Jorge Luis Borges once underlined that nobody likes “to owe anything to their contemporaries”. The maxim of the Argentine writer does not correspond to contemporary populists who legitimize themselves in the experience of Trumpism, but they do their best to make us forget that they are part of a long history that began with fascism. In fact, modern populism grew out of the shadow left by fascism after its utter defeat in World War II.
Historically, ruling populism and its creation of a post-fascist democracy was perhaps the most disturbing phenomenon of the post-war era and first occurred in Latin America after 1945, when it became a regime under rulers like Juan Domingo Perón, in Argentina and Getúlio Vargas, in Brazil.
Over the decades, countries like Argentina, Brazil and also Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela have witnessed significant new attempts to lay the foundations for a third way; a democratic and authoritarian regime at the same time, different from fascism, liberal democracy and communism.
The vitality and versatility of populism
Populism, as a political regime, has faced both the enemies of the Cold War in which it developed and fascism which has died. With the end of the Cold War, populism has shown extraordinary vitality and versatility and, like yesterday, history is useful today for understanding the successes, but also the possible exit strategies of the regimes. populists.
In the countries of the North Atlantic – Europe and the United States – the exit strategies of populism have so far taken two directions, a technocratic which minimizes political parties and a policy which tries to reconfigure politics along party channels. .
In the first case, represented by Emmanuel Macron in France, the solution was to unite a large number of anti-populist forces under the banner of meritocracy and responsibility with the dual objective of going beyond the right and the left and overcome the distinction between politics. and technocracy.
The godfathers of this course of action were Bill Clinton, in the United States, and Tony Blair, in the United Kingdom, who declared after his electoral victory in 1997: “Now we are the party of the people, the party of the whole people. In the European Union, technocratic practice continued, while the United States left Clinton’s policies behind.
The second case is represented by Joe Biden and the path followed is that of the classic political party. The new president, after an election campaign in the name of moderation and national unity and Trump’s attack on Capitol Hill on January 6, has changed course. Biden has chosen to listen to the more progressive wing of his party, which has long advocated policies of state intervention, redistribution and progressive taxation. Instead of abandoning ideological positions, Biden arms his policies with clearly social democratic language, abandoning bipartite solutions previously pursued – unsuccessfully – by Obama and Clinton.
In Europe, the exit from populism seems to be the absorption of the conflict in an expansion of technocracy which depresses the protagonism of the parties in favor of management by technicians and specialists. In the United States, the way to oxygenate populism is through state intervention to fight poverty and exclusion.
Let us say that the two trajectories out of populism reflect two lines of interpretation of the causes of populism: the first emphasizes that there are many political parties; the second insists on the theme of demagoguery.
The experience in Latin America
If we study the experiences of Latin America, we see that the paths are not that different. There have been extreme responses, often championed in the name of technocratic solutions, such as the coups against Perón (1955), Chávez (2002) and Morales (2019). But now Trump has made it clear that this possibility also exists in “consolidated democracies”.
But excluding regime change, responses to authoritarian populism in Latin America are generally no different from those that have arisen in North Atlantic countries. And both involve forms of light or moderate populism as in the case of Mauricio Macri in Argentina, and technocratic forms of the right as in the case of Sebastián Piñera in Chile, or forms of left-wing – not social-democratic populism. – as in the case of Kirchnerian Peronism in Argentina or Pedro Castillo in Peru.
Recently Alberto Fernández, Peronist President of Argentina, argued that Biden is ultimately similar to Juan Domingo Perón, in fact he called him Juan Domingo Biden. But Biden is by no means a populist. It lacks all the ingredients of populism: paternalism, demagoguery, use of political religion, anti-pluralism, cult of the leader, impatience in the face of the division of powers.
Without a doubt, America’s current response to populism is the one most in line with democracy. If Biden is a properly democratic response to populism, can we conclude that the return to party politics and programmatic discussion is also the winning response to the fear of fascism, as well as to the success of populism?
Recently, journalists and historians have argued that Biden does not present a sufficient alternative, and that his administration’s stimulus is pale compared to that of FD Roosevelt. But the negative comparison with the New Deal is not convincing. Not only because of the radical ‘all-or-nothing’ ideological structure that inspires him and Biden’s identification as an inverted image of Trump, but also because of his lack of historicity.
These critics ignore the context of the global financial economy in which Trumpism has risen and fallen and in which Biden has won. We cannot ignore the fact that Biden’s programs come after decades of reducing wealth taxes under the drip economy ideology. If Biden’s change of direction is seen as an attempt to directly attack these assumptions, then there is the possibility of a transformative change. Moreover, his plan is designed with the intention of having a structural impact on the lives of those impoverished by the financial crisis of 2008.
In short, Biden’s plan undoubtedly represents an attempt at a democratic response to the anti-democratic politics of populism in general and the aspiring fascist vocation of Trumpism in particular. At least in terms of goals, Biden’s strategy to break out of populism is not satisfied with incentives and regulatory interventions, and wants to tackle poverty, hardship, and discrimination with concrete policy goals and actions.
In this sense, Biden is linked to the New Deal, and more broadly to the history of the anti-fascist coalitions that defeated the Axis. Like them, he seeks to break the deadly combination of hate politics and economic desperation that has made Trumpism and Latin American Trumpists like Bolsonaro or Bukele so successful.