🔒 Max Hastings: Navigating the perils of populism – A call for truth in a divided world

In the aftermath of World War I, Field Marshal Sir William Robertson imparted timeless wisdom to schoolboys: “Tell the truth. Think of others. And don’t dawdle.” Today, however, a distorted reality prevails, with truth subjective and dawdling hailed as work-life balance. Populist leaders exploit division, threatening democracy in the US and Europe. The rise of fake news, amplified by social media, and the erosion of trust challenge the foundations of liberal democracy. Amid this tumult, a collective commitment to truth-telling becomes the antidote to the perils of populism.

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How the Populists Learned to Love Their Nations’ Enemies: Max Hastings

By Max Hastings

Shortly after the First World War, Field Marshal Sir William Robertson delivered a speech at a school prize-giving. Robertson was an unusual man, the only soldier to have risen from private to the army’s highest rank. Moreover, in the recent cataclysm he had been one of the few military leaders to have shown some imagination.


That morning of 1919, Robertson said: “Now, listen carefully boys, because I have a lot to say that’s important. Tell the truth. Think of others. And don’t dawdle.” Then he sat down.

Many of us oldies would agree that the field marshal’s precepts remain pretty good rules for life. Today, however, the old boy would be bewildered to behold a world in which millions of people believe that truth is whatever they choose to feel that it is. A host of lifestyle gurus urge that dawdling — which a century ago meant wasting precious time —today is “preserving a work-life balance” and good for us.

And many politicians in many nations, far from thinking of others, now concern themselves only with their own faithful. They seek to exclude from influence and participation in government those who do not belong to their own ethnic group or share their views. India has more than 200 million Muslims, but the Hindu Nationalist party of the nation’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, promotes the view that they are not “proper” Indians.

Modi claims that he alone represents his people and must be protected from mediajudicial or political criticism. He denies the legitimacy of his opponents. Constanze Stelzenmüller, a German international relations scholar based in Washington, argues that much populism is about “re-legitimizing cruelty as a method of … running a modern society.” In other words: “The cruelty is the point.” 

In some of the world’s most important nations, adherents of these pernicious doctrines now either hold power or are on the cusp of doing so. For those of us who were educated to believe that the truth about most things lies in the middle ground — and, indeed, have spent our lives seeing that view confirmed by experience — this is terrifying. We are accustomed to the rule of dictators and monopolists in Africa, South America, Asia. But now pluralism is at grave risk in the US and in many parts of Europe.

My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Pankaj Mishra titled a 2017 book Age of Anger, describing it as a “a history of the present.” He writes: “There is a pervasive panic … generated by the news media and amplified by social media … The sense of a world spinning out of control is aggravated by the reality of climate change, which makes the planet seem under siege from ourselves.”

A common explanation for this public bewilderment is that voters seek out “strong leaders” who offer readily understandable “solutions” to complex issues — above all immigration. Last March, the political monitoring organization Freedom House published its latest survey on the condition of liberal democracy in Europe, and found it to be continuing a decline dating back to the 2008 financial crisis.

Following recent German state elections, alarm was increased by the rise of the extreme-right, anti-European Union Alternative for Germany Party. The AfD is notably strong in former communist eastern Germany, where disillusionment with the established order is strongest.

In France, many of the young people who in 2017 voted for Emmanuel Macron as president turned instead last year to the right’s Marine Le Pen.

Especially across southern and eastern Europe, there is a passionate reaction against perceived elitism symbolized by the EU. Many talented young people are quitting their increasingly intolerant homelands. The Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev says: “It’s easier to change your country than your government.”

Following last month’s Polish parliamentary elections there was a surge of renewed hope, even euphoria, about the prospects for European democracy. The ruling far-right Law and Justice party (PiS) created by Jaroslaw Kaczynski was outvoted by what should have quickly become a new coalition government led by former Prime Minister Donald Tusk.

The PiS has held power in Poland for most of the past 18 years and has exploited this to suborn the courts, preach a gospel of intolerance — especially toward LBGT communities, the EU and neighboring Germany — and to pursue a fervently Catholic law-and-order agenda. Kaczynski, 74, is an eccentric bachelor with a passion for cats; he has never owned a computer and opened his first bank account only in 2009.

Those celebrating his downfall may be premature. Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, is a creature of the PiS and it is not yet certain that he will endorse a handover of power. The Law and Justice Party remains the largest single grouping in the Warsaw parliament, even though young Poles in particular rejected it in the elections.

Krastev wrote presciently about Poland: “The future is never as bright as it is portrayed in the speeches of the winners on election night. The opposition has won, but these elections confirmed the existence of two Polands … Kaczynski’s will not disappear.”

Meanwhile, Hungary remains in the grip of pro-Russian dictator Victor Orbán. The EU is seeking to exert economic leverage on the Budapest government by withholding more than €20 billion of funding in response to Orbán’s clampdowns on the media, courts and political opponents.

There are hopes that the Hungarian leader will fall — unless, it is assumed, Donald Trump is re-elected US president. Trump and Orbán enjoy a warm relationship, rooted in mutual admiration. If the former gets back into the White House, he will almost certainly attempt to bail out his friend in Budapest.  

Slovakia’s politics have been grimly transformed by the return to power, following last month’s election, of populist former Prime Minister Robert Fico and his Smer party. While Fico professes commitment to North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the EU, he shares Orbán’s opposition to Western support for Ukraine.  

How did all this come to pass? Toward the end of the last century, many of us shared a sunny belief that our information-rich societies would usher in a golden age for democracy; that when hundreds of millions of people shared access to news, opinions and data previously confined to elites, the world — or at least the Western world — would become a wiser place. Democracy would be strengthened.

What almost nobody bargained for was, instead, the fungus-like growth of fake news. Instead of our societies having become better informed, social media and the internet have empowered people to embrace alternative realities at the heart of populism.

The social prophet Francis Fukuyama admits that he was among those who supposed that the new media age would be a force for good, only to be bitterly disappointed. “The old media were all in a way based around a certain consensus about the political system and about what’s … truth, and what’s acceptable to say. And the internet just blew that up.”

It has proved disastrous for societies to permit Google, Facebook and X (formerly Twitter) to arbitrate what voices and sentiments are acceptable, because they indulge a host of what would once have been dubbed lunatics. Fukuyama added, at a symposium last spring: “It’s going to get worse, because we are already … being hit by deepfakes”; social media “has had a really devastating effect on almost every society in terms of social trust” affecting governments, corporations, trade unions.

Mishra writes of the suspicion “that the present order, democratic or authoritarian, is built upon force and fraud; they incite a broader and more apocalyptic mood than we have witnessed before … Digital media have unquestionably enhanced the human tendency to constantly compare one’s life with the lives of the apparently fortunate.”

The man whom many people recognize as having been first to anticipate this new populism is the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who died in 2006. In 1995, Geertz delivered a lecture in which he argued that identity politics would become the dominant force in our 21st century world.

The decisive struggles of the future, he said, would not be those between democracy and authoritarianism, but instead about the right to define both friends and foes according to personal taste. Long before Trump or Modi had become powerful forces, Geertz predicted the rise of leaders seeking to compel their opponents to view them and their supporters as they themselves chose; and who branded those who disagreed as forces of wickedness, as irreconcilables. Elections in India, Hungary and (in some of) the US remain “free,” but they are not fair.

A key ingredient of populism is the playing upon fears of people who worry they are becoming submerged — who feel in danger of disappearing amid a tidal wave of incomers, immigrants. This has been critical to the dominance of Orbán in Hungary, where many citizens of a nation on the front line for reception of migrants from further east perceive the erosion of their own identity and disappearance of their native language.

Populism reflects not merely racism, but rejection of the dilution of traditional societies by incomers of any shade. Dutch sociologist Hein de Haas argues in a new book, How Migration Really Works that politicians relentlessly exploit an issue that is essentially driven by shortages of cheap labor in Western societies: “Liberal democracies are caught in a ‘migration trilemma’ between (1) the political wish to control immigration, (2) economic interests in more migration, and (3) fundamental human-rights obligations towards migrants and refugees. These conflicting policy goals seem impossible to resolve satisfactorily.”

De Haas denounces “irresponsible rhetoric [which] has created a climate in which the far right feel emboldened, and racism, polarization and intolerance can thrive.” Some liberal politicians seek to ignore or deny the realities of mass immigration, but by doing so they gravely injure their own prospects. The populists become seen by supporters as truth-tellers, while their opponents are deemed betrayers of their own people. Kaczynski, neatly tying in Poles’ longstanding bitterness at their larger neighbor, brands Tusk a puppet of “the Fourth Reich.”

Where many of us for years saw Germany’s longtime Chancellor Angela Merkel as Europe’s most enlightened as well as most powerful politician, two years after her departure from office we can perceive her huge failures.

She indulged mass immigration while making little attempt to assuage the fears of those who resisted it. She appeased Russia’s Vladimir Putin and made her country his energy prisoner by shutting down Germany’s nuclear power plants. The Berlin government flinched from acting against Orbán’s authoritarianism in Budapest because in the EU parliament, Hungarian votes gave Germany an effective majority.

Geertz has been proved eerily right: Many national leaders are today more ready to traffic civilly and even amicably with their nation’s foreign enemies than with their party’s political foes at home.

Jan-Werner Muller is a German-born political philosopher at Princeton who authored a 2016 book, What Is Populism? He also delivered a lecture earlier this year under the title “Is Fascism Returning?” Muller argues that uncertainty — above all, about who might hold power in the future — is essential to a working democracy.

He is appalled by those, US Republicans notable among them, who seek to undermine the political standing of their fellow citizens — for instance through imposing voting restrictions. He argues passionately for the central place of truth: “People cannot choose to reject facts.” Borrowing from former Trump adviser Steve Bannon’s lexicon, he accuses the ex-president of propagating “info-feces” falsehoods.

Britain is in a better place than the US constitutionally, because our institutions remain unthreatened. But the disastrous 2019-2022 premiership of Boris Johnson borrowed heavily from the Trump playbook, not least in its leader’s reckless abuse of other nations and in his dependence on falsehoods. Even now, it is not impossible that Johnson will make a return to influence, because his followers seem indifferent to these flaws and failures. He is a true populist — a man who is perceived by his backers as being “on our side” heedless of overwhelming objective evidence to the contrary.

Many political scientists argue that the outcome of the war in Ukraine will play a critical role in determining the course of European politics. If Russia is seen as having prevailed, which remains plausible, the cause of liberal democracy, indeed of constitutional order, will suffer, because a supremely authoritarian and repressive state will have gotten its way.

Fukuyama suggests that a Ukrainian stalemate may cause Georgia’s ruling oligarch, Bidzina Ivanishvili, to tilt his country toward Russia.

Stelzenmüller argues that in supporting Ukraine, “we are fighting for the preservation of liberal democracy in Europe.” For years, she says, we have taken it for granted that the weakness of our governments and institutions is self-healing, self-repairing, but now we have discovered that it is not.

The only way forward for all of us, in societies threatened by populism, is to continue tirelessly to root for the old field marshal’s 1919 commitment to truth-telling. Liberal democracy is not yet doomed. It never will be if enough of us reject the doctrines of the political snake-oil salesmen of the right; if, instead, we seek ways of managing our huge problems. We must forswear the word “solutions” — they seldom if ever exist — and fight for middle ways, which are almost always the right ways.

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