Populism Vs The People

Supporters of Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn share an aversion to journalists — and the truth

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Does it? Trump’s supporters are convinced the media are conspiring against them (Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 2.0)

Here is a typical example of how politics is discussed in the echo chambers of the West. Two-thirds of the electorate are “dissatisfied with the way the country is working”. They know the differences between the mainstream parties are faked, and are in revolt against a “bipartisan rigged system in league with special interests”. The media are as much a part of the fraud as the powerful they are meant to scrutinise. They regard ordinary folk as “barely civilised” and “never treat them fairly”.

As it happens, this denunciation of establishment control comes from one Thomas Lifson, an admirer of Donald Trump and editor of a magazine entitled The American Thinker (somewhat misleadingly if Mr Lifson’s efforts are a guide).

With the tiniest of tweaks it could have been delivered by a follower of a dozen or more movements in North America and Europe. Supporters of Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen, Nicola Sturgeon, Law and Justice in Poland, UKIP, the Tory Right and Jeremy Corbyn in England, and the Putin propagandists in Russia, agree on all its essentials.

The identity of the rigged system shifts according to geography and ideology. For French, Dutch, Polish or British nationalists, it is an EU which forces immigrants and refugees on the natives.  For Trump and the Daily Mail, it is the politically correct liberal elite which imposes its cosmopolitan anti-racism on the whites. For Scottish nationalists it is the old Westminster parties which want to do down the plain people of Scotland, and for the post-socialist Left it is neo-liberalism using its anti-democratic wiles to deny us real political choices.

Populism’s presumption is breathtaking. If Trump truly speaks for two-thirds of Americans, he should be heading for a crushing victory. At the time of writing, he looks as if he is about to become the greatest loser in modern US history. The Corbyn Left in Britain, meanwhile, is a populism that shows no interest in people. The party is everything to its adherents, the voters nothing at all.

Equally, it makes no more sense to talk of a monolithic media than it makes sense to employ that demagogic category of “the people”. There are vast differences between the declining number of journalists who report for a living. We are not united on anything. In any case, Twitter and Facebook have made everyone a reporter of sorts. In the 21st century the elite media has been replaced by two billion online voices.

Yet the idea of the “media” both as an institutional bloc and establishment puppet has grown as actual media have declined and fallen. It is a fantasy villain that plays the roles of populism’s enabler, target and alibi.

You cannot reduce social movements to changes in communications technology. Nevertheless, it is foolish not to accept that the fascination declining US television stations have with the ratings-boosting Trump helped him win the Republican nomination, or that Twitter and Facebook are not enabling fringe groups to go mainstream everywhere.

Not that Trump shows any gratitude. He mirrors all other populists by hating news reporters. Just as Scottish nationalists, the Daily Mail and English leftists target BBC journalists, so Trump has banned the Washington Post and Politico from his events for producing well-researched, impartial news stories. Susan Glasser, editor of Politico, said Trump was trying to stop independent coverage of the campaign, and stepping “on the basic rights of journalists to exercise their constitutionally protected role in our political system”.

So Trump is, but his petulance is not the greatest problem for journalists, who want to haul us back from the post-fact world. Anyone who argues with modern populists in an old newsroom, on social media or in person must have noticed that they are not interested in debate. There is an answer to every doubt that always reduces to variations on a critic’s corruption. If a journalist or opinion pollsters produce evidence, they are bought or biased. Everyone is lying — everyone except them.

One of the least mentioned features of populism is how few attempts its supporters make to persuade others to join their movements. Their propagandists strive to keep the faithful in line, not to secure converts. On the British Left, which I know best, the only writers who attempt to give a plausible account of Corbynism are Paul Mason and Owen Jones of the Guardian, and outsiders will struggle to find a compelling case for joining up even in their work.

From what I have read of the right-wing American press, the same applies to the Trump movement. You can’t be a half-convinced populist, it appears, any more than you can be a part-time virgin. You must commit to the whole package, its ecstatic hopes and paranoid explanations, or walk away. The media must always be a conspiracy because like a deus ex machina it will eventually be required to explain away defeat. If they lose, the supporters of Trump, Corbyn, Le Pen and Wilders will never accept that they lost because of their own ugliness and stupidity. The media will have defeated them by brainwashing the sovereign, if remarkably gullible, people.

The spread of conspiracy theory presents a potentially insoluble difficulty for evidence-based journalists, whether they report for a living or worry about hard facts on their social media timelines. However imperfectly, journalism relies on the hope that rational debate can take place in the public square. Basic facts will be acknowledged. Opponents will not always be dismissed as liars. This common ground for argument is falling away across the West, and its loss presents a far greater challenge to honest reporting than blacklists for political correspondents or Twitter hate campaigns against reporters. Any halfway decent journalist can cope with them. We cannot cope with the knowledge that the minds of large sections of the public are closed, and nothing we report or discover will ever open them.

Perhaps Trump and Corbyn will lose. You should never be complacent, but they both seem to be heading for comprehensive defeats. One day, however, someone like them will win and we must expect wholesale assaults on freedom of speech and of the press to follow. We can see them foreshadowed in the attacks on the BBC from the Tory Right, the Labour Left and the SNP, and in Trump’s belief that he can ban his way out of criticism.

There will be worse to come. Movements that cannot be honest about themselves will never tolerate others speaking honestly about them.