'Zombie populists' and their 'extraordinary staying power' should 'worry American readers': journalist
After former U.K. Prime Minister Liz Truss announced her resignation, there was much talk in the British media about the Conservative Party making Boris Johnson prime minister again. It didn’t happen: the Tories ultimately went with 42-year-old Rishi Sunak, former chancellor of the Exchequer. Sunak took office on Tuesday, October 25.
Some journalists in the United States have put a positive spin on all the chaos at 10 Downing Street, arguing that the political downfalls of Johnson and later, Truss, show that at least the British right — chaos and all — still believes in democracy. According to that argument, the right-wing Tories who were shouting that Johnson had to go only to say the same thing about his successor Truss not long after that are quite a contrast to Republicans in the United States who are terrified to say one word against former President Donald Trump even after the violent January 6, 2021 insurrection.
For The Atlantic’s Yascha Mounk, however, one of the biggest takeaways of Truss’ political downfall is the fact that some Tories were even talking about putting Johnson in 10 Downing Street again — which, Mounk argues, shows how resilient a right-wing “zombie populist” can be despite scandals and a record of “failure.”
“After the extended chaos of the Johnson years and the short-lived debacle of Liz Truss’ premiership, Sunak was virtually the last remaining Conservative of any public standing who could credibly promise a modicum of competence and stability,” Mounk explains in a think piece published by The Atlantic on October 26. “Harder to parse is why Johnson was in contention at all. How could Johnson have come so close to returning from the political wilderness less than four months after disgrace forced the announcement of his departure from office?”
Mounk continues, “The story of Johnson’s near resurrection, though remarkable, is less peculiar than it might seem. Charismatic populists have a knack for making unlikely comebacks, even if their own friends and allies have long given them up for dead. And irresponsible politicians can do very well when they have a good feel for the pulse of public opinion. For this type of demagogue, Johnson’s enduring appeal is the norm, not the exception.”
When Mounk describes Johnson as a right-wing populist, he isn’t calling the former British prime minister an authoritarian — which is how he views Trump and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. But he brings Johnson up to show the “staying power” that “populist leaders” can have.
“The plausible, if short-lived, prospect of Johnson’s return to Downing Street should be a warning sign of what is to come in other countries,” Mounk stresses. “For it illustrates three underlying truths about populist leaders that will continue to shape the politics of the United Kingdom and other democracies, including the United States, for years to come.”
Mounk continues, “First, populists have extraordinary staying power, showing virtual immunity from the sort of scandal, disgrace or failure that can finish a conventional politician’s career. Second, policy counts nearly as much as style: The degree to which a populist’s program is actually popular really matters. Third, because most of the politicians who are attacking democratic institutions at the moment come from the right, conservative parties have a crucial part to play in preserving democracy.”
Mounk adds, however, that the word populist “has never been a perfect fit for Johnson” even though it has often been used to describe him.
“While he has, at times, been willing to play dangerously fast and loose with democratic rules, he never attempted to concentrate power in his own hands or to impede its peaceful transfer,” Mounk argues. “A second term for Trump would presage a genuine democratic emergency; a return of Johnson would have been more likely to turn into a depressing farce.”
Mounk observes that “populists around the world” have “proved to have remarkable staying power, even after they were hounded from office in ignominy.”
“Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi left office in disgrace after being sentenced to a term in prison and ruining his country’s finances,” Mounk notes. “He later successfully appealed the criminal conviction. Now, he is a crucial partner in the country’s new government…. In the United States, Trump seemed to lose his hold over the Republican Party after the January 6 assault on the Capitol. Now, he appears poised to claim the party’s nomination for the 2024 presidential election. Orbán in Hungary, Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland, and the Marcos family in the Philippines have all shown similar durability.”
The ability of “zombie populists” to make a comeback, Mounk warns, “should worry American readers.”
“Like other populists who have left power under ignoble circumstances, Trump retains significant public support,” Mounk writes. “If he runs in 2024, he can count on the passionate supporters who make up a large portion of the Republican Party’s primary electorate. And unlike some right-wing parties, the GOP seems to have neither the will nor the capacity to stand up to its most radical members. Before Trump has even declared his candidacy, most senior members of his party are scared to criticize him.”
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