How Populists Become Popular

The speculative shift in politics

In the past decades, we have all learned to see politics as a popularity contest where politicians use polls to detect the position of the popular majority and try to sell this position in their media appearances. There is a common tendency to see populist figures like Donald Trump or Viktor Orbán as the most effective actors in the popularity game, masterful wizards playing with popular fear, pride, affect and anger. The idea of the popularity contest is naturally bound to those of narcissism, image making, impression management and charisma, and media-using politicians have thus often been portrayed as telegenic, narcissistic manipulators whose sole preoccupation is to project whatever image of themselves enchants the popular audience. This line of standard criticism has radically intensified under Trump, as he himself radically transformed his presidency into an endless media gig. The result is the common image of Trump as a narcissistic trash TV star celebrating himself as the popular hero of America and drawing absurdly exaggerated images about his popular support. If we approach Trump’s self-aggrandizing claims from the popularity contest viewpoint, we will inevitably see them as absurd excesses of a narcissistic celebrity who childishly compensates for being less popular than he would like to be.

I believe, however, that today’s populists like Orbán or Trump are halfway out of the popularity contest. As the logic of populism gradually takes over the democratic system, key political battles are fought not simply in the old realm of the popularity contest, where actors want to be popular, but increasingly in another terrain where players seek to seem popular. The name of the game is no longer simply gratifying the preferences of the popular majority but, increasingly, shaping people’s expectations about these preferences. The game is focused not directly on popular opinion but “popular opinion on popular opinion,” a meta-opinion that significantly shapes the way in which the “fundamental” popular opinion that it supposedly reflects can express itself. Populists’ game is to influence people’s common beliefs and expectations on popular taste or opinion. This “speculative” logic is compatible with even the most excessively narcissistic self-aggrandizing claims, which in the “popularity contest” narrative would appear as absurd and ineffective attempts at faking one’s popularity.

When reinterpreting the stake of populist politics as the shaping of people’s expectations about where the popular majority stands, I look at today’s (still) pluralist democracies from the viewpoint of Hungary, the dystopian end point of the populist slope where pluralism has largely been eliminated by the monological rule of “the people”. Viktor Orbán has already gone down the road that Trump has just stepped onto. His system celebrates itself as the natural framework for the sovereign self-government of the genuine popular majority (“Hungarian people”), while in fact it gains its real power from suppressing any institutional or symbolic channel where an uncontrolled popular majority could articulate itself independently of the surveillance of the party state. The core organizing principle of Orbán’s populist system in Hungary today is to impose on all political actors and voters the vision that the popular majority is forever with his party Fidesz, and to kill the germs of any attempt to express a coherent vision about an alternative popular majority (even if this majority does exist). In a recent study I have shown how effective and how decapacitating this strategy is in Hungary. By forcefully shaping all actors’ expectation that Fidesz is popular, it makes actors overvalue this popularity, sucks out their energies to invent new forms of resistance and makes many voters misperceive even their own political preferences. The common mythical perception of Fidesz ruling the so-called “central forcefield” and being supported by the popular majority is the very cornerstone of the populist political system.

Trump’s “grandiose narcissism” may well be read as a sign that the same populist logic already shapes political competition in the (yet) pluralist political system of the USA. Trump — along with other populists — regularly attacks all institutions that conventionally claim to represent a certain popular majority: public opinion research, parties and mainstream popular media. Trump instinctively feels that conventional techniques like polls are not recognized any longer as properly representing popular opinion, that popular media are distrusted, that in spite of all the “popularized” electoral campaigns politics could not be more unpopular, that popular opinion is extremely opaque, that everything is up for grabs in the conventional “popularity contest”. Thus, Trump engages in questioning and shifting the grounds on which popular support is commonly estimated . My rally, he claims, reveals more on the popular will than your polls that are biased and wrong (“any negative polls are fake news”). My Twitter base is a stronger force than your focus groups. I do not need your campaign army of canvassers and algorithms to reach out to the American people who will speak up for themselves on my stages, my rallies, my townhall meetings, my Twitter. It is hard not to recognize in these seemingly more spontaneous forms of “popular acclamation” the logic by which Orbán produces an artificial popular majority with strictly controlled “consultations with the nation”.

In the pluralist environment of liberal democracy, Trump cannot use the power of the state in his attempts to impose preframed representations of the popular majority. However, in the same way as Orbán before his victory in 2010, he relies on a powerful ally: the crowd of commentators — experts, journalists, bloggers, pundits, politicians and voters — who collectively draw stereotyped images about the popular majority, the imaginary “we the people”. The stereotyping process draws its energy from the fact that while most commentators are uncertain about the opaque identity of the popular majority, none of them wants to accept that it can resemble the depiction given by the commentator’s most feared political boogeymen (“we are not like that”, liberal commentary protested after Trump’s victory; “you don’t want to see who we are”, the other side protests incessantly). Thus, commentators seek to reclaim the popular majority for their own political camp and the two sides apply mutually exclusive stereotypes about their majority and the other side’s eventual majority.

In this situation, when social visibility conditions are foggy and only deteriorated by the torrent of highly irritated stereotyped commentary, a strategic populist like Trump who wants to fish in troubled waters has nothing else to do but fuel the engine of collective mutual stereotyping. A sensitive illusionist, Trump secures that his rallies and his speeches project highly credible images about the popular soul of America that conform with the most commonsensical positive and negative stereotypes that commentators on the two political sides hold about that popular majority and about each other’s social basis. The populist’s task is simply to fuel the spontaneous antagonizing machine of collective stereotyping with extravagant claims about his popular base and majority support. This is the place and very function of Trump’s narcissistic gimmicks, like praising the record-setting turnout” at the half-empty square of his inauguration ceremony, or hallucinating masses of illegal immigrants behind the popular vote of Clinton, or celebrating the almighty Twitter fan base (“My Twitter has become so powerful that I can actually make my enemies tell the truth”).

It would take a book to chronicle the cases from the the 2000s when Orbán and his men deliberately irritated the crowd of commentators and opinion leaders — the so-called “left-liberal intelligentsia” and their conservative opponents — with absurdly exaggerated statements. Most famously, Orbán announced in 2002 after his electoral defeat that “the homeland (la patrie) cannot be in opposition”. The crazy irritated flow of rebuttals and defenses that followed the provocation (and the long row of other provocations) illustrates well the fact that the real function of such extravagant gimmicks is to accelerate the collective process of mutual stereotyping, to mobilize the stereotyped beliefs and fears and “collective subconscious” of the commenting crowd that, in the end, is the ultimate creator of the image of the populist leader.

In the conventional “popularity contest” framework, political image is invented by elite consultants. These campaign experts, however, are “all rendered useless” (as Bill Clinton’s chief strategist expressed after Trump won with “no campaign” at all) in a speculative contest the stake of which is shaping collective expectations about the popular majority. For, in this framework, political image is a collective product, the prime image maker is the irritated crowd of commentators, and political actors fuel this image-making by adapting themselves to the crowd’s favorite stereotypes.

The collective stereotyping machine that “speculates” on the unknowable identity of popular majority has a force to “talk to life” its most central diagnoses, however mythical or delusive, just as it happens in the case of financial speculation. The collective beliefs we hold about each other may have a self-fulfilling logic, akin to financial bubble-blowing where common belief in the high market value of an asset does indeed make the asset more worthy, for the limited period of hype. Trump thus may have rightly felt in the campaign that with his excessive gimmicks he can make commentary revolve around him and his potential popular support, and the energy of collective mutual stereotyping will elevate him, with more force than any campaign expert ever could, to the role of his side’s “natural” popular leader — as long as he is the one who conforms the most to the crowd’s stereotypes about the popular hinterland (to “popular opinion on popular opinion”).

Popularity contests aimed at gratifying popular preferences and speculation contests aimed at shaping common expectations regarding popular preferences are two heavily intertwined processes that are opposed and symbiotic at the same time. Wherever an actor tries to gather popular support, speculative forces are inevitably unleashed by all sorts of actors who mobilize biased plausible stereotypes to make sense of this popular support. While the standard critique of popularization has warned us with good reason about the tyranny of the visceral popular taste that actors seek to please, a new critique of “speculation” should reveal the tyranny of the most commonsensical, banal, fatalistic and narrow stereotypes about who we are and what we are capable of as the “people” of a popular, media-immersed society. The crisis of today’s democracy — like populism or the problem of viral contagion in social networks (infrastructures of speculative bubble blowing) or the polarization of the electorate (that is based more on mutual stereotypes than different policy preferences) — seem to require us to ask the question proposed in this essay: is today’s democracy hostage of the visceral taste of the popular majority, or of the mobilization of common stereotypes about this same majority?

Péter Csigó is a sociologist and research fellow at the Budapest University of Technology and Economics. You may explore Peter’s book about “popular speculation” and download chapters here.

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Péter Csigó

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