Sam Fogel: A world falling prey to demagogues

Tuesday, October 15, 2019 - 10:48am

If you’ve been paying any attention to things the past couple years, it can seem like the world is going mad. The Amazon rainforest is burning, the president is using Twitter to defend himself against impeachment, the U.K. is imploding from the pressure of Brexit and Hong Kong is embroiled in a fight for its democracy, among many other prominent struggles. It’s hard to keep up with it all. But in the chaos of the modern era, there’s a dangerous and demonstrable trend that seems to be popping up. 

In places all around the world, fascist demagogues are coming to power. In Poland, the institutions that preside are facing a battle with PiS (Law and Justice Party), a nationalistic party that prides itself on anti-immigrant and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric. In the Philippines there is President Rodrigo Duterte, a leader who outright kills drug dealers. In India we have Prime Minister Narenda Modi, who uses Islamophobia in the Hindu populace to inspire support and congregate power in the executive branch. In Brazil there’s President Jair Bolsonaro, a man who fetishizes the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from the mid-1960s to the 1980s. And of course, we have Trump, who stirs up the divisions of this country and strips the press of its credibility through “fake news” gaslighting. Right-wing populism is on the rise, and you should be scared. 

Let’s first focus on PiS (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość) in Poland. PiS is a right-wing, nationalistic party that first came to power in 2015 in the wake of Donald Tusk leaving Poland to become President of the European Council.The party prides itself on a rhetoric of anti-LGBTQ and anti-immigrant sentiments, with typical nationalist slogans including (but not limited to) “refugees get out” and “pure Poland, white Poland.” Since PiS came to power, the country has been in a crisis of rolling back constitutional rights, with the party gaining more and more control over the government. PiS almost passed a law that would require judges to retire based on age, which would almost immediately relinquish 24 out of the 76 seats on the Polish Supreme Court. The law would have expanded the court to 120 judges as well, which would give PiS immediate control over two-thirds of the court by means of the president appointing judges who would follow the party’s whim. This congregation of power within the ruling party is a guaranteed way to get oppressive decrees against marginalized groups. 

Another example can be seen in the large democracy of Brazil. Jair Bolsonaro was elected president in late 2018 and took power on January 1 this year. Some of Jair’s rhetoric includes anti-LGBTQ, sexism and racism. Conventions too familiar for comfort. Bolsonaro has been quoted saying that criminals “should die on the street like cockroaches,” and is noted as wanting to rid his country of “lefties” and communists. And he’s gone on record in support of President Donald Trump.  By the way, Bolsonaro is selling hundreds of miles of the Amazon rainforest to loggers and farmers. It’s one of the reasons the forest is burning up right now. 

In the world’s largest democracy — India — a populist leader was elected on the back of Islamophobia and nationalism. India finds itself embroiled in a decade long rivalry with Pakistan and is incredibly vulnerable to such toxic campaigning. Islamic immigrants from places like Bangladesh have been labeled as “termites" and wretches of society by members of Modi’s party. After Modi’s first election, lynch mobs against Muslims cropped up, and those inciting them got away with their extrajudicial killings. Unfortunately, India is falling victim to the nationalist wave many in the Western world are succumbing to as well.

The commonality between all of these different instances can be found within the gripes of the people: a failing system with forces acting in bad faith manipulating the affected. A corrupt government left a power vacuum in Brazil once they were found out; Polish right-wing actors blamed unrelated problems on the emerging migrant crisis; a nation consisting of 0.1 percent Muslim people (38,000) fell to Islamophobic fervor; a nation still recovering from the economic crash of 2008 and faced with a more powerful China is blaming its economic woes on Mexican immigrants who are fleeing their own country at the behest of wealthy legislators. Unchecked rhetoric can become a malignant movement of far-right extremity. What we can take from this here in the United States is a reflection of how similar movements can take hold, with an emboldening far right taking advantage of the political turmoil in the Trump era. Keep tabs on the rhetoric being thrown around in discourse, and don’t be swayed in your thinking by demagogues who prey on your fear. Speak up against bad faith actors putting the blame on marginalized people and demonstrate against injustice. Don’t let your country fall to fascism.

Sam Fogel can be reached at samfogel@umich.edu.