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Understanding the ‘Pop’ in Populism

Do electorates around the world want strong father figures who will fight on their behalf?

The collapse in August of Italy’s latest governing coalition underscores once more the unexpected power of populism across the nations of the West. Central to this latest roiling is the desire to sideline Matteo Salvini, leader of right-wing populism, and to replace the latest government with a new coalition of anti-populists and left-wing populists led by Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte. Left or right, in Italy—as in Britain and elsewhere—populism of some kind continues to write history’s script in one unexpected country after another.

Immigration, economic inequality, and out-of-touch elites are among the most commonly cited engines of this transformative force. But what if there’s another common denominator that’s gone unnoticed?

In every case, the signature of the new populism is a particular kind of masculine authority figure who makes a series of characteristic promises: to clean up the messes left by others; to take care of “his” people by protecting them; and to call off the bullies in any form they appear—illegal immigrants, rapacious elites, menacing foreign nations, and so on. Such has been true of Salvini, for starters, who ran on a protection platform promising safeguards against criminals, especially criminal immigrants. And such is also true of other new populists—among them Donald Trump.

The polarized reactions that Trump elicits amount to one kind of evidence that something new is afoot in today’s populism. Since Inauguration Day, the “resistance” has treated Trump more like an abusive stepfather than an elected head of state. Then there’s his base, whose loyalty in the face of one transgression after another is famously unflagging. Both facts, and others, point to the truth that for many Americans, Trump—like Salvini and others—is obviously a placeholder for something else. 

A few pundits have recognized as much. As Ralph Nader told a writer for Politico in the run-up to the 2016 election, “Trump says: ‘Anyone who attacks us, I will blow them out of water.’ People want this reassurance, this father figure.” George Lakoff, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California, Berkeley, noted similarly: “Trump is the ultimate strict father. It’s in everything he does. It’s in his body language.” Or as “Dilbert” cartoonist Scott Adams remarked about Trump to CNN: “The thing about Dad is that Dad is kind of an a-hole, but if you need Dad to take care of some trouble, he’s going to be the one you call.”

Trump, in sum, is not just any populist, but one who appears to supporters as a paternal authority. This overlooked truth also explains their unflagging loyalty to him. Trump, to them, is no mere president, but a protector who has their best interests at heart—which is why perpetual attempts to unseat him by denouncing his transgressions will never rock his base. 

Nor is Trump alone in functioning as a super-daddy in a world where more and more children and former children grow up without an ordinary father in the home. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, to name another, is ubiquitously referred to in the press as a “father figure” by admirers and detractors alike. An essay in Politico once called “Hungary’s Freudian Political Fight” a contest between two “father figures”—Orban and George Soros.

Like Trump, Salvini, and Orban, other figureheads of the new populism also emphasize control and tradition—“daddy” issues. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, head of the Law and Justice Party in Poland, pledges to restore “moral order.” As two critics observed in The Washington Post, that party, too, promised a “father of the nation figure.”

Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil likewise projects “the image of a stern and austere father figure ready to bring order to the house,” as NBC News put it. “Brazil needs an angry father figure to teach everyone a lesson,” explained a lawyer to The Wall Street Journal. Like others riding the masculinist wave, Bolsonaro was elected on promises of restoring order across the board. 

Then there is the most obvious example: Russia. In Vladimir Putin’s case, too, popularity has more than a little to do with the blasted domestic landscape shared by many millions of people post-1960s—especially young people.

A few observers have spied the connection in this case, too. In a report for Newsweek in 2014 on “Putin Youth: The Young Russians Who See the President as a Father,” Anna Nemtsova analyzed what she called “one of the fastest growing organizations in Russia,” a group called “Set” (Network), young people who pledge loyalty to Putin. Nemtsova repeatedly connected the dots between Putin love and father hunger, noting that many of the group’s members came from fatherless households. As Network’s leader put it: “To us Putin is our father.” 

In his 2015 analysis of post-communist life, Nothing Is True and Everything is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia, author and British TV producer Peter Pomerantsev traced the same link between Putin’s popularity and the filial rupture to which many young Russians are now accustomed. He summarized “all the gold diggers I met” as “All fatherless. A generation of orphaned, high-heeled girls, all looking for a daddy as much as a sugar daddy.” The fabled shirtless photos of Putin engaging in manly sports, Pomerantsev noted, “are love letters to the endless queues of fatherless girls.”

In sum, the ongoing rise and entrenchment of strongman leaders promising a restoration of order and authority isn’t exactly populism as usual. It exhibits a paternal dimension in country after otherwise unrelated country. 

To observe these connections is not to imply that populist politicians are consciously plucking the notes of paternity in a post-revolutionary world of vanished fathers and absent brothers. But it is to say that the tacit demand of citizens for masculine protectors seems to be ensuring a steady supply of leaders who find ways to be that figure—whether or not they consciously understand the elemental need out there. 

Daddy issues might begin at home. But these days, they’re they’re out in the streets—including in a growing number of Western capitals.

Mary Eberstadt is a senior fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute and author of the new book Primal Screams: How the Sexual Revolution Created Identity Politics.



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