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Boris Johnson: The sado-populist prime minister

Editor-at-large ALASTAIR CAMPBELL on a concept that helps explain the politics of Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson, wearing an England top over his shirt, heads to Wembley for the semi-final against Denmark - Credit: Twitter

Until last week, I was unaware of the work of Timothy Snyder, and I had never heard of ‘sado-populism’. Having now been introduced to both, I have a better understanding of what is happening in our country under this awful, wretched government.

Snyder, a 51-year-old American historian, is a professor at Yale, a permanent fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, and the author of books about the Holocaust, about Hitler and Stalin, about tyranny, oligarchy, the fragility of democracy.

“You need to watch this,” a man named John McCusker said to me on Twitter. He had been following my outpourings on Brexit, Boris Johnson’s lies, on the way populism was infecting both our politics and our media in a way that keeps me awake at night and raging during the day. I clicked on the link, and a kindly face topped by greying hair looked out from the screen, and introduced me to… sado-populism.

Snyder’s speech was about Donald Trump, in the US, in 2017. But my, how the words resonated for what is happening, with Boris Johnson, in the UK, in 2021.

This is a new phenomenon, said Snyder, a president who is not governing in the interests of his own electors, but whose actions will in fact damage those people who voted for him.

Trump and Vladimir Putin, he said, are often described as “populists”, but “a populist is someone who has a policy offering, a promise to the people” to make their lives better. “I don’t see that in Trump and Putin. I see policies that if implemented would hurt the people… it is sadism, the deliberate administration of pain.”

“That probably sounds strange,” he admitted, “how can you possibly govern by hurting the people who put you in office?”

The answer, Snyder suggested, is that you fuel fear, anger, resentment, hate; but you make people feel better by making sure they know others are far worse off; and you create blame and division between the various groupings. “Sado-populists do not ask ‘how do we make people better off?’ But ‘how do we revive enmities?’ Discrimination and racism – they are reviving them by trying to teach white people they are doing better – or they are better – than blacks, Hispanics, Muslims.”

So, pick the people whose support you want, and no matter how poor they are, no matter the state of their housing or labour market, failing schools, falling living standards, rising crime, you tell them, consistently, they are doing better, and they are better, than others.

And as for the problems you have, they are not caused by you, nor the government, but by others. Mexicans, for example. Closer to home, Poles and Romanians, gypsies, welfare scroungers, Brussels, bureaucrats… you know the list.

“Compare with how democracy usually works in this country,” said Snyder. “Two parties with some vision of the future. One party says ‘we will make the future better this way’, the others say ‘we will make it better this way’. What it does is produce the future.”

Sado-populism breaks with that approach, he argued. “It stops talking about the future, it removes the future as conversation, it loops back to the past, back over the decades… not Make America Great; but Make America Great AGAIN.” Or, bringing it to Britain once more, Take BACK control.

Several post-war decades in the US, he said, were domestically defined by three things – the gap between very rich and very poor was closing; the unions were stronger; education services were improving. “If you were seriously thinking about making it great AGAIN, you would redistribute wealth, improve education, have stronger unions… nobody is doing that.”

Trump’s policy programme was sadistic because it was specifically designed not to make the people who put him in the White House better off, but worse off. Tax breaks for the rich, at the expense of middle- and working-class people; removing health care from the very people who put him in office, from the Mid-West; “the last thing they need is less health care. That is deliberately designed to administer pain in American society,” he said.

As to why that “makes sense”, from the perspective of the sado-populist: “If you hurt people you create a resource of pain and anxiety and fear that can be directed against others. You teach people this is normal. ‘The government cannot help you, life is full of pain but we have the consolation that others are suffering more grievances’.

“That takes over, the past takes over, a nostalgic view, and the endless drumbeat of enmity setting some Americans against others. You hurt and you want someone else to hurt more. Instead of thinking about how we might all do better together in the future, we think about how we are doing better than others.”

That works on the global front too. America against the world. America First. America always doing better than others, even when they’re not. World-beating at everything, as the very not-world-beating Boris Johnson might put it, and often does.

Russia is already well down the next stage of the sado-populist journey – which Snyder defined as the deliberate undermining of democracy. Trump tried hard to follow, not just in voter suppression, still part of the Republican strategy, but also in refusing to accept the democratic outcome that ejected him from office a few years after Snyder made his speech. Johnson’s curbs on protest, and on the Electoral Commission’s powers, are part of the same thing. Likewise the Elections Bill, making it harder for people to vote, under the guise of ‘dealing with’ the virtually non-existing problem of voter fraud.

“If in the long run, you govern by making people hurt, and who don’t mind because others feel worse, what you intend to do is take the vote away from people who expect more, the people who need government. You move slowly away from democracy,” said Snyder. “And if where we end up is the sense that ‘government can’t do anything’, you have more inequality, less social mobility, more hopelessness,” It all fits with the pattern of the ‘Sovereign Individual’ approach I have written about here before, the right wing libertarian worldview that allows the wealthy to operate free from government or democratic control, and have total control of what the Sovereign Individuals like Jacob Rees-Mogg’s father, who coined the term, called the serfs.

So the poorest children affected by Covid don’t get the education support recommended by the man appointed to tell the government what they need. The man resigns. The government speaks not to those losing out, but to those ‘above’ them’ ‘We have to make difficult choices’ – code for ‘we’re giving them less so that you can get more.’

Universal credit is going to be cut, and more people will fall into poverty. Even Iain Duncan Smith is opposed. The row helps the sado-populists. They have the right wing papers, for whom the term could have been invented, to remind their readers that Muslims, immigrants, welfare scroungers are the cause of the problems we face, not an incompetent and morally corrupt government. So when you don’t get the ‘more’ promised by them giving less to the poor, you have someone else to blame, to hate.

On overseas aid, the manifesto-breaking cut is less about the huge damage done to some of the poorest people in the poorest parts of the world, than a vehicle to tell people here that we matter more, we are better.

Whenever I hear Priti Patel talk about asylum or immigration, I hear someone drawing attention to the problem, less worried about the impact of her policies on those who will be directly affected by them, up to and including those who drown trying to get here, than the reaction of people unlikely ever to meet the kind of people getting into the dinghies. ‘At least we’re not drowning in freezing water because we were daft enough to think we would be welcome here.’

Brexit is a sado-populist classic. It was secured on the message of taking back control, resurrecting lost British pride. Much of the fuel of the campaign came from enmities – immigrants, as always; Turks; ‘Brussels,’ and the very word ‘Europe’, itself became bywords for an enemy, often spoken of in the language of war.

Now that Brexit is going badly, the British negotiators who negotiated the deal blame the Europeans for letting them have it; and when that tactic flounders, chief negotiator ‘Lord’ David Frost goes further – he blames Theresa May and her negotiators.

In Northern Ireland, as a result of the border in the sea Johnson said would be created over his dead body, the old enmities are resurfacing, and the prime minister seems spectacularly unconcerned. In the rest of the UK, all too easy to look towards Northern Ireland, and say ‘ah well, at least we don’t have violence on the streets about it’.

If you’re a medium-sized business finding the new red tape a bit of a nightmare, hey it could be worse… you could be a farmer looking at rotting fruit in the fields because the pickers have all gone home.

If you’re a City worker seeing lots of capital flow to Frankfurt and Amsterdam, at least you’re not a fisherman losing his livelihood. Johnson is happy to lay a huge St George flag outside Number 10, dress up ludicrously in an England shirt over his work clothes, partly to express support for England in football no doubt, but also because he doesn’t mind further fuelling the antagonism some Scots and Welsh feel towards England. Division is all part of the sado-populist’s book of tricks.

On Covid, Johnson no longer even disguises the fact his policies will hurt, and even kill, people. World Health Organisation advisor Dr Mike Ryan called the UK government policy “moral emptiness and epidemiological stupidity”. But pro-maskers can argue with anti-maskers. Those who put health first can argue with those who put the economy first.

Meanwhile, Johnson has a ‘culture war team’ inside Number 10, paid by us, ready to pounce on any passing story, about flags and symbols, football and culture, that can fuel further anger and division. Culture wars are crucial to sado-populists. They’re cheap; it doesn’t cost the government a penny to drive divisive debate about what gets played at the Proms, taking the knee being gesture politics, the National Trust allegedly being run by woke pinkos, so-called cancel culture on university campuses.

The good news is Trump is no longer president. The bad news is he got 71 million votes, including from many who were negatively affected by what he did as president. The worse news is that in our system Johnson won’t need much more than a third of the votes to stay in No. 10 – which is all he cares about.

Snyder said we needed this new word, this new concept of sado-populism, to make sense of what was in America a baffling situation. Part of the messaging for those who cannot wait to see the back of this wretched, awful government is not merely that they are bad people doing bad things which will hurt the people who put them in power… but they are doing them deliberately.

It sounds crazy. But these are crazy times. And Snyder has a point, every bit as applicable to the UK as it was to Trump’s US.

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