Marmur: Recognizing populism

In a paper delivered in Toronto late last year, Jon Allen, a senior fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs, identified five characteristics of populism: (1) Populists are often leaders with big personalities; (2) they usually offer simple solutions to complex problems; (3) they claim to represent “the people”; (4) they espouse nationalism and nativism of the “make America great again” type; (5) In Allen’s words, “Populists generally play fast and loose with the truth.”

Though Canada is relatively free of populism, things may be changing here, too, and not for the better. As an example, Allen points to the election of Doug Ford as premier of Ontario. Though Ford embraced immigration, “it didn’t take him too long to show his true populist colours in other areas: anti-environment measures, buck a beer and legalize tailgating, reverting to a 1998 sex education policy for Ontario schools” and many other measures of that ilk.

A recently published essay on right-wing populism in the Journal of Social Philosophy by Frank Cunningham, emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto, begins with this statement, “My credentials for addressing this topic are that I had already experienced an urban version of Trump-style populist politics in the Toronto mayoral campaign that in 2010 elected the infamous Rob Ford. Like Trump, Ford ran on anti-elite rhetoric which in his case demonized professionals, the press and politicians of the inner city, and he drew on a constituency with many of the same features as Trump’s core voters.”

Reminding readers that the late Rob Ford’s brother Doug Ford became the premier of Ontario eight years later “employing similar rhetoric,” Cunningham concludes that “these successes mirror the strength of right-wing leaders and movements globally.”

The most notorious and most powerful of them all is, of course, the president of the United States, Donald Trump. According to Allen, Trump’s “persistent lying,” and “masterful use of social media” is likely to be his long-lasting legacy.   

One of Trump’s greatest admirers and emulators is Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Last March, an editorial in the Economist called him “King Bibi” and described him as “a parable of modern populism” who “matters because he embodied the politics of muscular nationalism, chauvinism and the resentment of elites.”

Jonathan G. Leslie of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies has written that Netanyahu’s set of political tactics “bears a close resemblance to those currently employed by some of the world’s most prominent populist leaders.” Leslie observes that “Netanyahu’s actions, particularly in the realm of foreign policy, offer some of the best examples of how populist leaders operate once in power and the effects such actions can have in the global political arena.”

Hence Netanyahu’s affinity not only with Trump but also with other populist politicians around the world. The fact that many of them are anti-Semites doesn’t seem to trouble the leader of the Jewish state.  For instance, the fact that his seemingly warm relations with Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary, have embarrassed Hungarian Jews hasn’t inhibited Netanyahu, though he often styles himself as the spokesman and defender of Jews everywhere.


But it would trouble the Pope. Meeting in the Vatican with a delegation from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Pope Francis described populism as the result of “selfish indifference” that “provides fertile terrain for hatred, including anti-Semitism.” We don’t hear words like that from the prime minister of Israel.

At the end of his paper, Allen offers several suggestions about how to respond to populism. One of them states: “Let’s elect leaders who encourage diversity rather than exclusion, who tell the truth about the real challenges we face going forward, and why we try to address those challenges rather than offering simplistic solutions.”

Israelis will have an opportunity to elect such leaders when they go to the polls again on March 2. The future of both the Jewish state and the Jewish Diaspora may depend on it.