Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

Lines are getting blurred. Some are overlapping. Populists are being called fascists. There are also those who believe that fascism is something different. They point out that populism is too fluid, too anti-doctrinal and too undisciplined to be fascist.

What about political fanaticism? To some observers, the line between political conviction and outright fanaticism is disappearing.

Political fanaticism is overtaking political conviction. This suits today’s populists.

Political convictions have room to question, adjust and readjust themselves, and even change. Political fanaticism on the other hand, is dogmatic. It can transform political conviction into an irrational and impulsive disposition that is only invested in defending and proliferating a subjective truth that it has adopted. Such ‘truths’ are subjective because they weren’t really reached through reason or through any convincing form of empiricism.

Populist rhetoric may often sound irrational and absurd. But there is a cynical logic of power in it that whips up the emotions of supporters. And the fanaticism it engenders can quickly tip over into mob violence

Nevertheless, constructing subjective truths to gain political mileage and a fanatical following is not an irrational ploy, as such. Indeed, the act may seem to be morally unsound and require a lot of fibbing, but it has a political logic to it — that of attaining power.

But, in the view of objective history, subjective truths formulated in an amoral manner to draw fanatical support and capture power often lead to political and social disasters. Therefore, the cold rationality of political amorality, in this context, can mutate to become an irrational ploy. At least in the long run.

Populists lie through their teeth. They make up ‘truths’ as they go along. All politicians lie to some extent but, unlike populists, they seem to have at least some semblance of realisation about the future consequences of their lying.

Populists, on the other hand, are people in a hurry. Their rhetoric is engineered to evoke instant emotional gratification. They instil a fanaticism in anyone willing to listen. This fanaticism’s intense, concentrated energy can be used to bully, upset and disrupt established political norms, and then punch a hole in the corridors of power, to storm it.

The cold political rationality in this context is mostly built on irrationalities that can be damning. So, are today’s populists, fascists and are their supporters fanatical?

Fascism is mostly related to 20th century totalitarian demagogues such as Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler and Francisco Franco. On the other hand, fanaticism is associated with murderous mobs unleashed by the founder of communist China, Mao Zedong, during his so-called Cultural Revolution, Islamist mobs who locked doors of packed cinemas in Iran and then set them on fire during the 1979 revolution in Iran, and mobs lynching alleged blasphemers in Pakistan or Muslims in India for allegedly selling beef.

One can explain these acts (and many similar to these) as emerging from impulsive moments of madness, when what is often found on the fringes suddenly jumps into the mainstream.

But as I mentioned in my column last week, populists bring the fringe into the mainstream. However, proper fascists do this to consciously instigate violence. Populists don’t. They are chameleons and posers. They usurp various contradictory ideas and turn them into a simplistic whole. The whole too is contradictory, but is gratefully swallowed by the cult-like following that populists manage to gather.

Populists are not fascists. Instead, they can be seen as caricatures of proper fascists and demagogues. They often hesitate to unleash mobs. They just use large bodies of people to demonstrate their ‘street-power’. Not to kill.

Populists instil anger and passion in their supporters. To these supporters are delivered fervid stream-of-thought speeches, so they can respond with boisterous slogans. It’s like a controlled exercise of collective venting. Like an extended version of the concept of the ‘Two Minutes Hate’ in George Orwell’s 1984 — a daily ritual in which party heads and supporters frantically expressed their hatred for ‘enemies’.

So, does their being caricatures of fascism with cultish support that stays on the brink, mean populists and their supporters are mostly loud, harmless show-offs? Not at all. Things can get ugly very quickly. The cold rationality with which populists trigger certain provocative ideas in people, can (and does) slip into the territory of proper mob violence. Especially, when populists start to feel desperate.

One saw this when Donald Trump lost his presidency in 2020. After declaring his electoral ouster a conspiracy, he unleashed large mobs to attack and take over the Capitol Building in Washington DC. Throughout his presidency, he had been bringing into the mainstream diabolical conspiracy theories that once only existed on the fringes of US society.

Pakistan’s Imran Khan too termed his ouster (through a vote of no confidence) as a conspiracy. He accused the US of having him removed. Now desperate to return to power, he has conjured certain questionable ways to enhance the already dogmatic disposition of his supporters. After convincing them that the US had ousted him — because he was forming a (largely imagined) ‘new Islamic bloc’, and allegedly pressuring the UN to frame global blasphemy laws (to curb Islmophobia) — he has now begun to claim that God is on his side. Therefore, supporting his opponents amounts to committing shirk (polytheism).

This is an irrational and, in fact, an idiotic claim. But only if seen through the lens of reason. However, most of his supporters did not, or weren’t allowed to, develop such a lens. What’s more, state institutions such as the military and the judiciary are still treating him as a hurt brat, but who means well and was dealt a bad hand.

This is only fanning the rage in him. If not checked, this rage can cause a lot of social, economic and political damage — especially from a man whose messiah complex is peaking in the most disconcerting manner.

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 7th, 2022

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