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

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.


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