LONDON ― All over the West, populists have an unusual poster boy: Russian President Vladimir Putin. In France, Marine Le Pen has praised his model “of reasoned protectionism, looking after the interests of his own country, defending his identity.” U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has been repeatedly effusive in his admiration for the Russian president. Even Greece’s left-wing party, Syriza, has defended Russian actions in Ukraine and opposed sanctions.
To everyone else, this seems bizarre. Putin is a man who, according to the Guardian, “has startled and worried the world with his bold and willful policies” and who The New York Times says is undermining both NATO and European democracy and whose “aggressive behavior … could result in the kind of dangerous miscalculations that often lead to armed conflict.”
It’s easy to view the populists as foolish innocents who have fallen for a scheming scoundrel. After all, we have reason to think that Putin’s Russia is engaged in wholesale political manipulation, in part from its interference in the U.S. presidential election, its establishment of an “army” of internet trolls and its ramping up of Russia-sponsored media in European languages. Its next target appears to be the 2017 elections in Germany and France.
But to see the populists as hapless victims of Kremlin manipulation is to underestimate the genuine admiration they have for the qualities Putin represents. It may well end in tears, but this is no marriage of convenience: this is true love. If we want to know why so many voters have fallen for the populists, we need to understand why the populists have fallen for Putin.
It may well end in tears, but the union between Putin and the populists is no marriage of convenience. It is true love.
The answers are not so difficult to find. Pick virtually any defining feature of populism and you’ll find it reflected in Putin. This might sound perverse, given that pretty much the only thing populists agree on is their disdain for elites, and as an ex-KGB man with almost absolute power at home, Putin is hardly an outsider. But populist resentment has never been directed at all elites ― only the wrong kind, those who comprise the political mainstream who have led Western democracies for the decades since World War II. That is why the rich and powerful Donald Trump can be seen as anti-elitist: he belongs to an elite, but not the Washington or Brussels one. Putin similarly belongs to a Russian elite, but not to the Western liberal establishment.
Populism is fueled mainly by anger directed at this political class, and Putin is fighting the same power. To see this merely as the cold realpolitik opportunism that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” underestimates how strongly people can be bound by what they oppose: a shared hatred can form the basis of a mutual love.
Putin’s other characteristics also appeal to populist sentiment. Strong leadership is admired by populists because it is seen as necessary to counter the equally strong vested interests that stand between the people and the exercise of their will. Putin shares their debased view of what democracy really means: tapping into the simple, unified will of the people and executing it. For populists, majority support mandates absolute rule, and even Putin’s strongest critics accept that he has, for most of his tenure at least, commanded the support of the majority in Russia.
Liberal democracy, in contrast, believes that the will of the people is not simple and it must be mediated through democratic institutions that ameliorate extremes and protect minorities from majorities. For populists, this is just code for the liberal elite not getting on with what the people want but diluting the popular will to suit their own agendas.
That is one of the main reasons why populism is such a threat to democracy as we know it. Populism doesn’t have any real respect for the rule of law. It believes that sovereignty does not lie in Parliament or stable democratic institutions but simply in the most recent electoral mandate given by the majority of the people. Institutions that liberals view as protecting the fundamental values of democracy are seen as obstacles to democracy by populists. Hence, Trump’s dismissal of the electoral process as “rigged” (until he won, of course) and the accusation that judges ruling on the need for the U.K. Parliament to vote on withdrawal from the EU are “enemies of the people.” We should not be surprised that such people do not see Putin’s disregard for the rule of law in Russia as a problem. If the law doesn’t suit, just change it. This is what William Partlett of the Brookings Institution calls “rule by law.”
Then, of course, we have Putin’s nationalism. Populists on the left and right are united in their desire to return power from faceless and unaccountable international institutions and trade agreements to sovereign nations. This turn inward makes no sense without a strong sense of nationhood, whether it is based on pure ethnicity or not. In this respect, Putin is marching lock-step with nationalists and has shown in Crimea and Ukraine that he is willing to use force to (as he sees it) protect Russians inside or outside national borders, as well as to protect the territorial integrity of the nation.
Populism is a threat to democracy as we know it.
The final point of compatibility is a broader rejection of liberal values. Populists tend to be more religiously conservative and opposed to multiculturalism. Putin’s facilitation of the regrowth of the Russian Orthodox Church’s influence has endeared him to those who want to see a greater role for the church in their own countries. Even those who are not religious like the sense of a return to “traditional” values that such moves represent. At the very least, the assertion of the national religion is also an assertion of the value of the dominant, heterogeneous, indigenous culture.
Of course, it is true that Putin is interested in supporting nationalists for his own ends. Populism undermines European unity and so provides an opportunity for Russia to increase its sphere of influence and interference. But to focus too much on the Kremlin’s engineering is to fall for just the kind of paranoid global conspiracy theories that so many populists play on and deflects attention from the home-grown causes of populism and its threat.
To take the affair between Putin and the populists seriously requires us to understand why true love has a role to play. Liberals underestimate the attractions of nationalism, tradition and strong leadership. Populists believe in Putin-style authoritarian democracy that plays by the rules of elections but has little or no regard for the essentially pluralistic nature of Western democracies in which negotiation, compromise and rule of law all matter as much as the decision of the majority on any given day. For those who reassure themselves that Putin is as a peculiarly Soviet revanchist, the likes of which Europeans would never fall for, the populists provide a sobering wake-up call.