Two years ago, the political scientist Matthijs Rooduijn announced that 'Populism is sexy.' Click Here. Since Trump's election victory in 2016, its excessive use in media and academia has rendered the word essentially meaningless. Academics and pundits multiply its different meanings as structural, economic, ideological, political-institutional to name just a few. The meanings of populism are too variable for it to contribute anything to current debate besides confusion.
Nevertheless, I am going to risk adding to this confusion by appealing to a new 'sexy' variety - Bullshit populism.
What is Bullshit populism?
The philosopher Harry Frankfurt defined 'bullshit' by contrast with lying. Click Here Liars know they are lying. They care about the distinction between truth and falsehood. Their intention is to advance their interests by deceiving others. But they can only do this if they keep the true/false distinction clearly in mind, knowing which is which.
Bullshitters simply do not care about the true/false distinction. Their intention is to make others believe whatever they happen to say at any given time. What the bullshitter says may be true. But that isn't the point. The point is to persuade others to believe it, truth or falsehood be damned!
A common, if not universal feature, of populism is its dependence on a charismatic leader. But what if this leader is a bullshitter? Commentary on the former Trump presidency often insisted that Trump was a bullshitter, caring little or nothing for the truth as long as he persuaded his popular 'base' of voters. Frankfurt himself contributed to his commentary. Bullshit populism is in part a function of charismatic leadership by a bullshitter.
But that is not all. It is also a function of how the popular base responded to his bullshit. Confronted with patent absurdities - 'I have the best memory ever' - or by fact checkers demonstrating many, if not all, of his assertions are false, many Trump supported simply appeared to not care.
Such an appearance of not caring may be misleading. Trump's supporters might ultimately care about the truth. However, they are victims of a dominant culture of bullshit resulting from social media. Such a culture demands everyone have an opinion on everything. Whether any of us know what we are talking about is beside the point. The new media landscape socially pressures all of us to become bullshitters to maintain our status or prestige. Everyone assumes everyone else is just 'pulling it out of their asses.'
Bullshit populism is thus charismatic leadership by an arch-bullshitter appealing to a popular base predisposed to believe that it is all just bullshit anyway. If it is all bullshit anyway, then we might as well go with whoever sounds persuasive to us based on our unexamined prejudices.
Is Bullshit populism a threat to democracy?
This question is obviously prompted by the January 6 storming of the US Capital building motivated by Trump's bullshit claims of electoral fraud; claims thoroughly debunked by fact checkers from multiple agencies claiming adherence to truth. The academic literature on populism distinguishes it from Mussolini-style fascism: raising a mob to storm legislative buildings, terrorizing elected officials into conformity with the demands of a 'mob.' Was January 6 a case of bullshit populism crossing over into fascism?
According to the political philosopher Jason Stanley, 'bullshit' is adequate to explain the momentousness of the event - an attempted American insurrection. He appeals instead to the category of propaganda. Click Here. Like bullshitters, propagandists care little for the truth. Unlike bullshit, however, fascist propaganda defines a new political reality, authoritarian rather than democratic.
Dismissing Trump as mere bullshitter misses the point of such propaganda, flipping the value systems of American voters to that of the leader. Those appealing to the explanatory value of bullshit underestimate voter susceptibility to authoritarian rhetoric and fascist propaganda.
Nevertheless, Stanley misses the point. A healthy liberal democracy ultimately depends on a public culture of skepticism and critical thinking. It depends on voters resisting going with whatever sounds persuasive and instead Socratically examining their own prejudices.
The historian Timothy Snyder argues societies become vulnerable to flipping over into tyranny when citizens lose respect for the facts. Click Here. Bullshit is a threat to democracy because it erodes their critical capacities to evaluate their leaders by distinguishing truth from falsehood.
Propagandizing citizens into switching their value systems from democratic to authoritarian becomes so much easier when enough of them have ceased to care about this distinction.
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