Scholar Michael Lee suggests that a populist leader succeeds by rhetorically defining his or her national community by both its supposedly "shared characteristics" and its inevitable common "enemy," whether Mexican "rapists" or Muslim refugees, much as the Nazis created a powerful sense of national selfhood by excluding certain groups by "blood." In addition, he argues, such movements share the desire for an "apocalyptic confrontation" through a final "mythic battle" as "the vehicle to revolutionary change."
Although scholars like Lee emphasize the ways in which populist demagogues rely on violent rhetoric for their success, they tend to focus less on another crucial aspect of such populists globally: actual violence. These movements might still be in their (relatively) benign phase in the United States and Europe, but in less developed democracies around the world populist leaders haven't hesitated to inscribe their newfound power on the battered bodies of their victims.
For more than a decade, for instance, Russian President Vladimir Putin, a reasonable candidate for sparking this wave of populism, has demonstrated his famously bare-chested version of power politics by ensuring that opponents and critics meet grim ends under "mysterious" circumstances. These include the lethal spritz of polonium 210 that killed Russian secret police defector Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006; the shooting of journalist and Putin critic Anna Politkovskaya outside her Moscow apartment that same year; a dose of rare Himalayan plant poison for banker and Putin nemesis Alexander Perepilichny in London in 2012; a fusillade that felled opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in downtown Moscow in 2015; and four fatal bullets this March for refugee whistleblower Denis Voronenkov on a Kiev sidewalk, which Ukraine has denounced as "an act of state terrorism."
As an Islamist populist, Turkish president Recep Erdogan has projected his power through a bloody repression of, and a new war with, the country's Kurdish minority. He portrays the Kurds as a cancer within the country's body politic whose identity must be extinguished, much as his forebears rid themselves of the Armenians. In addition, since mid-2016, he's overseen a wholesale purge of 50,000 officials, journalists, teachers, and military officers in the aftermath of a failed coup, and in a brutal round of torture and rape filled Turkish prisons to the brim.
In 2014, retired general Prabowo Subianto nearly won Indonesia's presidency with a populist campaign of "strength and order." In fact, Prabowo's military career had long been steeped in such violence. In 1998, when the authoritarian regime of his father-in-law Suharto was at the brink of collapse, Prabowo, then commander of the Kopassus Rangers, staged the kidnapping-disappearance of a dozen student activists, the savage rape of 168 Chinese women (acts meant to incite racial violence), and the burning of 43 shopping malls and 5,109 buildings in Jakarta, the country's capital, that left more than 1,000 dead.
During his first months in power, newly elected Philippine President Duterte waged his highly publicized war on the drug trade in city slums by loosing the police and vigilantes nationwide in a campaign already marked, in its first six months, by at least 7,000 extrajudicial killings. The bodies of his victims were regularly dumped on Manila's streets as warnings to others and as down payments on Duterte's promises of a new, orderly country.
And he wasn't the first populist in Asia to take such a path either. In 2003, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra launched his "red shirt" movement as a war on his country's rampant methamphetamine abuse. In just three months under Thaksin's rule, the police carried out 2,275 extrajudicial killings of suspected drug dealers and users, often leaving the bodies where they fell as a twisted tribute to his power.
Such examples of populist political carnage and the likelihood of more to come -- including what Donald Trump's presidency might have in store -- raise certain questions: Just what dynamics lie behind the urge toward violence that seems to propel such movements? Why does the virulent campaign rhetoric of populist political movements so often morph into actual violence once a populist wins power? And why is that violence invariably aimed at enemies believed to threaten the imagined integrity of the national community?
In their compulsion to "protect" the nation from what are seen as pernicious alien influences, such populist movements are defined by their need for enemies. That need, in turn, infuses them with an almost uncontrollable compulsion for conflict that transcends actual threats or rational political programs.
To give this troubling trend its political due, it's necessary to understand how, at a particular moment in history, global forces have produced a generation of populist leaders with such potential compulsions. And at the moment, there may be no better example to look to than the Philippines.
During its last half-century of bloodstained elections, two populists, Ferdinand Marcos and Rodrigo Duterte, won exceptional power by combining the high politics of diplomacy with the low politics of performative violence, scattering corpses scarred by their signature brutality as if they were so many political pamphlets. A quick look at this history offers us an unsettling glimpse of America's possible political future.
Populism in the Philippines: the Marcos Era
Although now remembered mainly as a "kleptocrat" who plundered his country and enriched himself with shameless abandon (epitomized by the discovery that his wife possessed 3,000 pairs of shoes), Ferdinand Marcos was, in fact, a brilliant populist, thoroughly skilled in the symbolic uses of violence.
As his legal term as president came to an end in 1972, Marcos -- who, like many populists, saw himself as chosen by destiny to save his people from perdition -- used the military to declare martial law. He then jailed 50,000 opponents, including the senators who had blocked his favored legislation and the gossip columnists who had mocked his wife's pretensions.
The first months of his dictatorship actually lacked any official violence. Then, just before dawn on January 15, 1973, Constabulary officers read a presidential execution order and strapped Lim Seng, an overseas Chinese heroin manufacturer, to a post at a Manila military camp. As a battery of press photographers stood by, an eight-man firing squad raised their rifles. Replayed endlessly on television and in movie theaters, the dramatic footage of bullets ripping open the victim's chest was clearly meant to be a vivid display of the new dictator's power, as well as an appeal to his country's ingrained anti-Chinese racism. Lim Seng would be the only victim legally executed in the 14 years of the Marcos dictatorship. Extra-judicial killings were another matter, however.
Marcos made clever use of the massive U.S. military bases near Manila to win continuing support for his authoritarian (and increasingly bloody) rule from three successive American administrations, even effectively neutralizing President Jimmy Carter's human rights policy. After a decade of dictatorship, however, the economy began to collapse from a too-heavy dose of "crony capitalism" and the political opposition started to challenge Marcos's self-image as destiny's chosen one.