Ingeborg van Teeseling

The Popular Misconception of Populism

While we can question the acts of Trump and company, I contend that we’ve misread the rise of populism. In fact, I believe we should blame ourselves for confusing politics with entertainment.


Another day, another Trump-gaffe. Or so it seems. Recently, comedians were having a great time with “never fjorget” and for a while The Atlantic even had a “gaffe tracker.” It looks like Donald Trump just blurts out any old baloney that comes into his head, leaving us scratching ours. And it is not just Trump. The amount of crazies in power is multiplying by the day; and if they are not running a nation yet, they soon will be (Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in Holland, Pauline Hanson in Australia). So what is going on? And why do they all behave like they’re the last drunk evicted from the pub at 3:00 a.m.? Or more to the point: why do they get away with it?

Ben Moffitt is a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Government of the University of Uppsala, Sweden, and an Associate of the Sydney Democracy Network. So yes, he is part of “the elite,” and that is a good thing because we need them to figure out why we are in this mess and how to get out of it. A few years ago, Moffitt did research at the University of Sydney which was recently turned into a book titled The Global Rise of Populism. According to him, populists like Trump and Hanson (and many, many others) attract voters in the same way programs about celebrity train wrecks, like Keeping Up with the Kardashians, score in the ratings wars. They are not just entertaining, but they are full of bad manners: swearing, sexual bragging, flashy dressing, political incorrectness, lies. And they thrive on crises.

Like a drama series, they’ve got a cliffhanger at the end of every episode where it looks like the shit is now really going to hit the fan. This keeps it exciting and the audience coming back for more.

Trump’s “mistakes” are not mistakes at all, but carefully planned and choreographed actions aimed to keep us watching and on our toes. The media, Moffitt says, is always interested in performance, in polarization, in drama and emotion. So when Trump, or any other populist, says something scandalous, it gets reported. This way, the same media that Trump describes as the enemy of the people does great work promoting these crazy idiots. They give them free publicity and although it is bad press we all know that bad press is much better than no press at all.

Populism doesn’t have a fixed set of beliefs or ideas. It is about style and performance. Power comes not from what you say, but how you say it. It is not that these people lack substance. That lack is the substance.

Populism, according to Moffitt, is not a thing, but a style. Or, to be even more clear: it is a performance where the populist (Trump, et al) uses the media (the stage) to address the audience (the people). In order to get attention, you have to say ridiculous things, because otherwise people don’t listen. Old-fashioned politics is about compromise and that is an incremental, long-drawn-out process that mostly plays out behind closed doors. It is also boring and not something that gets the reality television ratings going. Most of us fall asleep whenever a conventional politician opens their mouth. We like a bit of crazy, a few shocks, a little laugh. We’d rather listen to Barnaby Joyce talking about dogs “buggering off” to the U.S. than Barnaby Joyce being sensible about agriculture.

If you look at populism across the globe, Moffitt says, you can see that it doesn’t have a fixed set of beliefs or ideas. In fact, it is not about content at all, but about style and performance. Power comes not from what you say, but how you say it. We like naughty, silly boys and girls for their entertainment value, but also because they remind us of who we would like to be if we had the guts. Also, they are stupid, therefore human, and therefore don’t look like politicians. And we don’t like politicians, because they are “they” and they rule our lives and tell us what we can and cannot do. They are like our parents, and like all children we are always looking for an opportunity to evade the rules. We feel that same inclination with the populists and that is why we vote for them. It is not that these people lack substance. That lack is the substance. The more idiotic they are, the more we applaud them. And the more their remarks cause a crisis, the more we love that too. At least it isn’t dull. At least it takes us outside of our own dreary little lives for a moment.

You only have to spend a few hours on YouTube to see that Moffitt has got a point. The Top 10 crazy Donald Trump moments, and its successor Another Top 10 crazy Donald Trump moments have got millions of hits. And that is interesting because these two actually analyze the crazy, so are not just laugh-out-loud funny. Nevertheless, they provide a reminder of the naughty that we apparently enjoy. Listen to the bravado: “I’m going to bomb the shit out of them, I don’t care,” or, “When you find the terrorists, you have to take out [as in: kill] their families,” and of course, “If Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her.” It all sounds like an ill-disciplined 14-year-old boy with bad manners who doesn’t care about decorum. Great! Lovely! Funny! In fact, we are a little jealous of the man who can say that he can “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and not lose any voters.” If we behave like that, we get sacked or sued or trolled or locked up, so good on him for getting away with it.

Also on The Big Smoke

So we think Rodrigo Duterte is hilarious when he describes the American ambassador in the Philippines as a “goddamn son of a bitch” and responds to European critique of his extrajudicial killings of drug suspects with “I don’t give a shit.” There are times that we would like to stick it to The Man as well and here is a guy who is doing it. Cool! David and Goliath; “You call that a knife? This is a knife.” Of course it is hot air, but it sure sounds good. Putin posing shirtless with bears, moose, tigers, and doing martial arts? What a man, what a man, what a mighty good man! Boris Johnson describing Hilary Clinton as “a sadistic nurse in a mental hospital” or writing limericks about the Turkish president sexually abusing goats? Let’s give the guy a job as Foreign Minister! Clive Palmer twerking? We have to have him in the Senate! Pauline Hanson diving a thousand kilometers from coral bleaching, but pronouncing the Reef safe? More votes to the girl, please! Jackie Lambie saying that “prostitutes are more honest, sincere, humane, compassionate and better bang for your buck than Senator Bernardi will ever be able to deliver”? Great line! Sarah Palin channeling a psychedelic poet while endorsing Donald Trump as President? Send her to Canada as ambassador straight away!

Do you know the saying about the people getting the leaders they deserve? Apparently, at the moment we deserve the crazies, the nutcases, the snake oil salesmen. We enjoy watching their vaudeville acts, their silly walks, their dirty jokes. Given the choice between rational, reasonable, pluralist, and unexciting on the one hand, and scary, dangerous, dictatorial, but stirring on the other, we go for the more risky choice every time. We are like hyperactive ADHD children: better to run and fall off the cliff than sit in your chair and think. We are doing this to ourselves. So let’s be adults for five seconds and say to our inner child: stop it! Get your kicks somewhere else!

Politics is not a game.

Anyone for Clue?




Ingeborg van Teeseling

After migrating to Australia from Holland ten years ago and being warned by the Immigration Department against doing her job as a journalist, Ingeborg van Teeseling became a historian instead. She is writing a book and runs Lifebooks, telling people's life stories.

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