In his editorial from the August 2022 print edition of Byline Times, Peter Jukes explores the big new political battle shaping the world

With the assassination of the al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri by a US drone strike in Kabul, this July marked the end of an era. Al-Zawahiri was killed 21 years after he helped plan the attacks on the US Pentagon and World Trade Centre, and 11 years after his predecessor, Osama bin Laden, was shot dead in a US raid in Pakistan. Combined with the US retreat from Afghanistan last year, the period defined by 9/11 and the global ‘War on Terror’ appears to be coming to a close. What has replaced it?

For at least six years, the threat to democracy seems to have come less from violent non-state actors, but from the warring elites within some of the world’s largest democracies. Modi in India, Erdoğan in Turkey, Bolsonaro in Brazil and – of course – Trump in the US and Johnson in the UK show that the rise of authoritarian populism is no flash in the pan. 

Most of the disruption caused by this has been non-violent and has not spilled across borders. But the spike in violent far-right terrorism shows that the threats aren’t mere ‘culture wars’. And the populist Brexit project destabilised the EU just as much as Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ isolationism undermined NATO and the UN. 

The elevated threat this poses to the post-war rules-based order came into starker relief this February, with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Like Trump and Johnson, Putin invoked the language of ‘national sovereignty’ above international law in his justifications for the unprovoked assault – tying up his “special military operation” to ‘de-Nazify’ Ukraine with a wider global war on ‘cancel culture’. Some of his speeches could have been written by far-right ideologue and Trump campaign manager Steve Bannon (who claimed to have helped our outgoing Prime Minister write his).  

Though the six-month-long invasion has made Russia an international pariah, it has certainly not dented Putin’s popularity in Russia itself. In a sense, this is the ultimate success of authoritarian populism. So what is wrong with being popular? 

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The Limits of Populism

The problem with populism – an appeal to the majority for the sake of that appeal – is that it cannot keep its promises. One example of this mismatch between being ‘for the people’ but not actually helping them, is the higher level of Coronavirus deaths in countries led by populist authoritarians. 

Another came to me recently while watching the late 90s disaster movie Deep Impact – the precursor to the recent hit Netflix satire Don’t Look Up starring Leonardo DiCaprio. In both film scenarios, an asteroid is heading towards Earth with the potential to create an ‘extinction level event’. 

In the 1998 version, the US President – played by Morgan Freeman – co-operates with international scientists and governments across the world, to provide an active response and carefully thought-through back up plans. They don’t end up entirely diverting disaster, but a combination of collective action and individual initiative saves the planet from the worst and most people survive. 

In the 2021 remake, the US – led by a populist president played by Meryl Streep in the style of Donald Trump – panders to the media and her lazily sceptical voter base. The response is to either ignore the impending catastrophe (“don’t look up!”) or to somehow profit from it. The result is that the planet is destroyed and virtually nobody survives. 

The metaphor of climate change denial is all too clear, and the August 2022 print edition of Byline Times looks at the wider impact of the climate emergency, with a special investigation led by Nafeez Ahmed. As Nafeez points out, the rise of far-right politics is connected to the devastating impacts of climate change and its effect on migration. But, as always with populism, since it never addresses the real cause, the reaction is to blame minority groups or threatening ‘outsiders’ – migrants, asylum seekers, Muslims, terrorists.

Because populist policies are only designed to evoke outrage rather than solve problems, they provoke a spiral of ever-more disturbing narratives that soon turn against ‘insiders’ too: the ‘stab in the back’ by ‘enemies of the people’, ending in conspiracy theories about globalist ‘elites’ or an undefined ‘deep state’. 

Ultimately, this cycle of broken promise does threaten the ‘deep’ state – in other words, independent institutions, governance, and the rule of law. 

Because populism is so predicated on lies, the only way to maintain its mythic structures is to make sure reality never breaks through, and to keep a firm grip on the state so the spiralling authoritarian wrongs are never exposed. 

This is the trajectory writ large by Donald Trump’s incitement of the Capitol insurrection of 6 January 2021, in which he hoped to overturn the democratic vote for Joe Biden. There is also an echo of this in Boris Johnson’s constant challenges to parliamentary and police scrutiny over his time in Number 10. Both parties – the Republicans in the US and the Conservatives in the UK – now appear more or less wedded to this rhetoric of rule-breaking and cultural polarisation of their societies through the ‘war on woke’.

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The Possibilities of Pluralism

For all its disturbing trends, the rise of populism does remind us – like a photographic negative – of those elements which actually have made democracies succeed throughout the 20th Century, which can be summed up in one word: pluralism.

The danger of any democracy is always the tyranny of the majority and, as was witnessed in Germany in the 1930s or can be seen in Russia today, a popular movement with the support of more than 50% of the population can decide on a trajectory of repression, censorship, imperial war, genocide and widespread destruction. 

That is because the only thing that has made democracies function in the past is the combination of popular rule with the protection of individual and minority rights, especially when it comes to free speech and assembly; and clear, fair rules about the succession of power. 

In Xi Jinping’s China, in Putin’s Russia, and (almost) in Donald Trump’s America, the peaceful transfer of power has been broken, with ‘presidents for life’ equating the success of the state with their own lives and livelihoods. Britain is not exempt from this danger, as we face the third change of prime minister mid-term without a mandate from the electorate. 

Pluralism also guards us against the other knee-jerk reaction of the populists: demonisation of others to create ‘in group’-‘out group’ fears. Rising out of a fight against religious intolerance, pluralism is the only way to fight back against the sectarian divisions provoked by demagogues like Modi. 

As Hardeep Matharu explains in a profound and searching essay in these pages, the ‘culture wars’ seek to divide-and-rule by fixing individuals in mutually exclusive, and often mutually hostile, single identities – whereas the reality is we all have multiple, overlapping identities, and the pluralism we seek in society is actually a liberation of the pluralism and choice within us all. 

Finally, in the battle between pluralism and populism, whether metaphorical or literal, the former shows more signs of adaptiveness and strength.

In this month’s print edition, Tom Mutch explains how his journey to the frontlines of the Donbas in Ukraine began with his work on Arron Banks’ book, The Bad Boys of Brexit, and an investigation into how Russia may have intervened in the EU Referendum. We’ve seen the tense, litigious and expensive battles over allegations of Russia interference dominate our courts, with high-profile legal battles against investigative journalists like Carole Cadwalladr and Catherine Belton. 

But, more than anything, this struggle is playing out in real time, measured in human cost, on the frontlines of the war in Ukraine. Ever since the much smaller Ukrainian military forces managed to beat the much larger Russian Army in the siege of Kyiv, the power of pluralistic society collaborating with a wider European community of nations, has proved itself more powerful, blow by blow, than the top-down controlled dictatorial structures of Putin’s military and managed authoritarian democracy. 

The sinking of the flagship Russian Cruiser Moskva, the recapturing of the strategic Snake Island in the Black Sea, and the recent devastating explosions at the Saki Russian air force base in Crimea, show a depth of group ingenuity – not to mention collective motivation of a smaller force against a much larger one. 

With Russia having failed in its secondary objective to capture the Donetsk Oblast, Putin has moved most of his forces into a defence of Kherson –  the one large city which fell quickly during the initial invasion. This is looking increasingly like a trap, as there are only two bridges to supply his forces, and both have been badly damaged by Ukrainian rocket attacks.  

Whatever happens, the battle for Kherson will be a crucial turning point in this third phase of the war. If Putin loses and is forced to withdraw, his own domestic situation could well become precarious. And if so, for the people of Russia as much as those in Ukraine or the rest of Europe, the empty promises of populism will have been exposed once again by the wider forces of pluralism.

This article was published as an editorial in the August 2022 print edition of Byline Times. Buy your copy now

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