Since the rise of Donald Trump, The New York Times has treated populism like a dead fish in need of quick disposal, and its analysis of that phenomenon has suffered as a result. A good example is a January 6 front-page piece headlined “In Retreat, Populism Hardens Its Us-vs.-Them Attack on Liberals.” In it, Max Fisher argued that Trump’s troubles in getting his wall, the wavering support for Brexit in Britain, and the recent struggles of the Alternative for Germany party show that populism has stalled, “shattering the image of the movement’s inevitability and its claim to represent true popular will.” The reason, Fisher wrote, is that the two main issues driving populism—immigration and terrorism—have receded. Without a crisis to justify their “hard-line policies,” populist leaders are trying to rejuvenate their fortunes “by revitalizing the sense of crisis on which they thrive.” In the process, populism’s message “has been stripped down to its most core element: opposition to liberal ideals of pluralism, multiculturalism and international cooperation.”
The story was thick with caricature and condescension. Populists, it stated, “thrive on conflict against an existential threat” and “cannot bend with popular will as easily as mainstream parties.” In a bid to rally their base, “many Western populists are falling back to their message of besiegement and threat, as much out of the paranoid worldview that is central to populism as out of any conscious strategy.” Stripped of claims to be responding to an immigration crisis, that message is “taking on a certain clarity,” hitting on “deeper fears of demographic and cultural change brought about by liberalism.” Border crises, “real or imagined, are ideal for this message,” since they highlight aspects of liberalism that “people find most objectionable,” including “promises to protect outsiders, demands that countries compromise sovereignty and the softening of fixed, racially defined national identities.” Postwar liberal democracy, the article concluded, “is simply too new of a system, scholars of democracy say, to know whether it can survive these challenges.”
The article did not say who those “scholars of democracy” are. It’s the type of baggy description meant to give a patina of authority to a bloated claim. The piece cites political scientists and researchers but not a single actual populist—typical of these kinds of analyses. It makes only a passing reference to Italy, where a right-wing populist coalition came to power last June, and no mention at all of Brazil or Mexico, both of which recently elected populist presidents (though of very different stripes).
Most dismaying of all, the article did not once mention the 2008 financial crisis and the acute economic and social dislocations it caused. If anything can be said to have propelled populism, it’s the loss of jobs, the decline in living standards, and the sense of alienation and marginalization caused by the global crash. The fact that no senior banking officials or other perpetrators went to jail and that financial and corporate executives continue to amass huge fortunes added to the fury that helped facilitate the election of Trump, the passage of Brexit, and the rise of authoritarianism in Eastern Europe. The persistence of entrenched inequality in the world and the belief that the global capitalist system has enriched the few while causing hardship for the many have kept the embers of anger and resentment alive.
The most recent such flare-up occurred in France with the emergence of the Yellow Vests (also not mentioned in the Times piece). Like Brexit and Trump, this grassroots revolt caught not only Western journalists but the whole French political-media establishment by surprise. Concentrated in Paris, that establishment is remote from the lives of ordinary citizens and thus ill-informed about their outlooks and concerns. After seeing their purchasing power erode year by year, those who live in rural and exurban areas considered the fuel taxes announced by the government of Emmanuel Macron the final straw. Tellingly, immigration and nationalism have had nothing to do with the protests; it was Macron’s laissez-faire economic policies and their perceived bias in favor of the rich that drove the Yellow Vests into the streets. While a portion of them did vote for Marine Le Pen and her National Rally in the last election, the movement has for the most part rebuffed her party’s overtures; indeed, it has shown hostility toward all political parties for being unresponsive to their needs.
When it considers populism, however, the Times, like many top US news organizations, sees only racism, nativism, and xenophobia. No doubt these are significant elements in the movement, but they can’t be divorced from the economic struggles of those left behind. That’s why Trump was able to attract the votes of millions of Americans who also voted for Obama; they’re desperately seeking someone who will address the challenges they face in feeding their families, finding affordable health care, and arresting the decline of their communities.
The online version of the January 6 article was accompanied by a photo of five newly elected women of color sitting in a row in the House of Representatives. The caption: “Among the setbacks for populists in 2018: midterm elections in the United States that brought to office women like, from left, Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Barbara Lee, Jahana Hayes, Lauren Underwood and Sheila Jackson Lee.” The election of these women may have been a setback for Donald Trump’s brand of populism, but Ocasio-Cortez and other Democratic firebrands (as well as Bernie Sanders) represent their own form of populist insurgency against the political establishment. The Times’ identification of populism with the right ignores the fact that it can tack left as well. It also reinforces a mindset that sees white workers as driven primarily by resentment of immigrants and people of color, when in fact working people of all colors and backgrounds are grappling with many of the same problems. There’s a great battle underway between left and right to see who can finally fix a system that favors bankers and speculators over factory workers and bus drivers—a contest that will help determine the outcome of the 2020 election.
Unless the Times can overcome its own sense of “us vs. them,” its coverage of that election will be no more effective than it was of the last one.