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Tomgram: Alfred McCoy, Would-Be Strongmen Worldwide

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: With today's post and the first announcement of Alfred McCoy's new Dispatch Book (coming this fall), you can finally see the full range of the TD book publishing program for 2017: John Feffer's unsettling dystopian novel Splinterlands, John Dower's powerful look at The Violent American Century, and McCoy's upcoming In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power (which can be pre-ordered). My hope is that TomDispatch readers will set aside a little bookshelf space for our growing publishing program and make sure to pick up copies of our books. That will help keep us going, while these volumes, like the posts at this site, are guaranteed to offer you frameworks for reconsidering our American world in ways you will seldom find elsewhere, certainly not in the mainstream of this culture.

Note as well that, for a contribution of $100 ($125 if you live outside the U.S.), signed, personalized copies of Splinterlands and also of Jon Else's powerful new book on the civil rights movement, True South, are still available at our donation page. Check it out! Tom]

Whatever the relations may or may not have been between Donald Trump and his crew and Vladimir Putin and his crew, here's one thing that the two presidents do not have in common: popularity. According to polls, Putin's approval rating was at 82% late last year. In his 17-year reign, he's never fallen below the 60% mark, and when his figures did drop modestly, his military-first projection of Russian power in the Crimea and then Syria turned things around. Trump, on the other hand, barely squeaked to victory last November without even winning the popular vote -- you remember all those undocumented aliens, millions of them, who snuck into the polling booths! -- and his approval rating recently hit a distinctly non-Putinesque 36% in a Gallup poll, a figure unique for American presidents in their "honeymoon" periods and below all-time lows for, among others, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Dwight Eisenhower, and even Gerald Ford.

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And if we're talking about the rest of the global roster of right-wing populists TomDispatch regular Alfred McCoy focuses on today, things don't look much better for The Donald. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, for instance, who has loosed his country's police in a brutal killing campaign that's littered Filipino urban landscapes with the bodies of thousands of drug pushers and users, stood at an 83% approval rating in January, down from his September 2016 high of 86%. Unfortunately for Trump, in the wake of the recent Obamacare fiasco, there's no obvious way to recover domestically, no less soar to the heights presently reached by the Russian and Philippine strongmen. He does, however, have at his command something that neither Putin, Duterte, or any other populist figure can call upon: a military unparalleled on the planet --- and don't for a second think that, if things continue going this badly, it won't cross his mind that creating his own "Crimea" might have certain plusses, that "bombing the sh*t" out of distant enemies (rather than murdering pushers at home) might perk up those polling figures a bit. Taking out enemies, as McCoy makes clear, is an eternally popular way for such politicians to make their mark. The only problem: if the U.S. military is unparalleled in its destructive power in these years, it's also had an unparalleled inability to bring any conflict it enters to a positive conclusion or, as Trump puts it, to start "winning wars again."

It's a record that would worry any populist looking for advantage and it's part of a larger historical record, now including the election of Donald J. Trump, which should bring the word "decline" (as in the decline and fall of...) to all our lips. Alfred McCoy has had that very word on his mind for a while. His timely new Dispatch Book, In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, will be published this fall at a moment when all of this may seem far more obvious. In the meantime, on our increasingly fragmented, seemingly degrading planet, he does something you don't often see and groups the whole crew of global populists of our moment in one place to consider just what we should make of their rise -- and our potential fall. Tom

The Bloodstained Rise of Global Populism
A Political Movement's Violent Pursuit of "Enemies"
By Alfred W. McCoy

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In 2016, something extraordinary happened in the politics of diverse countries around the world. With surprising speed and simultaneity, a new generation of populist leaders emerged from the margins of nominally democratic nations to win power. In doing so, they gave voice, often in virulent fashion, to public concerns about the social costs of globalization.

Even in societies as disparate as the affluent United States and the impoverished Philippines, similarly violent strains of populist rhetoric carried two unlikely candidates from the political margins to the presidency. On opposite sides of the Pacific, these outsider campaigns were framed by lurid calls for violence and even murder.

As his insurgent crusade gained momentum, billionaire Donald Trump moved beyond his repeated promises to fight Islamic terror with torture and brutal bombing by also advocating the murder of women and children. "The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families," he told Fox News. "They care about their lives, don't kid yourself. When they say they don't care about their lives, you have to take out their families."

At the same time, campaigning in the Philippines on a law-and-order program of his own, Rodrigo Duterte, then mayor of a remote provincial city, swore that he would kill drug dealers across the nation, sparing nothing in the way of violent imagery. "If by chance that God will place me [in the presidency]," he promised in launching his campaign, "watch out because the 1,000 [people executed while he was a mayor] will become 100,000. You will see the fish in Manila Bay getting fat. That is where I will dump you."

The rise of these political soulmates and populist strongmen not only resonated deeply in their political cultures, but also reflected global trends that made their bloodstained rhetoric paradigmatic of our present moment. After a post-Cold War quarter-century of globalization, displaced workers around the world began mobilizing angrily to oppose an economic order that had made life so good for transnational corporations and social elites.

Between 1999 and 2011, for instance, Chinese imports had eliminated 2.4 million American jobs, closing furniture manufacturers in North Carolina, factories that produced glass in Ohio, and auto parts and steel companies across the Midwest. As a range of nations worldwide reacted to such realities by imposing a combined 2,100 restrictions on imports to staunch similar job losses, world trade actually started to slow down without a major recession for the first time since 1945.

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The Bloodstained History of Populism

Across Europe, hyper-nationalist right-wing parties like the French National Front, the Alternative for Germany, and the UK Independence Party won over voters by cultivating nativist, especially anti-Islamic, responses to globalization. Simultaneously, a generation of populist demagogues either held, gained, or threatened to take power in democracies around the world: Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Recep Erdogan in Turkey, Donald Trump in the U.S., Narendra Modi in India, Prabowo Subianto in Indonesia, and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, among others.

Indian essayist Pankaj Mishra recently summed up their successes this way: "Demagogues are still emerging, in the West and outside it, as the promise of prosperity collides with massive disparities of wealth, power, education, and status." The Philippine economy offered typically grim news on this score. It grew by an impressive 6% annually in the six years before Duterte launched his presidential campaign, even as a staggering 26 million poor Filipinos struggled to survive on a dollar a day. In those years, just 40 elite Filipino families grabbed an estimated 76% of all the wealth this growth produced.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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