Arthur Finkelstein, a rightwing American political campaign manager who died in 2017, almost never spoke in public. The gay son of a Brooklyn taxi driver was so secretive that he booked hotels under assumed names.
Practically the only audible trace he left is a speech in 2011 at the obscure Cevro Institut in Prague. It’s worth listening to on YouTube, because in it Finkelstein foretells the political future.
The economic crisis, he says in broad Brooklynese, “appears, at least from my travels around, to be much worse than it feels to most of us. There is real anger.” Everywhere, its targets were ethnic minorities. In the US, he noted, “the anger is at the Mexicans. Not even all Hispanics — the Mexicans.”
In such times, “from-nowhere politicians” could suddenly emerge. Given the economic mess, predicted Finkelstein, “we’re looking at business people to become leaders”. Who in particular? “I don’t know if anybody here is watching Donald Trump in the US, but it’s mind-boggling. It’s just pure personality.” Trump was then in full pursuit of Barack Obama’s birth certificate.
We’ve spent years obsessing over the populist leaders we see onstage. Giuliano Da Empoli’s new French book Les ingénieurs du chaos instead shines the spotlight backstage, on Finkelstein and other populist strategists. It is they who (with help from Russia) have turned genuine popular grievances into election victories. Their next target: May’s European elections. So, what are their techniques?
Davide Casaleggio, a brain behind Italy’s innovative Five-Star Movement, once said that old political parties were like Blockbuster; new ones were like Netflix. Most traditional parties, at least until 2016, used 20th-century techniques. They spoke in wooden, evasive language. They competed for the political centre. They chose leaders who had spent decades ascending the party machine. And they ditched vision: Da Empoli says progressives went in one generation from “turn your dreams into reality” to “turn reality into your dream”.
By contrast, populism’s influences are 21st-century. Trump came from reality TV. His “historical merit”, says Da Empoli, lay in understanding that election campaigns were “very mediocre” reality shows, “produced by dilettantes and populated by sad personalities without lives . . . B-list performers, the wrong Clinton, the wrong Bush”.
Another populist influence was video game culture. Steve Bannon (more effective backstage than front) briefly invested in gaming in 2005. He lost money but discovered a vast underworld of young men who practised anonymous online aggression.
When social media came along, populist start-ups quickly learnt its techniques. Like reality TV and video games, social media rewards engagement. If a meme goes viral — “Build the wall!” — populists refine and run with it. If it doesn’t, they drop it. Populist leaders and their social-media followers feed each other in an eternal cycle.
So populist parties meet political demand, while amassing data on voters. That allows them to target micro-groups with messages that no one else sees. Electoral campaigns become “wars between software”, writes Da Empoli. Supporters come to feel like participants rather than spectators.
Populists separate campaigning from governance. Their leaders are selected not for any governing skills but strictly for their ability to drive engagement. That’s why many of them — Beppe Grillo, Boris Johnson, Trump — come from entertainment industries. A quick route to engagement is arousing anger. In Finkelstein’s words, “The guy who says, ‘I have a seven-point plan for fixing the pensions system’” will lose to “the guy who says, ‘Throw them out! Get rid of those people’”.
For Finkelstein, more important than choosing one’s own candidate was selecting the right enemy. The ideal enemy is a person or group who can be presented as the embodiment of assorted evils. The populist script says: no matter how placid and safe your country might seem, this enemy intends to destroy your way of life or even kill you.
In 2004, Finkelstein joked: “In terms of the Republicans, Hillary Clinton is a wonderful candidate for the presidency.” Working for Orbán in 2013, he chose George Soros as the enemy. (There were obvious echoes of Emmanuel Goldstein, the Party’s enemy in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.) Finkelstein, though Jewish himself, used anti-Semitic tropes against Soros. He wasn’t a racist; he just liked winning games.
Populists attract some extremists. The populist candidate never disavows them because they are his strongest supporters and they make him look moderate by comparison. So Trump needed the Charlottesville neo-Nazis just as Netanyahu needs the Jewish Power party.
Now traditional parties are learning populist techniques. US Democrats have found their ideal enemy in Trump, and will presumably avoid choosing an ideal enemy as their own candidate for 2020. Everywhere since the Women’s March of January 2017, mainstream voters have morphed from spectators into participants. And some new politicians, notably Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, can rival Trump for engagement. To some degree, we are all populists now.
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