anti-elite sentiment, allowing media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi to create his platform by affirming that only businesspeople could produce wealth and not the idle political class.

Today, algorithms are so effective that the same party can be indignant about both Facebook publications on violence against animals and condemn restrictions on hunters. All without sympathizers for one camp or the other knowing it.

“The central promise of the populist revolution,” da Empoli told us, “is the humiliation of the powerful, and that it will be fulfilled the moment that they obtain power.”

They haven’t even scratched the surface.

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