If Trump is defeated, the problem doesn't go away. The next Trump might be a lot younger, smarter, better spoken, and without a questionable business and personal history. They will be much harder to stop. We may be lucky that Trump is so personally awful, for if he were not, he would have won easily.
The next Farage might be photogenic, eloquent, sober, and without a background in banking to discredit them.
Marine Le Pen is a step change from her Father - same poison, better packaging. The next model will be even smarter.
All over the Western world, there are many other examples, mostly on the right, but some on the left too. They will keep popping up, more refined, more articulate, more intelligent, until they win, or we do something to change the culture that creates them. It ceases to be about left and right, go far enough to the extremes and it's much the same thing; achieving extreme goals requires the abolition of democratic freedoms.
Our freedoms are founded upon three basic pillars; a free press, the rule of law, and democracy. 'Normal' politics is defined by debating what can be done within these boundaries. Populism is what can be done if these 'limiting' factors were thrown off. Flawed though all three of these pillars are, they are what protect us from something much worse.
Lose the free press and we lose the ability to debate or even comprehend what is put before us. Even the bits of the press we don't like are part of it, and we are lucky to live somewhere where each view can be expressed. The print media may be largely a joke these days, but online media is rapidly evolving to fill the gap. Strangle even something as hateful as the Mail, and the mechanism to do so will be turned against you. Oppose the content, not the right to publish. Press controls are what the populists want. Then they can reduce the flow of information, and ban content that attacks what they do.
Lose the rule of law and you lose the ability to stop leaders doing whatever the hell they want. An independent judiciary is the single most important part of the jigsaw of freedom. Anyone who appeals for a judicial decision to be overturned through anything other than the correct legal appeals process is bad news. Don't like the law? Then win a mandate to change it, don't damage those who interpret the existing law.
Democracy is flawed, but remains the best way to get rid of a bad government. Governments can leave power without force being used, and will do because there are no consequences beyond losing their jobs. The more power is spread around, the harder it becomes to hijack that process. Reasonably regular elections keep politicians on their toes. Beware populists who want it concentrated into one single place, easy to hijack, rare elections purely a rubber stamp. If we concentrate power into Whitehall after Brexit, watch out for retreat from other European institutions, like the ECHR. The fewer institutions hold the power, the easier a takeover is.
Our continuing ability to be able to monitor, influence, and hold to account our system of government relies on these three pillars being left relatively intact. This matters as much if you are on the moderate left as the moderate right. Defence of these three is a matter for everyone.
With any candidate, allow me to suggest the following questions.
1) Do their policies amount to an attack on any of the three pillars?
2) Are they threatening the freedom of the press?
3) Are they threatening to the independence of the judiciary?
4) Are they proposing powers that give us a less frequent or a more limited say in our governance?
5) Are they for consolidating greater powers in the posts they or their organisation seek?
Any one of these should be a red light.
Recognising it is much easier than opposing it. Moderate forces are so used to battling each other that it becomes difficult for them to recognise a greater danger, against which they have far more in common, including their continued survival. The last members of a generation to see the devastating consequences of a wave of populism are slipping away, and most people struggle to comprehend political consequences beyond their immediate experience.
With regard to World War 2, the consequence of the last wave of populism, perhaps here it is being taught only as a fight to end fascism and the appalling extermination of the Jews and other groups, and not enough as a series of political mechanisms and processes that led to people being able to do these things. It's almost like fascism popped up out of nowhere, with perhaps an occasional reference to the treaty of Versailles to explain it. The wave of populism that swept the continent in the decade before makes a worrying study. It was not limited to Germany and her allies. I recommend Mark Mazower's 'Dark Continent' as the best I've read on the fragility of liberal democracy. My edition's front cover has a picture of a lady in Downing Street, waving a Union Jack with a Swastika at the centre. We were very close to falling down the same plughole of fascism, had the war not conveniently given us a reason to oppose it.
So what should we do? Whilst I'd certainly be in favour of loudly proclaiming the virtues of these basic pillars of a free society, it feels like we need a bit more than that. Part of the problem seems to be a complete lack of dialogue between different elements of the electorate. With people in this modern, communications driven society so free to associate in both work and social communities according to their pre-existing beliefs, each group takes its homogenous views to be self-evident, and there are consequently no mechanisms for debate.
I have personally arrived at a point where I consider having a structured, civil debate to now be more important than the content. In a society that has forgotten how to respectfully disagree, creating spaces where ideas can be contested safely and pleasantly, between quite different groups of people is far more important than the conclusions that may be reached. Creating conditions where each person gets to see their ideas treated with respect, carefully examined, and then provided the opportunity to do the same to other ideas is fundamental to overcoming populism.
We are where we are because as a whole society we no longer know how to debate. All sides are equally guilty of this. We cannot stop the slide to populism without first creating space where people can debate ideas without abuse. Being able to even have the debate is a pre-requisite to winning it. At the minute, the space to have that debate does not exist, and the consequences are becoming increasingly apparent. In this respect, the polarising media follows us, as this sells copies. I'm sure they stir it up too, but the more people demand balanced information, the more market there will be for it, and the media will move back. We are every bit as responsible for the polarised media as the owners are. Only reading left wing news because you're disgusted with how right wing the news is helps nobody.
I will personally be devoting my energies to creating space for polite debate, and will take seriously any view put before me. I will attempt to engage with any view, no matter how far from mine it may be, and will only abandon the attempt if subjected to sustained abuse. I will not respond to the abuse.
Being self righteous, and only talking to people you agree with will not arrest the slide, even if you are 100% right in your beliefs. Take the time to talk politely, and with compassion to people who hold differing views. Most people are decent folks, and there will be good reasons why they hold those views. Even if you don't seem to make a difference at the time, you never know who is quietly watching the debate without contributing. The side that is polite and rational will probably win over more people. That can't happen if the debate doesn't occur. And we may not be as right or as smart as we think we are.
This cartoon was prinited in 'Krokodil', a Soviet satirical magazine. I don't have the year. Perhaps that illustrates the timeless danger of populism. This could be any time in history.