Right-Wing Populism and the Disappearance of Shame

What happens to a liberal democracy when its leaders have no sense of shame? What happens to civil politics when politicians simply refuse to be civil?

By Ryan McGreal
Published December 09, 2016

In recent years, pundits have been paying increasing attention to the phenomenon of online shaming: the sometimes-frightening cascade of abuse that a virtual mob can direct onto an individual whose misdeed has gone viral.

Shame has its uses, of course, as a deterrent and corrective to bad behaviour. In domain-limited familial, social and organizational contexts, shaming enforces standards of conduct by socializing all members against bad behaviour, as well as provoking an acknowledgement from the shamed party that they behaved badly.

Of course, when the context is broad enough - say, a global community of billions of people connected to the internet - shaming is transformed through sheer scale into a catastrophic downpour of abuse, harassment and even violence.

It's a serious problem, an emergent property of the world's first global communications network, and we really don't know what to do about it.

But the rise of online shaming has been accompanied by a contrary phenomenon, which we might call shamelessness. In public life, and particularly in politics, we are seeing the rise of public figures who behave scandalously with absolutely no sense of shame.

Rob Ford

Perhaps the most notable shameless modern politician in recent history was Rob Ford, the Etobicoke Councillor and then Toronto Mayor who blithely presided over an international freak show during his term as the chief magistrate of Canada's largest city.

Ford violated every tradition and point of etiquette that normally constrains politicians under a parliamentary system like Canada's. He eschewed any kind of transparency and waded into conflicts of interest without even a rudimentary sense that he was doing something wrong.

His public service was characterized by bigotry, racial stereotyping, misogyny, homophobia, contempt for pedestrians and cyclists, and a constant thundering promise to "stop the gravy train", by which he mostly meant public spending on anything he didn't think was important.

He routinely made outrageously false claims about his policy proposals, his activities and his record. He repeatedly insisted that he had saved nearly a billion dollars from the Toronto budget, a false claim that conflated budget cuts, service cuts, user fee increases, strategic reserve drawdowns, and even budget increases that were more modest than hypothetical higher alternatives.

As mayor, Ford surrounded himself with unsavoury and even criminal associates. When details of his increasingly dysfunctional private life spilled over into his public affairs, he viciously attacked the media, denying his actions and defaming the journalists who reported the facts.

Modern Right-Wing Populism

Ford was staggeringly unqualified for the job of Mayor, but he managed to transform his incompetence into a political virtue by lashing out against the "elites" who tried in vain to hold him to some kind of account.

His political fortunes were buoyed by the enthusiastic support of his Etobicoke constituents, who had benefited from his aggressive ward-heeling, and by suburban residents across the megacity with whom his anti-urban politics of resentment and divisiveness played well.

Ford cultivated an enthusiastic tribe of "Ford Nation" followers, and if they cared at all that he was bulldozing through the political system and destroying careful traditions of accountability and civility, they celebrated his disruption of the "establishment".

In short, he was a classic modern right-wing populist, albeit one whose political career was complicated by personal demons that increasingly came to overshadow his public life.

Indeed, shamelessness seems to be a quality of modern right-wing populism. Populists thrive on going against the grain, making the "establishment" uncomfortable and refusing to play by the rules - rules that were put in place incrementally over centuries in order to constrain the worst impulses of political leaders.

Donald Trump

It's impossible to review Rob Ford's political career without noticing the many parallels with United States President-Elect Donald Trump, who ran a very similar right-wing populist campaign marked by bigotry, racial stereotyping, white nationalist identity politics, misogyny and an ugly politics of resentment and divisiveness. (He even promised to "stop the gravy train" - Ford's signature rallying cry - in a speech earlier this year.)

Like Ford, Trump seems impervious to shame. He spouts the most outrageous claims with no regard to their truthfulness. He viciously attacks the media for reporting the facts about him. When recordings emerged of him bragging about sexually assaulting women, he shrugged it off as "locker room talk".

He has been involved in literally thousands of lawsuits for his business activities, including 75 active cases during his presidential run. Just a few days after the November 8 election, he settled two class action lawsuits and an illegal business practices suit against Trump University for $25 million.

Trump spent the last several months accusing Hillary Clinton, his Democratic opponent, of engaging in conflicts of interest between her role as Secretary of State and her connections to the Clinton Foundation.

Meanwhile, his own Trump Foundation has mostly been funded by donations from other people, and has mostly spent its money on activities that directly benefit Trump, including commissioning two large portraits of himself.

His presidency has not even begun yet, but he refuses to distance himself from his business holdings, has requested security clearance for the family members who will be managing his businesses directly, and is already engaging in pay-to-play with foreign leaders to push business to his hotels.

After repeatedly promised to "drain the swamp" of corporate lobbyists, elitists and partisan flacks in Washington DC, Trump is now shamelessly appointing a rogue's gallery of corporate lobbyists, billionaires, military generals, Republican insiders and unqualified loyalists to his cabinet.


And yet Trump's followers continue to love, celebrate and make excuses for him. It is precisely because they constitute a right-wing populist tribe that they refuse to look clearly at his breathtaking array of faults and hypocrisies.

Of course, some of Trump's tribe actually admire his faults and hypocrisies. Trump's white nationalism and xenophobia, for example, has played extremely well with the demographic of white nationalists, xenophobes, racists and bigots who make up a non-trivial percentage of the American electorate. Likewise, his misogyny plays well with misogynists.

But many people who would not reasonably be considered racist or sexist themselves still support him. How is this possible? It's the tribalism of a modern right-wing populist at work.

A tribe is a group of people connected by a shared membership in and broad allegiance to a Venn diagram of concepts that surround a strong leader. That constellation of ideas encompasses the leader's cult of personality, political ideologies, race, ethnicity, religion, corporate identity, economic class and self-image.

The tribe provides its members with an identity and a worldview, specifically one that defines its members separately from the rest of the world. The tribe cultivates a sense of grievance and resentment toward some category of "others" who threaten its members.

Tribes are authoritarian and hierarchical. To challenge its core beliefs is to commit heresy or treachery and is punishable with sanctions that range from ridicule through threats, physical punishment and expulsion. (Think of how protesters are treated at Trump rallies.)

Tribes can change their beliefs, but change comes slowly and almost never from the bottom up. If change does come, it comes from the top down and relies on the force of the leader's personality to make the new belief stick. Or as Orwell famously put it in Nineteen Eighty-Four, "We've always been at war with Eastasia."

Tribes are conservative - they act to conserve their existence, their beliefs, and their internal, hierarchical relationships against both internal and external forces. That makes them jingoistic and xenophobic: outsiders are feared and mistrusted and efforts to understand or feel empathy toward them are denounced as near-treason. (Think of white supremacists referring to white liberals as "race traitors".)

Parallel Media Universe

Tribes also have their own internal communications systems and information flows, with built-in filters that preserve tribal doctrine. That is how people living in the same country can have such divergent beliefs about events the truth of which is easy to confirm empirically.

In a very real sense, Trump's tribe are living in a parallel media universe dominated by the most vitriolic fake and misleading news "reports", as well as the unsupported pronouncements of the leader himself. They are barely exposed to the facts of his mendacity and hypocrisy, and the limited exposure they do get simply reinforces for them that the "lamestream media" cannot be trusted.

This is no accident. The American right has been building and cultivating this parallel universe of discourse for decades. The media system mixes more traditional right-wing print publications with FOX News, talk radio, blogs and "news" aggregaters that run the gamut from traditionally small-c conservative to openly chauvinist and white supremacist (the so-called "alt-right" movement).

In addition to tapping into the existing political apparatus of the Republican Party, Trump also tapped into the right-wing alternative media system to secure his lock on the American right, shouldering past his political rivals in both domains through the sheer force of his outsized personality.

Trump doesn't have to care whether the things he says to rally his supporters are factually correct, because he sits on the throne of a communications empire that exists to validate whatever he says. Anyone living outside the empire who tries to say otherwise is an enemy and not to be trusted.

As a senior aide to former President George W. Bush famously told the journalist Ron Suskind:

The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism.

He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality - judiciously, as you will - we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

Remember: We've always been at war with Eastasia.

Post-Shame Politics

So what happens to a liberal democracy when its leaders have no sense of shame? What happens to civil politics when politicians simply refuse to be civil?

Toronto was more or less able to recover from the Rob Ford era. Current mayor John Tory may be disappointing to some, but he's disappointing in the conventional sense - by borrowing ideas from his opponents and making political compromises in order to get things done in a big, messy city with a lot of competing interests. He has certainly restored a much-needed measure of civility and reasonableness to municipal politics.

Of course, the political system showed resilience to Ford's mayoralty. During his tempestuous term, Council eventually closed ranks and stripped him of all the powers they had the statutory leverage to remove. A judge even ordered him removed from office over one of his conflicts of interest, though an appeals judge reversed the order on a technicality.

But what if Ford hadn't gotten sick during the 2014 mayoral campaign? What if he didn't have to drop out in order to treat the pleomorphic liposarcoma that ended up taking his life at age 46? He might well have won a second term from an angry, divided voting populace.

How much lasting damage could he have done to the culture, practices and personnel of Toronto City Hall after another four years of the freak show, emboldened by a voting mandate to push back against the powers that attempted to restrain him?

Institutional Resilience Put to the Test

Looking forward, how much damage will Donald Trump manage to do to the American body politic as the President itself, with partisan control over both Houses of government and the power to make appointments-for-life to the Supreme Court?

Will the democratic system be able to keep his abuses of power in check and limit his executive overreach? The Republican Party has already made serious inroads against American democracy: by eliminating limits on third-party spending, overturning those measures of the Voting Rights Act that protect against discriminatory practices, gerrymandering Congressional Districts so the GOP wins a majority of seats even when it loses the majority vote, and so on.

Trump's own electoral victory comes despite receiving 2.6 million fewer votes than his Democratic rival, thanks to a wrinkle of the Electoral College that gives disproportionate influence to more rural voters.

With control over all three branches of government and the judiciary and the giant amplifier of a compliant media system, we should not be surprised to see Trump continue to consolidate political power in order to ensure continued Republican rule.

He has already threatened to deploy Federal agencies to prosecute his political opponents, and we cannot forget that he was aided in winning the election by the partisan Republican director of the FBI, who issued a spurious and damaging eleventh-hour announcement that Clinton's emails were being investigated again.

In jurisdictions where shameless, charismatic populists seize power, they tend to hold onto it for a long time. Whether it is Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, Vladimir Putin in Russia or Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, charismatic populists move quickly to reshape the apparatus of government to insulate themselves against repercussions for their gross abuses of power.

This entails filling cabinet positions with cronies and loyalists, tweaking electoral rules to tilt the board in their favour, securing their right to remain in positions of power beyond term limits and progressively squeezing their opponents for resources and airtime.

It remains to be seen whether Trump will leave an intact apparatus of democratic power when he is through with the White House, but I am not very hopeful. The peaceful transition of power is a civic tradition that is sustained by people's belief in its underlying principles, and shameless populists have no time for such niceties.

Uncertain Future

Canada's Conservative Party is currently holding a party leadership campaign with the election scheduled for may 2017. So far, at least three leadership contenders are actively exploiting the same angry right-wing politics of resentment and divisiveness that Trump rode into the White House.

One candidate has expressed open admiration for Trump and wants to implement an "anti-Canadian values" test for immigrants, refugees and visitors to Canada.

Another candidate, speaking at a rally organized by the race-baiting, misogynistic website The Rebel Media, smiled and waved his hand in rhythm with the angry crowd chanting "Lock her up" about Alberta Premier Rachel Notley - blatant echo of the "Lock her up" chants at Trump rallies that were directed at Clinton.

And while that candidate at least tried to distance himself from the angry chant after the fact, yet another candidate says he would have chanted right along with them.

I am concerned enough about the future of the Conservative Party that I broke my lifelong policy of remaining non-partisan and joined the Conservative Party in order to cast my vote for a leadership candidate who is not a xenophobic white nationalist.

What we have learned from the tribal politics of partisan populism is that once a populist seizes control of a party, far too many members will simply go along and vote the way they always have, not really recognizing that the stakes have suddenly changed.

Sooner or later, voters in a liberal democracy get tired of the governing party, and they tend to throw the incumbents out in favour of the other major party. That voting pattern makes sense when both parties are fundamentally committed to shared principles of liberal democracy.

But when one of the parties has been taken over by a charismatic authoritarian, all bets are off.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal.


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