Beware the coming wave of competent populists


Venice Beach. Last autumn. Ocean breeze and legal weed in the air. A friend visiting from Britain is grousing about Nadine Dorries, one of those harmless eccentrics who roam the foothills of politics in that troubled kingdom. On and on he goes, until I ask why he is letting a backbencher-cum-reality TV also-ran spoil a Pacific day.

“Janan, she’s in the cabinet.”

Oh. With luck, we are seeing the end of first-wave populism: populism as farce. Boris Johnson and his least gifted accomplices are on the way out. Donald Trump is no longer in the White House. Jair Bolsonaro is favored to lose re-election as president of Brazil in October. The showmen who rose to power in the second half of the last decade have not taken to the grind of high office.

That might not be true of their heirs. There is one thing worse than incompetent populism, and that is competent populism. The jester-leader has neither the attention span nor the executive grip to enact a programme. Ron DeSantis, who governs 21mn Floridians, does. Mike Pompeo, who has been the nation’s chief spy and chief diplomat, does too. Each would offer an approximation of the Trump creed (a pale one, insist the former president’s loyalists) if they were to run in 2024. Yet each can also get to the end of a briefing note. Each can bend a bureaucracy to his will. In office, each would bring into being the longstanding liberal dread of a professionalized hard right.

Britain might be earlier to second-wave populism than America. Not all the candidates to replace Johnson as prime minister propose a break with the substance, as opposed to the messy style, of his government. Not on Northern Ireland and Europe. Not on confrontation with the judiciary. On economics, their plan is one of sketchily costed tax cuts and a bigger army (guns and butter). To judge by the numerous campaign launches on Tuesday, even those who quit his administration are loath to renounce him. Established ministers, builders of businesses — these hopefuls aren’t clowns and that is what is so ominous.

Of course, it is parochially Anglo-American of me to talk of disciplined populism as a novelty. Hungary has known it under Viktor Orbán and Poland under the Law and Justice Party. Xi Jinping has been practising it on an awesome scale for a decade. The oldest democracies have been able to nurse the hope that, if you are a populist, you must also be too venal or inept to last in office and so the system is self-righting. Liberals elsewhere have learned the hard way that this is too neat, too Whiggish.

Trump and Johnson were consequential. But the main legacy of each (a conservative Supreme Court and a hard Brexit) flowed more or less automatically from their majorities. Once the numbers were in place in the Senate and respectively, these huge reforms were a matter of time. Most of government isn’t like this. It is dogged and unseen work: the husbanding of an idea from conception to execution, the mastery of the apparatus of the state. That is why there is no wall along the whole US-Mexico border. It is why the Tory dream of a long march through the institutions never transpired. The patience, the relish for detail, wasn’t there at the very top.

Don’t count on that being the case under Prime Minister Liz Truss or President DeSantis. So far, history’s answer to the populist showman — to be all Hegelian about it — is not a return to the liberal technocrat but some synthesis of the two. And it finds its purest expression in the Florida governor. He can be a hard politician to explain, but imagine if Emmanuel tightened voting rules in France and referred to enemies as “Soros-funded”. The clash between the yuppie smarts and the nativist demagoguery would jar. And then it would unnerve.

Yes, his detachment might hold him back on the campaign trail. Having courted crypto with deregulation, crisis in that field of finance might put his trope of a well-run Florida. And, if he takes on Trump, he will have the hounds of hell set on him: ask Rishi Sunak how populists react to lèse majesté. DeSantis briefly overtook Trump in the betting markets of late but, at 43, he might be wiser to sit out 2024.

If he does make it to the White House, though, liberalism will be up against a man of almost excessive self-control, not a bag of impulses; with cadres around him, not grifters and jokers. He is of a piece with a wider trend on the right, as populism hardens and matures out of its 2016 guise. We may come to miss the circus.

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