5 ingredients for a populist backlash

American populism according to Niall Ferguson.
In this recent talk he explains what is needed for ‘peak populism’ to get hold of America, as we see happening now. The context is set by four ingredients: 1) a surge in immigration 2) rising inequality 3) the perception of corruption 4) a financial crisis. Add a fifth ingredient, a demagogue, and the recipe starts to work.

Trump, as phenomenon, is not unprecedented. Ferguson takes us back into (populist) history to demonstrate that we always underestimate populist messages. America has been here before. According to the Stanford historian the United States of Amnesia needs better memory, because there are important lessons to learn:

  • Globalization can be undone, politically. In late 19 the century populist achieved a significant roll back of globalization (as happened from the US to Australia).
  • Populist get into legislatures, but never became president. Trump is the exception.
  • Populism is not per se belligerent. We have trouble seeing that, because there’s always a tendency to link populism to fascism. It is not the same.
  • Populism is a very finite political phenomenon. In the USA it peaked end of 19th century, and faded after after 1900 because the solutions proved to be nothing more than snake oil. It is always short term – normally a decade.
  • The left, Democrats in this case, needs to reinvent itself. Throughout history, progessivism has been the antidote. With one catch: paradoxically it was the progressives that gave the world World War 1.

Conclusion: Populist tend to fuck up everything domestically, but keep out of wars internationally. Liberals do it exactly the other way round.

Ferguson ends on a sarcastic note suggesting to his progressive audience that their worst nightmare is not a Trump presidency, it’s a successful Trump presidency. Just imagine Trump traveling to Moscow and making peace in Syria with Putin. It could just be happening.

For the sake of comparison, read President Obama’s view on the Way Ahead. He signals a paradox in the fact that the world is more prosperous than ever before, yet our societies are marked by uncertainty and unease. Since he sees the presidency as a relay race that requires all to do their part to bring the country closer to its highest aspirations, he asks the question: So where does my successor go from here?
Obama’s suggestions are: boost productivity, decrease inequality, increase employment, build a resilient economic system leading to sustainable financial growth.
Fat chance Trump will have the same priorities.