Populism isn’t dead — it’s alive and well

Adam Honeysett-Watts is Principal Director at Conservatives in Communications, Co-Chair of the PRCA Corporate Group and Founder & Director at do Different. He is a former National Executive Officer of Conservative Future (Young Conservatives)

This week, President Trump ended former President Obama’s 12-year run as the ‘most admired man in America’ (according to the annual Gallup survey). The recognition — which I’m confident was joyfully received in Mar-a-Lago — is hardly a surprise, given that sitting US Presidents have been awarded the title by the pollster 60 out of 74 years. With that said, Trump also won the most votes of any sitting President in history in 2020 (74m to 66m for Obama back in 2012), as well as more counties than his opponent, so several statistics would support it.

However, what good is that when the President lost the Electoral College? Judging by the circumstances that we now find ourselves in, the show is over for Trumpism. But is it really? Here, I share some facts and thoughts about what is next for populism, both across the pond and closer to home.

The reality is — that despite one of the lowest-energy national campaigns to date — Joe Biden somehow achieved 306 Electoral College votes to President Trump’s 232 and on January 20, 2021, will be inaugurated as the 46th President of the United States.

Despite all the lawsuits, re-counts and endless chatter on social media, no concrete evidence of fraud came to light to overturn the outcome. In addition, Biden will have a small majority in the House, with 222 Democrats to 210 Republican Congressmen and women. The picture is less clear in the upper chamber. Right now, the Republicans have 50 Senators to 48 Democrats — therefore, the result of the run-off Georgia elections next week carries tremendous weight on both sides of the divide.

If the GOP and indeed President Trump want to protect his legacy and be in with a chance of holding the Senate, as well as winning the 2022 mid-terms and 2024 Presidential race — and most Republican voters do not want the ‘America First’ policy to be put back in the bottle — they must look forward, and fast. Both components — the campaign and the party — should work together and sing from the same hymn sheet, e.g. on the $2,000 stimulus check, to help re-elect Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler on Tuesday, January 5.

That means encouraging early voter turnout, as Donald Trump Jr. and others are doing, as well as sharing a platform, like the rally scheduled in Atlanta on the preceding day. It’s unclear whether this will be too late to have an impact. The same could be said of another, but broader, rally planned for Washington, DC, on the following day, January 6.

Whatever the outcome is, President Trump acts as a reminder that a significant portion of Americans do not share the liberal elite’s woke outlook and that populism is not dead.

In the wake of Brexit and a trade deal between the UK and EU, populism may even rise — although the process itself was frustrating, it won’t stop other European parties from campaigning for their countries to follow suit. Who knows — Flanders, Italy and others could do things differently in 2021 by electing populist governments that are committed to putting their countries and their people first. Who could blame them?

I hope President Trump’s pragmatic approach to US foreign policy — which, on balance, has proven far less warmongering and therefore less destructive than that of Clinton, Bush or indeed Obama — will continue under the new President. Unfortunately, though, I doubt it. The same pessimism goes for US-UK relations. Biden seems in no mood to prioritise a new trade deal with Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

President-Elect Biden is almost certainly not going to wage war against the social justice warriors who voted for him, including those on the campus battlefield, where — as Charlie Kirk sums it up perfectly — “Free speech, intellectually rigorous debate, and the simple concepts of tolerance and fairness are routinely being corrupted and weaponised to promote radical leftist ideologies, enforce groupthink, and marginalise or eliminate any student, professor, and dean who gets in their way.”

At least in England, there is a growing number of MPs who are talking sense on censorship and conservatism, and there are activists who are ready to get involved.

I don’t believe we’ve seen the finale of Trumpism, or indeed populism itself. In fact, I believe they are likely to grow and will be projected by a generation of patriots, including Madison Cawthorn and Matt Gaetz. Watch this space, folks.

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This piece was written for Turning Point UK, a student movement for free markets, limited government, personal responsibility and duty to others. Its sister is Turning Point USA. It was republised by Politicalite (‘Trumpism and Populism Aren’t Dead — They’re Alive and Well’ — January 2, 2021).

The craft of communications and the coming culture war

GUEST POST: Jason MacKenzie is Managing Partner of Corporate Communications at Nudge Factory and Past-President of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn

Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

We’re neck deep in that Orwellian future. Fake news is the new norm, and effective communicators will win the coming clash between the ‘based’ and the ‘woke’.

If you’re not entirely sure what those two sentences mean, but you’ve got a good idea that this is an important debate, you’re in the majority. We’re familiar with the language of Brexit, and the emotive political discourse leading up to the EU referendum. It’s rooted in an older, simpler paradigm. But we now need greater nuance to navigate the rhetorical battlefields of the future.

The US culture wars started in the 1920s, with the clash between rural and urban American values. The term was rebooted in the 1960s, placed centre stage by disagreements between conservatives and progressives over moral issues, including marriage and abortion.

‘Pro-life’ verses ‘pro-choice’ is a classic example of the framing of an issue. On the face of it, both seem positive and widely acceptable positions to adopt. In reality, they are diametrically opposite. One emphasises the sanctity of life, based on the conviction that human rights begin in the womb, the other prioritises the well-being of a mother over her unborn infant. No one ever describes themselves as ‘anti-choice’ or ‘pro-death’.

American pollster Frank Luntz demonstrates the importance of persuasive language in Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear, by asking why people dislike big oil.

America’s energy producers have been their own worst enemies…“drilling for oil”…reminds people of Jed Clampett shooting at the ground, conjuring images of liquid black goo gushing into the sky…

The antidote is simple: they replaced ‘drilling for oil’ with ‘energy exploration’ – far more acceptable, at least semantically.

Language matters. Phrasing matters. Framing matters.

Vote Leave won because 17.4 million people understood and embraced ‘Vote leave, take back control’ – most importantly because it encapsulated the underlying message. You could argue that ‘Make America Great Again’ worked for the Republicans in 2016 in the same way, and that ‘Get Brexit done’ delivered an 80-seat majority for the Conservatives six months ago.

But not all air wars are fought by giant industries to reposition themselves, or by political parties to win elections. The coming culture war will be fought on multiple fronts, across social, digital and traditional media, and with myriad voices and factions. While many combatants will simply shout into echo chambers that reinforce their own worldviews, deepening tribalism – others will cut through, and change the way we think, feel and act.

Over the past few weeks we’ve witnessed two major flashpoints. The diehard remain coalition piled pressure on Boris Johnson to sack Dominic Cummings, for actions that Durham Police said “might have been a minor breach of the regulations.” But the Prime Minister’s adviser neither resigned nor was forced out.

The old rules no longer apply. Cummings would not have survived in the pre-Trump era. The US President’s relentless refusal to adhere to convention has crossed the Atlantic. There’s a willingness to stand up to received wisdom, herd mentality and the prevailing media narrative. Whether you believe that this shows craven weakness or bold leadership depends on your worldview and where your loyalties lie.

The second major incident sparked riots, looting, and a torrent of hatred and outrage. The universally-condemned and unjust killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis after being pinned to the floor by police officer Derek Chauvin took place on 25th May. Conservatives, liberals and almost everyone across (and beyond) the political spectrum condemned this instance of police brutality. But from there, narratives and courses of action diverged.

On the one hand, there are calls for law and order to prevail, for justice to be done, and for peace – whether peaceful protesting or other meaningful action. At the other end of the spectrum, anarchic looting and violent protests carried out by the likes of Antifa, the militant left-wing movement. Meanwhile, the middle ground is flooded by virtue-signalling.

Our 52/48 nation will continue to be divided, and social media will play an increasing role as a catalyst, stoking the fires of anger and hatred, and deepening our societal fractures. Even something as innocuous as a blog about whether we need ‘Pride Month’ by young, gay Conservative activist Darren Grimes provoked a furore. “I find it utterly depressing that the pride flag now takes pride of place in our national life over our own national flag” he wrote for Conservative Home. Rather than welcoming debate and the free exchange of ideas, he was pilloried on Twitter, rebutted by PinkNews, and the post was ‘cancelled’ by Facebook.

Free speech is vital for democracy. When social media platforms behave more like publishers, exercising censorship and editorial control, they need to be treated as such. Digital acts of ‘no platforming’ such as ‘temporarily restricting’ Twitter parody account @TitaniaMcGrath, smack of censorship and conscious mass manipulation. This is what the founding father of public relations, Edward Bernays might have called “the engineering of consent”.

Identity politics is here to stay. Tribalism is getting deeper. Truth (and underlying trust in our institutions) is more evasive than ever. That’s why professional communications, precise language and persuasive discourse are needed now more than ever. In the court of public opinion, the most powerful arguments will win. Let’s hope that democracy, decency and common sense prevail.

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This piece was written for our website.