The rise of the populist leader

The successful populist leader is the embodiment of a national spirit and represents an ideal.

Cosmin Dzsurdzsa Montreal QC

A lot has been said about populism. Experts and ordinary people are noticing its political sway here in North America and across the globe. It seems that a general malaise has set in among a disenfranchised majority who are tired of the machinations of an internationalist political and academic elite who are entirely disconnected from the average person’s everyday experiences and struggles. After all, populism is directly opposed to elitism.

Populism requires charismatic leadership

According to “The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern World”, a fundamental factor of populism is “the establishment of the people as a political actor” and a “charismatic and paternalistic leader”. A lot has been said about the first point but not enough ink has been spilled on the second. Charismatic and paternalistic leadership is by no means exclusive to populism as a political ideology. In many ways, for example, Pierre Elliot Trudeau was both of these things. Yet he wasn’t a populist. Or take the case of Ontario’s recently minted Premier, Doug Ford. He is not particularly charismatic and too shrewd to be characterized as paternalistic but he has been characterized by the opposition as a populist leader. Populism can be a strategy as well as an identity. Leaders engage in populist rhetoric and incite populist sentiments while not being populists themselves. The populist leader is a product of the times. As a political identity it emerged as society moved away from traditional models. “Populism emerges when there is a common belief that the current political, economic, and social institutions are not satisfying public social demands. Certain sectors of existing institutions are either unwilling or unable to address the public's needs. Populist leaders emerge by identifying these needs, wants, and grievances. By recognizing these demands, populist leaders offer representation, in terms of defending and protecting those with unfilled demands and at the same time creating a new identity for the people as political actors,” says the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern World.

The case of Donald Trump

Historically, populist leaders presented themselves as outsiders, but in most cases were establishment elites themselves who, for one reason or another, turned their backs on their peers. Take the case of Donald Trump. The 45th President of the United States has very little in common with his base. He is a wealthy businessman and showman who has rubbed shoulders with the American elite from the time he was born. Despite this, Donald Trump is a populist. He was elected to the presidency to accomplish one goal and that is to represent the demands of a disenfranchised majority. This relationship between the people and leadership is essential for the success of populism. The populist leader relies on the support of the people and the people need a charismatic leader to represent their demands. One cannot succeed without the other. Populist movements and parties fail when one of these conditions is not met. In some cases, there can be widespread popular support but no leader capable enough or willing to champion its cause, while on the other hand, leaders who bill themselves as populists don’t find the overwhelming support to back their claims. In many ways, Donald Trump fulfills a fantasy. The successful populist leader is the embodiment of a national spirit and represents an ideal. Despite Donald Trump’s many flaws, he checks off several characteristically American boxes. He is a successful entrepreneur. He is a media celebrity who knows how to stay on the airwaves. He is a straight shooter who tells it how it is and he is dynastically minded and has a large family. Donald Trump successfully embraced and fulfilled the conditions of American populist sentiment. Although these things are not particularly agrarian or working class values, they do re-emerge as ideal qualities in leaders throughout US history.

Populism's success in Canada

In a similar way, for Canada to have a truly populist movement it would require a figure who embodies certain Canadian values. Maxime Bernier, the leader of the People’s Party of Canada hopes to do just that. In several ways Maxime Bernier fits the populist bill. He does have a certain charisma to him in contrast to other national leaders. He speaks to a disenfranchised majority and he is a member of the political elite who turned his back on the establishment. However, it is yet to be seen if the people can embrace the upstart MP as the head of a popular movement or whether the groundwork for such a movement exists in Canada at all. Some events suggest that there is a rising discontent among Canadians towards the political establishment but a bit of grumbling won’t lead to a populist surge. Canada has had a history with populism, but whether it is heading towards a new populist era as some experts believe, only the 2019 election will tell.


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