Patrick Cockburn: Pluto-Populism

The stench of corruption is strong everywhere while their governments become more authoritarian and seek to maximise their control of the media.

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

Cross-posted from Counterpunch

File:President Donald Trump with Prime Minister Boris Johnson.jpg

As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain

A curious feature of commentary on the travails of Boris Johnson is that his supporters and critics both claim that he is a unique phenomenon. He is “different from other politicians” say TV and radio commentators seeking to explain his survival in office after scandals and policy disasters. But this reputation for Houdini-like skills possessed by him alone is entirely undeserved.

What is striking about Johnson’s personality and career is, on the contrary, how similar they are to those of other populist nationalist politicians who have risen to power around the world, mostly within the last decade. These include Viktor Orban in Hungary, Narendra Modi in India, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Donald Trump in the US, to name but four, who all sing similar political tunes and behave in a similar way.

Bombastic nationalism is a common feature, as is the exaggeration of threats at home and abroad (immigration and the EU in Britain; migrants on the Mexican border and Iran in the US; Muslims in India; migrants and foreign influencers in Hungary).

The stench of corruption is strong everywhere while their governments become more authoritarian and seek to maximise their control of the media. Not for nothing are these regimes sometimes described as “pluto- populist”, with the plutocrats usually getting what they want by way of tax breaks and contracts, though the big promises made to the victims of globalisation and de-industrialisation are commonly unfulfilled.

Populist-nationalist administrations are degraded and societies are divided – divisions that the Johnsons and Trumps of this world manipulate to their own advantage. None of them pay a price for illegality or failure.

Today we got away with [it],” wrote Martin Reynolds, Johnson’s private secretary after one more drunken revel in Downing Street at the height of lockdown. This could be adopted as an all-purpose slogan by Johnson – as it could by Modi, Bolsonaro, Trump and Orban.

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  1. Short and not very analytical. Cockburn, like so many establishment figures, clearly loves the EU – that entirely undemocratic, neo-liberal institution, with such characteristics enshrined in unchangeable treaties. Furthermore, migration into the UK is at all time high levels. Europe is wonderful in so many ways; as are its people. Dislike for the EU does not translate to dislike of Europe and Europeans. As for Boris, he is a serial liar, exhibitionist, showman. He has proved good at the requirements for getting votes, but appears not to have the day to day skills required for good government – but then look at the opposition; the dispossessed and anyone truly left wing or with half a brain will never vote for Starmer and his slimy right wing crew. What Cockburn should be considering is not the creeps who take/try to take advantage, but the plight of those who are taken advantage of, and why they so desperately seek solutions with those creeps.

  2. Cockburn bundles together quite different populists. Orban and Modi could be seen as similar in their racial uniformity appeal – just like Israel. Boris and Trump are alike but have a totally different appeal to the above – the dispossessed are notracially uniform, but form a class group. Bolsonaro is in some respects similar to Boris/Trump, but is really just a degree or so away from the typical right wing South American dictators. The term Populist is being overused and abused.

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