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Tomgram: John Feffer, The Rising Tide of the Populist Right

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

The man who is the most unpredictable American president of all time lives in what is, if you stop to think about it, a remarkably predictable world. Each of his seemingly strange and unexpected acts, tweets, bizarre nominations, lies and misleading claims, rallies, gestures (or those of his circle of fawning officials, advisers, and family members) is promptly seized upon by a media desperate for eyeballs. All those cable news talking heads, all those reporters assigned to a presidency in numbers never before seen run with whatever he does as if there were neither a yesterday nor a tomorrow, as if there were nothing in the world but him and his cronies (and those who oppose him). The Mueller report, Attorney General William Barr's testimony before the Senate, his unwillingness to testify before the House, the latest phone conversation with Vladimir Putin or a Trump lawsuit, or... well, you name it. Though he calls the media the "enemy of the people," there's never been anything in our history like its collusion with him. In pure attention terms, can there be any doubt that the media he loves to denounce is his for the asking or that it's creating a bizarre cult of personality around him? In that sense, it's everything he ever wanted and it's now ineradicably fused to him and only him. Each of his acts plays out in a surging torrent of publicity, reportage, and a blizzard of tweets and social media attention. It's no longer the news as we once knew it, but a kind of continuous news seizure, a spasm of nothing but him.

It matters not at all that you could essentially have guessed what William Barr was going to say in that Senate hearing or that the president's strange acts are, in some fashion, curiously predictable and repetitive or that so much about the world he looms over remains similarly predictable. Even his popularity in the polls varies remarkably little, month by month, year by year, with his base eternally loyal and so many others outraged.

In such a world, always in your face, always in close-up -- and what a close-up that face of his is (reminding me, at least, of every belligerent father of the 1950s I ever knew!) -- it's hard to get perspective on much of anything. That's why John Feffer, author most recently of the dystopian novel Frostlands, is such a useful figure, whether in his weekly columns at Foreign Policy in Focus or, as today, at TomDispatch. He reminds us regularly that, whatever the evidence of our daily media lives, there's still a world out there, a planet distinctly in distress that needs thought and attention. Tom

The Threat of Political Climate Change
Countering the Bannon Archipelago
By John Feffer

In the Americas, the Trump tsunami has swept across both continents and the "pink tide" of progressivism has all but disappeared from the southern half of the hemisphere. In Europe, with the recent exception of Spain, the left has been banished to the political margins. In Africa and Asia, socialism has devolved into nationalism, authoritarianism, or just plain corruption. And forget about the Middle East.

In this planet-wide rising tide of right-wing populism, the liberal left commands only a few disconnected islands -- Iceland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Korea, Spain, Uruguay. In so many other places, increasingly illiberal leaders are in charge. Add up the numbers and significantly more than half the world's population currently lives under some form of right-wing populist or authoritarian rule, courtesy of Donald Trump in the United States, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Narendra Modi in India, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Vladimir Putin in Russia, and Xi Jinping in China, among others.

Optimists cling to the pendulum theory of politics: conservatives are now basking in the limelight, but the day will come when the right inevitably falls on its face and the left swings back into action; witness the results of the 2018 mid-term elections in the United States.

In addition, pragmatists point out that many of these latter-day autocrats, for all their anti-democratic tendencies, came to power through elections. Yes, they have since sought to change constitutions, pack courts, muzzle the media, and crack down on civil society, but they remain constrained by the guardrails of the more-or-less liberal political systems they still run. In the end, so goes such thinking, democracy will prevail. Look at how, over time, some right-wing populists have been dislodged at the polls (Vladimir Meciar in Slovakia), brought down by corruption scandals (Alberto Fujimori in Peru), or forced to resign in disgrace (Silvio Berlusconi in Italy).

Optimists and pragmatists alike ultimately have faith that democracies are self-regulating organisms, not unlike the Earth's ecosystem. The planet has managed to survive countless asteroid strikes, solar flares, and extreme weather conditions. Democracy, too, will outlast Hurricane Donald and all the other examples of extreme political weather, thanks, sooner or later, to woke voters and resilient mechanisms of checks and balances.

Unfortunately, given the malign impact humans are having on the planet, this analogy is far less reassuring than it once might have been. Only the willfully ignorant expect that some natural oscillation in global temperature or the Earth's own adjustments to its climate feedback loops will arrive in time to save us. Humankind has clearly thrown a spanner into the works and now faces a distinctly difficult, if not disastrous, future. Similarly, across the globe, the electoral pendulum appears to be stuck on the side of reaction and the new generation of right-wing populists could well be on the verge of changing the political playing field, just as humans are in the process of irrevocably transforming the planet.

Bolsonaro, Erdogan, Putin, Trump, and their ilk should indeed be understood as the political equivalent of global warming. Instead of deadly carbon, they spew hateful invective and show a remarkable determination to destroy a far-from-perfect status quo. Moreover, they are the product not of farting livestock or extraterrestrial events but of the self-interested acts of blinkered humans. In an increasingly restrictive political space, liberals and progressives are looking ever more like so many polar bears on ever fewer ice floes, with diminishing room for maneuver.

Don't bet on politics as usual to lower the temperature and put a stop to this moment's tidal surge of ugly intolerance. Because the nature of the game has changed, those who oppose the global New Right must engage in a strategic rethink -- or we'll all drown in the rising waters.

The Game Changers

Today's autocrats are, at first glance, a diverse band of brothers.

In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte has attacked the Catholic Church for defending the sanctity of human life and challenging his campaign of extrajudicial murder. In Nicaragua, one-time revolutionary Daniel Ortega has courted the Catholic Church as a pillar of his undemocratic rule. Vladimir Putin presents himself and his country as saviors of Christianity, while Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues to promote his own brand of political Islam, Narendra Modi has ridden to power thanks to Hindu nationalism, and Xi Jinping eschews religion altogether. Some right-wing nationalists like Bolsonaro have ambitious plans to privatize state assets, while others, like those in Italy's current leadership, want to nationalize major properties. Hungary's Viktor Orban is concerned about climate change, but most right-wing populists like Donald Trump insist that the threat doesn't exist and want to extract ever more fossil fuels.

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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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