Resolute Square

The New Wave of Fake Populists Who Serve Elites While Claiming to Stand for the People

Ruth Ben-Ghiat writes: "Strongmen scams recur throughout authoritarian history, not least because they are at the heart of autocratic personality cults that celebrate the leader as a man of the people." Sound familiar?
Published:December 7, 2023
Share

Published with the generous permission of Ruth Ben-Ghiat. Read all of her outstanding writing in her Lucid newsletter.

By Ruth Ben-Ghiat

The recent election of Javier Gerardo Milei as Argentina's president adds another member to the tribe of fake populists. These are politicians who claim they represent "the people" against exploitative elites and foreign interests, but who often form part of that same cosmopolitan elite class. Fake populists often vaunt credentials of national purity and launch campaigns to "drain the swamp" (a term invented by Benito Mussolini), but their "anti-corruption" campaigns often target those who might reveal their thievery.

Such strongmen scams recur throughout authoritarian history, not least because they are at the heart of autocratic personality cults that celebrate the leader as a man of the people. Speaking in the plain and blunt language of the truth-teller, such individuals pose as one of us, us being the pure expression of the nation unadulterated by foreign origins or "globalist" affiliations.

Former president Donald Trump played this game well. A 2017 study found that his speech patterns matched those of fourth-graders, and the touching misspellings and capitalizations of his tweets, which shouted "notice me!," helped to create his populist profile. Indian leader Narendra Modi's I-am-everyman Instagram persona serves the same purpose.

So. Many. Modis. An Instagram personality cult. Instagram.

Of course, that everyman is also the man above all other men, a dynamic being admired for his worldliness and glamour. Yet the faux populist presents any superior knowledge and wisdom he has gained in his life journey as benefiting the nation by preparing him for his mission of making his country great (again). Put differently, unlike the elites who prey on the nation and do the bidding of unsavory foreign-linked forces, his expertise will be applied to repairing the nation's ills.

The Wharton-educated billionaire and international capitalist Trump followed this tradition. Trump is one of the biggest "globalists" out there, given that the business model of the Trump Organization long included laundering money for foreigners and licensing his name abroad. As American Kleptocracy author Casey Michel told me, Trump is the first leader “to emerge globally, at least in a Western jurisdiction, from the supply side of [kleptocratic] services."

Numerous cabinet officials of his America First administration, such as Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross (who did business with Vladimir Putin's son-in-law) and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, were deeply enmeshed in networks of international capital.

Nor did owing millions to Chinese and German banks and being bankrolled by Russians (as per Eric Trump's declaration) prevent Trump from styling himself as the man who would end America’s exploitation by foreigners and corrupt elites. "Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it," said Donald Trump to his credulous audience as he accepted the GOP nomination in 2016, after arriving on a mist-filled stage like a rock star.

An everyman, and a man above all other men. Trump at the Republican National Convention, 2016. CNN.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki also embodies the fake populist brand of hypocrisy. "As long as the Law and Justice government is in power, Poland is like an unconquered fortress," Morawiecki declared during the recent election campaign in Poland. Since coming to power in 2015 he has stoked fears around immigration and foreign influence and asserted himself as a defender of authentic Polish values.

Morawiecki's attacks on globalists ring hollow given that he is a wealthy multilingual international banker with multiple foreign degrees. He represented Spanish banking giant Santander's interests in Poland for many years. Unsurprisingly, foreign influence has increased in Poland during his time in office, if you count influence exercised by capitalist elites. Chinese investments boomed during Morawiecki's time in office, for example.

And contrary to party propaganda, non-White immigrants are welcome if they fill the pockets of Law and Justice-friendly government officials. Revelations of a visa-selling scheme that allowed over 100,000 African and Asian workers to enter Poland helped Donald Tusk's Civic Coalition to victory in the recent elections. As elsewhere, the authoritarian politics of national purity hides corruption on a grand scale. 

As for Milei, the double-digit victory of "chainsaw man," as he has become known after carting around a prop to dramatize his intention to slash public spending, marks another win for fake populists.

Javier Milei and his chainsaw at a campaign rally in Buenos Aires, Sept. 25, 2023. Tomas Cuesta/Getty Images.

It is too early to know what Milei will do in Argentina. Like Trump and Morawiecki, he comes from outside politics. But his borrowings of Trump's slogans ("Make Argentina Great Again”), profane speech, rogue profile, and politics of threat are familiar, as are his rants against the "caste" of "corrupt politicians, businessmen, bribed journalists." . The chainsaw, deployed to indicate that drastic action is needed to help an economy plagued by inflation rates as high as 185%, is also a weapon.

Libertarians the world over will recognize his proposals to dismantle regulatory and other government agencies and drastically cut public services. He has even talked about abolishing Argentina's central bank, although this is likely a proposal designed to drive media attention. For in a classic fake populist move, Milei has appointed Luis Caputo, the former head of that central bank, and a veteran of JP Morgan and Deutsche Bank, as head of his economic transition team.

If one adopts Trump’s logic (which Milei seems to do), Milei is the ideal man to “fix the system.” Before he entered politics, he headed a large private pension fund and also spent 13 years as an advisor to billionaire Eduardo Eurnekian, one of Argentina's richest men. Who better than a billionaire’s advisor to pose as the authentic voice of the have-nots?

If history is any guide, the solutions he implements will be sure to safeguard elite privilege. Promising radical change for the many, while preserving the wealth and power of the few, is how faux populists operate.

Related

  • Dominance in Politics Matters
    The Enemies List

    Rick Wilson's The Enemies List

    Dominance in politics matters, clearly, but how do we have strong leadership without authoritarianism? In this episode Rick speaks with political scientist Steven Fish, discussing his new book, "Comeback: Routing Trumpism, Reclaiming the Nation, and Restoring Democracy's Edge." They dive into the dynamics of political dominance, the importance of strong leadership, and the failures of current Democratic messaging. Fish argues that Democrats need to reclaim patriotic symbols and adopt a more assertive and emotional approach to connect with voters. The conversation covers the need to highlight achievements confidently and ridicule opponents effectively to counter authoritarian figures like Trump. Steven's book, "Comeback: Routing Trumpism, Reclaiming the Nation, and Restoring Democracy's Edge, available now.
    June 10, 2024
  • Strategy Session: Deny. Deny. Deny with guest Steven Beschloss
    Strategy Session

    Strategy Session

    Steven Beschloss, one of the essential voices in the pro-democracy fight, sat down with Rick, Joe, and Stuart to talk about the GOP strategy of denial - from the 2020 election results to the jury's verdict. In case you hadn't heard, it was GUILTY on all 34 felony counts. Just thought we'd mention that. The four discussed the GOP war on elections, the rule of law, decency, and democracy - and the work we'll have to do post-2024 even after Biden wins. We're glass half full here at Resolute Square!
    June 4, 2024
  • The Great Reaction (1968-2024)
    Brian Daitzman explores the rise of white-reactionary authoritarianism, political repression, economic inequality, and heightened racial tensions that characterized a transformative period in U.S. history.
    May 30, 2024
  • Being Emperor Means Never Having To Say You Didn't Win
    What's the difference between Nero at HIS Olympics in 67 and Trump at HIS golf course 1,957 years later? Robert McElvaine on losers who declare themselves winners.
    March 28, 2024
  • Progress vs “Push ’Em (Us) Back—Way Back!”
    Robert McElvaine highlights the stark contrast between President Biden's SOTU and the opposition party's response and ambitions, “'Take America Back' means take the nation back from women, people of color, LGBTQ+ people, non-“Christians,” and so on. Back to the days when the United States was 'a white man’s country.' Back to before the revolutionary changes that took off in 1964.as well as the GOP's dangerous alignment with authoritarianism."
    March 14, 2024