The “people”, on this reading, are sweet and decent. Everything populists do, they do on our behalf. But the people are also rather thick. If it were not for the tireless efforts of populist parties, the elite would take us for the trusting fools we are, and herd us sheep-like into its pens.
“There’s something going on, and it’s bad,” says Donald Trump, and his audience mutters that at last it has found a politician who tells it like it is. The “something” may be Mexicans, Muslims, autism vaccinations, Lee Harvey Oswald’s close relationship with the Cruz family or the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.
On the rare occasions Trump is called out and has to admit that the judge wasn’t murdered by liberals, or his rival’s father did not assassinate JFK, he falls back on the standbys of every cornered fantasist. He was just “raising a question”.
When the House of Commons asked Dominic Cummings, the director of the official “Leave” campaign, to explain why so few national and international, private and public sector institutions thought Britain could thrive outside the EU, he followed Trump. Shadowy forces were silencing and intimidating as they rigged the debate. The “neutral” civil service was corrupt. Nothing was true, and only the eternally vigilant friends of the people could see through the lies.
Today’s populist movements attribute limitless malice and almost supernatural power to their opponents. They can rig markets, manipulate the media, fix foreign governments and call on unlimited resources as they plot to deceive “us”, “the people”.