Out of the Graveyard: the Return of the Pluto-Populists

Photograph Source: The White House – Public Domain

It is chillingly appropriate that this Halloween takes place as populist nationalist demagogues, once deemed politically dead and buried, are rising from their graves everywhere.

The dark forces responsible for their resurrection differ from country to country, but there is no denying the mass resurrection of some of the most toxic politicians on the planet.

In the US, Donald Trump was never actually in his political grave, despite losing the presidential election and his role in the 6 January Capitol riot. But four out of 10 Americans still approve of him, according to the polls, and he retains his grip on the Republican Party. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro has pulled level with his opponent Lula da Silva as he seeks re-election as Brazilian president. In Italy, Silvio Berlusconi is wrangling over his future position in a government led by a quasi-fascist.

The end of the Liz Truss premiership

Until Thursday, it seemed that Britain was one of the few countries in the world which could pride itself on having democratically ended the career of Boris Johnson, its own representative in the populist nationalist pantheon. Instead, the extraordinary end of the Liz Truss premiership has given Johnson a good chance of being back in 10 Downing Street come 31 October.

The return of Johnson, if it happens, would be more astonishing than the survival of Trump, Bolsonaro and Berlusconi as political players. Tory MPs forced him out as prime minister because of serial scandals and the calamitous loss of two by-elections that threatened a massacre of the Tory MPs in the next general election.

Who could have predicted that Truss would prove herself even more of a political Jonah, whose continuance in office threatened the very existence of the Tory party? Yet one should not be too surprised since Johnson’s career has always had a comic opera Gilbert and Sullivan feel to it as characters declared dead in one act – I am thinking of the Mikado – emerge alive and kicking later in the play.

Incompetence and corruption

The absurdities of Johnson, Trump, Bolsonaro and Berlusconi are a diversion from trying to analyse how this gruesome quartet ever gained power in the first place and have been able to make comebacks despite appalling records of incompetence and corruption. The phrase “populist nationalist” is a little misleading and a better one might be “pluto-populist”. Trump supporters at the Republican convention in 2016 described him ludicrously as “a blue-collar billionaire”.

In reality, the tax breaks and contracts for the plutocrats turn out to be real and the levelling up agendas, be they in West Virginia, North Yorkshire or Southern Italy, evaporate after election day.

Another useful phrase for this type of right wing leader is “Gonzo politician”, because it gives central importance to their relationship with the media. I quoted before a study in Foreign Policy magazine, titled “We’re All Living in Berlusconi’s World Now”. In it, Tobias Jones argues that this process started in Italy 30 years ago, saying that “objectivity, and fidelity to the facts, seemed to dissolve in the 1990s. Gonzo journalism – subjective, deliberately dissolute and excitedly coarse – had given way to gonzo politics.”

A cheeky chap who appeals to the working class

Johnson is quintessentially a Gonzo politician of this kind, ostensibly a cheeky chap who appeals to the working class and creates a coalition between the “Red Wall” and the Tory shires. Except that this is something of a myth since analysis shows that the Tory success in winning in Labour seats in 2019 was largely to do with Brexit and had very little to do with Johnson’s popularity.

Yet, it’s easy to see why Tory MPs, donors and activists might imagine that Johnson is their one hope of avoiding electoral slaughter come the next general election.

Many Remainers will see the present crisis as Brexit chickens finally coming home to roost. And they are largely right. The political and economic centre of gravity has been rising in Britain ever since the Brexit vote. But it was Liz Truss’s Great Leap Forward which finally capsized a structure that was already unstable. The sheer silliness of Truss’s belief that she could cut taxes, primarily for the rich, borrow the money to do so, and expect automatic growth to follow is still breathtaking.

But, as so often in history, it is the truly stupid moves, be it Saddam Hussein invading Kuwait in 1990 or Vladimir Putin doing the same in Ukraine in 2022, that are difficult to predict.

A trade war waged against ourselves

The Brexit vote was Britain’s “Ukraine moment”. By putting up trade barriers between itself and its largest market, Britain became, as has been pointed out, one of the first countries to declare a trade war against itself. The economic self-harm was obvious, but Remainers tended to underestimate the pursuit of self-determination as a legitimate political force that could not be rebuffed by proving that the grievances and goals of the Leavers were exaggerated or illusory.

In many ways, the Brexiters have proved more damaging than Brexit as they seek to use it as a vehicle for their own agendas such as that of Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng. But there are plenty of other weird people who have risen to the top of the Tory party in recent years willing to pretend that they have the formula to put things right. The Gonzo generation is still on the march in Britain, as it is in other countries.

A further piece of damage done by Brexit is that it is a diversion from governmental failings that have nothing to do with it. One is the growth in corruption with senior politicians and civil servants using their positions to make millions. A low point of this was the billions made by those who were politically well connected during the Covid-19 pandemic. People say that there have been financial scandals in the past, but miss the point that once these were about tens of thousands of pounds while now they are about tens of millions. Ministers in Westminster are no longer surprised to be introduced to a Libyan warlord or an Uzbek oligarch.

Anguished regrets

The Tory candidates to be prime minister are all likely to claim that they are the unity candidate. Many pundits express anguished regrets that British politics are becoming as divisive as Italy with an equally swift changeover of prime ministers and ministers. But a more ominous parallel with Italy is that Johnson/Berlusconi type governments tend to do nothing at all because they have made too many contradictory promises to too many people.

Not all the news is bad. Countries that change their leaders too often are a lot better than countries like Russia or China that cannot change them at all. Nevertheless, ceaseless political turmoil in Britain – as in the US, Italy and Brazil – ultimately opens the door to autocratic solutions.

In Memoriam

I was writing this newsletter last week when I glanced at my phone and saw an item that said Robbie Coltrane had just died. Once I knew him well because we were exactly the same age and arrived at the same moment at Trinity College Glenalmond, a public school outside Perth in Scotland. We sat at desks a few feet away from each other in the junior common room of Patchell’s House and always got on well together.

Robbie, whose non-stage name was Robbie McMillian, later said that he was unhappy at school and perhaps this was the case. But I cannot say that I noticed that Robbie was particularly miserable because, on the contrary, he was always ebullient and full of enthusiasms – when I first met him his passion was for big lorries whose virtues he would describe to me in great detail.

His father, to whom Rob was close, used to take us out for lunch in Perth and talk about his experiences as a police doctor in Glasgow. I remember him talking about going to the site of a stabbing where the victim, who had been knifed in the stomach, was lying on the ground. His burly assailant, who had been arrested. was standing nearby and Dr McMillan asked him why he had done it. “He called me fatty,” said the man, as if this was an adequate explanation for what he had done.

Both father and son relished stories like this, emphasising the grittiness of Glasgow compared to the less proletarian Edinburgh, whose supposedly more refined accent Robbie would often imitate with expressions of contempt.

Cockburn’s Picks

The bid by the Conservative and Labour parties, BBC and much of the media, the civil service, and almost everybody else to pretend that Brexit has not been a gross mistake is breaking down. The best summary of the nature of this slow-burning disaster that I have seen is in this simple but authoritative account.

Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).