In his rise to power Donald Trump articulated the grievances of much of middle America and harnessed those grievances by successfully persuading voters that he alone understood the causes and so possessed the remedies. Meanwhile, in the UK a successful Brexit campaign has greatly strengthened the power of authoritarianism and promoted isolationist tendencies.
Messiahs and Avarice
Historically, a vital factor in the rise of demagogic leaders has been the ability to convince large numbers of people that they, and they alone, knew what was best for them. In some cases they presented a solution to an injustice or oppression which was not perceived by the mass of the people. On attaining power, the execution of a resulting ‘liberation’ plan has been the cause of some of the greatest human tragedies. The holocaust, the liquidation of the Russian Kulaks and the Chinese Cultural Revolution are but three of the best known examples.
This form of populism stems from two main sources. The first is a messianic attempt to extend liberty. A despot may genuinely believe that they are ‘freeing’ the people; that it is his or her unique destiny to enlighten them and lead the way out of oppression. If this is successful, enormous power is available to the despot to pursue that goal, eliminating dissenting ‘erroneous’ views along the way, while executing the ‘will of the people’. The great thinker Isaiah Berlin in his 1958 Two Concepts of Liberty stated it this way:
One belief, more than any other, is responsible for the slaughter of individuals on the altars of the great historical ideals -justice or progress or the happiness of future generations, or the sacred mission or emancipation of a nation or race or class, or even liberty itself, which demands the sacrifice of individuals for the freedom of society. This is the belief that somewhere, in the past or in the future, in divine revelation or in the mind of an individual thinker, in the pronouncements of history or science, or in the simple heart of an uncorrupted goodman, there is a final solution.
The second source, which may be related to the first, is a naked attempt to grab status and wealth with no underlying ideological drive. It remains to be seen to which of the two Donald Trump actually conforms, but it is likely that viewing his governing team as a whole, all possibilities are represented.