Another incurable, ugly disease: Far-right populism

The year 2016 has been scarred by a persistent contagion – the resurgence of far-right populism.

A supporter of U.S. President-elect Trump gestures during a "Thank You USA" tour rally in Baton Rouge
Trump denies harbouring any sympathy for the wretched political pathogen he has helped resuscitate and foment, writes Mitrovica [Reuters]

Scientists have successfully fashioned a vaccine that may inoculate the world against future outbreaks of Ebola – an ugly, insidious and incurable disease. News of the life-saving breakthrough comes as a relief for a few obvious and not so obvious reasons.

First, of course, the vaccine will be a tangible tool to finally avert the slow, merciless deaths of countless people and the courageous souls who tend to the gravely sick in parts of the world where preventable death remains, sadly, all too common.

The vaccine is also powerful testament to the quiet, deliberate work of good people, armed with knowledge and perseverance, who set about to confront a modern-day pestilence and conquer it.

Taken together, word of the Ebola vaccine is a desperately needed – if only a temporary – tonic to the deluge of bad, hope-sapping news that has been a singular aspect of 2016.

A more serious disease

This past year has been marked, or more accurately, scarred by another persistent contagion – the resurgence of far-right “populism”, which has infected nations on disparate continents on such a scale that we’re confronting what constitutes, in effect, a hate pandemic.

The use of the benign-sounding term – “populism” – has had the largely intended effect of diluting the sinister character of a malevolent “nationalist” crusade defined by hate, ignorance, intolerance and an incoherent allegiance to flamboyant demagogues who not only embrace these qualities, but embody them.

“Alt-right” is another more palatable phrase in vogue these days to describe the dangerously unpalatable nexus of xenophobia, overt racism, and anti-intellectualism that has metastasised like an ugly, insidious and incurable disease.

Whatever the genial label, United States President-elect Donald Trump is the global movement’s titular leader given the outsized attention he attracts and deftly exploits to generate more attention and disciples.

Absurdly, Trump denies harbouring any sympathy for the wretched political pathogen he has helped resuscitate and foment. His long, now familiar ledger of notorious deeds and words, however, indict him.


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to redress the gaping gulf between rich and poor and to defend the besieged ‘working man’ against well-entrenched financial forces are another appealing myth.”]

So do many of his loyal, fervent supporters, who not only share but also revel in their often profane attachment to Trump’s signature illiteracy, jingoism, and, above all, naked bigotry.

Predictably, there have been attempts – including by “progressive” voices – to absolve Trump voters of their culpability in not simply extolling, but violently channelling the odious beliefs of a racist they have elected president.

And by any objective measure, Trump is a racist. His racism is plain to see and hear. To suggest that Trump voters were motivated principally by their sense of alienation from, and objection to, a “rigged” political and economic system – although inviting – strikes me as conveniently exculpatory.

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To accept this reasoning is to argue implicitly that Trump’s supporters are deaf and blind to his overarching, racially infused message that America’s “greatness” can only be recaptured if the white establishment reasserts its primacy over the social, cultural, economic, and political life of the US.

The necessary corollary to this is that America’s greatness is being thwarted by racial and ethnic groups – insert Hispanics or African-Americans here – who drain or rob the country of its defining entrepreneurial spirit by gaming the immigration and social welfare systems.

In this daft context, Muslims and refugees pose an even greater, existential threat to America’s future prosperity and wellbeing. As such, they are suspect and must be monitored and, if need be, barred from entering the US, lest they conspire to destroy it from within.

Global epidemic

Who Trump is, though, and what he represents is not a new, or a peculiarly US phenomenon.

A cursory grasp of US history reveals the legacy of fear of the “other”, hate, discrimination, and an abiding sense of exceptionalism that informed and spawned a rabid reactionary like Trump.

Trump adroitly tapped into these impulses with the enthusiastic aid of a still dominant “elite” media that is obsessed with polls and celebrates stupidity and celebrity, thirsts for real or manufactured conflict and has traditionally promoted racist caricatures of Muslims and Arabs because it’s good for business.

The proof of this is that in the lead up to and during the presidential election, the growing disparity between the uber rich and perpetual poor, climate suicide and a litany of other substantive issues merited little, if any, notice.

Instead, the campaign “coverage” featured a daily diet of cheap, vacuous sloganeering about walls and bans, infantile tit-for-tat insults and recriminations, all the while providing a megaphone to a cavalcade of made-for-TV white nationalists such as Anne Coulter.

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Ominously, this “nationalist” virus has mutated far beyond the US’ increasingly insular borders – in some cases before and, in others, after Trump’s ascendency.

Faux “populists” are on the advance in much of Europe, including, in particular, Britain, France, the Netherlands, Austria, Hungary, and Poland, where – fuelled by the tabloid press – a rogue’s gallery of Trumpian facsimiles such as Geert Wilders have achieved similar notoriety and success with the same “anti-elitist” anti-immigrant rhetoric, coupled with blatantly bigoted appeals to rid their countries of parasitic outsiders.

Invariably, the attendant promises made by these charlatans to redress the gaping gulf between rich and poor and to defend the besieged “working man” against well-entrenched financial forces are another appealing myth.

The Brexit vote was, arguably, a by-product of a cynical chorus of suspicion, lies, and fabrications engineered by nationalists who were determined to preserve the British “way of life” in the face of a refugee “invasion”. It turns out, the vote was a disturbing harbinger of what was to come in other parts of the globe.

Lately, Canada’s happy face has been disfigured by its own slightly muted variation of Trumpism. A number of candidates vying for leadership of the opposition Conservative Party have parroted Trump’s noxious modus operandi to raise money and their profiles in the service of their parochial interests at the expense of the public interest.

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On cue, Canada’s tabloid media has rallied to these myopic candidates’ calls for a values test for would-be immigrants and their supporters’ chants to “lock up” disagreeable female political opponents.

In the Philippines, the “populist” president, Rodrigo Duterte, has dispensed with silly chants to imprison his adversaries, instead boasting of encouraging the extra-judicial killings of thousands of alleged drug-traffickers.

The mass killings, Duterte says, earned him the praise, not surprisingly, of Trump during a phone call in early December where the bombastic pair pledged to repair their nations’ fractured relationship.

As this horrid year comes to a blessed close, we should take some solace in knowing that the ebb and flow of history has proved that time for Trump and his equally rancid “populist” acolytes will inevitably pass.

In the meantime, it is up to the rest of us to resist and limit, as best we can, the damage that will surely be done.

Andrew Mitrovica is an award-winning investigative reporter and journalism instructor.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.