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Global politics

Populism is here to stay

Silvio Berlusconi in 2019: arch populist. Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty

The defenestration of Boris Johnson was a “very British affair”, says Adrian Wooldridge in Bloomberg: drama at Prime Minister’s Questions; machinations within the 1922 Committee; scandal at a private members’ club. Yet “for all the local colour”, this was just a British variation on the global story of populism. We’ve seen it all elsewhere: a charismatic leader wins power promising to champion the little people. He breaks not just “sartorial and behavioural codes”, but constitutional norms. He frequently achieves what “convention-bound politicians deemed impossible” – but always, inevitably, “crashes and burns”. Johnson was relatively lightweight as populists go – his rule-breaking paled in comparison to that of, say, Donald Trump, Silvio Berlusconi and Bolivia’s Evo Morales. But populist he was.

With Johnson out, and the chances of a Trump comeback looking “slimmer by the day”, is this the end of the populist era? Alas, no. Structural forces are now “on the side of populist politicians”: social media helps them spread their message, while the “outrage-industrial complex” (Fox News et al) stokes public anger. The “preening elites” who think they are both cleverer and more virtuous than everyone else remain in charge, while the corporate establishment has “doubled down on its obsession with cosmopolitan values”. Johnson may be gone. But thanks to the potent combination of new technology and ancient tribalism, populism is here to stay. “The wrecking ball still has a great deal of wrecking to do.”