«Given my job,» writes MSNBC’s Chris Hayes in a review of Michiko Kakutani’s new book about the Trump era, The Death of Truth, «I am forced to ask myself every day: Is it possible to say anything truly profound or new about Donald Trump at this moment in time?»
Near as I can figure, the answer is no. And the same goes for the ascent of similarly far-right individuals, parties and movements around the world, which have come to be grouped together as instances of a broader trend or ideology – namely, populism.
Count me among those that refuse to believe Russian memes had anything significant to do with the ascent of Trump.
The term, in my estimation, is so broad as to be basically meaningless. It is used to encompass and explain not only Brexit, Donald Trump and European right wingers like Marine Le Pen and Viktor Orban, but also democratic socialists Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, Asian strongmen Rodrigo Duterte, Narendra Modi and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and grassroots social movements like Occupy Wall Street, Greece’s governing Syriza party and Spain’s Podemos. Even qualified as right-wing, populism has become a buzzword that serves not so much an analytical purpose as a performative one, conjuring the spectres of fascism, authoritarianism, nativism, racism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia and all the other bêtes noires of modern liberal democracy. It does this while ignoring the real story about populism, which, if you haven’t been paying attention, can be summed up quickly: populism appeals to populaces alienated from the political, cultural, social and economic mainstream; populists’ promises are hollow, and at any rate unimportant to their bases, who just love that they seem genuine, and angry at the right people. Once in power, populists revert to the kinds of corruption and regressive conservatism that characterize many or even most regimes, even democratic ones.
That’s why someone like MSNBC’s Hayes is sick of having to think of new, interesting things to say about it.
Our documentary community, naturally, didn’t get the memo. Many are the documentaries that have taken on these topics; few have anything much to say beyond what you’d read in the news on any given day.
I could only laugh at Hot Docs’ catalogue copy for Jack Bryan’s film Active Measures, hyping it as a bombshell investigation into Russian intervention in the 2016 American election. We are all, of course, perfectly aware that investigations by people and institutions with resources several orders of magnitude greater than any documentary film could possibly have are slowly but surely building their own cases on the matter, which are not yet public, and that news breaks every day that no documentary could possibly cover.
What could such a film possibly tell us? Charles Bramesco sums it up in his Guardian review of Active Measures: «The most widespread affliction facing documentary cinema today is known as Wikipediitis, a malady wherein a feature-length film would be better served by the form of a written article.» Our New President (dir. Maxim Pozdorovkin), a more aesthetic, considered film that uses Russian footage to tell the story of the American election, is similarly limited by its focus. Count me among those that refuse to believe Russian memes had anything significant to do with the ascent of Trump – or rather, that ridiculous, half-baked propaganda only works on profoundly stupid and alienated and basically abject populations, so we should focus on why America seems to be all of those things. The Cleaners, a film about content moderators in the Philippines, more or less repeats the same mistake: fake news is a real problem, but it’s secondary – downstream, as it were, from a predisposed populace. Again, and forever: let’s talk about why people are shit. Or more politely – let’s talk about how to integrate people back into the social, economic, political and cultural mainstream, such that internet bullshit looks to them the way it does to you, dear reader, and me, stupid writer.
These are precisely not the kinds of film that would have anything interesting to say about populism as such. They miss the point completely. We know the facts; we understand, for the most part, the bizarre and almost occult attraction that the likes of Trump have for millions of people. At least on the left, I think we understand the colossal failings in the social, political and economic systems at all scales that have provided the conditions of possibility for these populist farces – neoliberalism, in a word. We understand that the likes of Trump and Putin are nothing so much as internet trolls come to life, whose monopoly on our attention is mobilized as a Trojan horse by the very elites those demagogues conned the public into thinking they were going to take down. Bizarrely, they are now able to enact their own agendas with impunity in the shadows, while their fans seem to love every time a new anvil is dropped on their heads. It’s infuriating, not least because it’s all been pointed out a million times. For documentary to contribute meaningfully to our understanding of populism, it can’t be reportage, narrative, character study. It has to dig deeper.
«A malady wherein a feature-length film would be better served by the form of a written article.»
There aren’t a ton of great documentaries about populism, but let me mention one great one, which sums up just about everything that has been said about populism in the last couple years by both «the people» and «the experts» – and does so, moreover, with intriguing style and structural rigour. The film is Brexitannia (dir. Timothy George Kelly). It is to Brexitannia’s credit that it is just about as frustrating to watch as these times are to live in, or this article is to write.
Another interesting, if somewhat unsatisfactory, contribution is Astra Taylor’s new film What Is Democracy? Interesting, because it raises the question of democracy; unsatisfying, because the question is ultimately unanswerable. Her film takes us from Plato’s Republic all the way up to Donald Trump.
Politicians of all stripes attempt to appeal to and claim to represent some variant on the good, hard-working, regular folks out there, the little guy, the real Americans, Canadians, or what-have-you. They all travel the country and shake hands with small-business owners and factory workers and somehow imply they are on their side. Arguably, the entire art of modern campaigning is basically populist. The style, in short, is not the exclusive property of the current crop of nominal populists: Western indirect democracies, neoliberal economies, media spectacles and political-campaign-as-morality-play cultural norms have proven fertile ground for populism for a long, long time.
They all travel the country and shake hands with small-business owners and factory workers and somehow imply they are on their side.
The current populist moment is mostly a sort of hyperbolic extension of deep historical trends. Donald Trump didn’t have to be normalized – in most salient ways, he was already normal. That is to say: don’t let the crudeness fool you; Bush was much worse.
I feel I ought to say something about left-wing populism, but I have qualms. People have drawn a false equivalence between right-wing populism and left-wing populism as though they were in any way comparable. In fact, there is a good argument that populism as such specifically excludes any such thing as a left-wing populism. The left, by nature, advocates for a specific class – workers – against another specific class – bosses – not for «the people» generally against some nebulous «elite». There might be left-wing demagoguery or authoritarianism, but left-wing populism is a contradiction in terms, nothing but an epithet thrown at perfectly legitimate popular struggles against real problems: bankers, authoritarian governments, corruption, oligarchy.
The people and causes channelling that energy have done nothing but betray it.
That could be one of the reasons why documentaries about so-called left-wing populist movements, like Politics, Instructions Manual (dir. Fernando León de Aranoa, 2016), which tracks the rise and early trials of Spain’s Podemos party, or An Insignificant Man (dir. Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla, 2016), about the anti-corruption campaign of Delhi activist and, later, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, along with any number of «movement of the squares» documentaries – The Square (dir. Jehane Noujaim, 2013), Maidan (dir. Sergei Loznitsa, 2014), Kinshasa Makambo (dir. Dieudo Hamadi, 2018) – have such a different flavour than do films about right-wing populism. These are hopeful films, sincere and thoughtful and critical and committed. By contrast, even the most sympathetic films about the populism wave of the last few years, and most of the media coverage as well, feel almost anthropological, striving to make sense of how one’s neighbours could harbour such ridiculous and offensive beliefs or let themselves be led so far astray by two-bit Pied Pipers.
It’s easy enough, at this point in time, after years of think-pieces and beleaguered late-night conversations, to sympathize with certain elements underlying the populist wave – the shrinking middle class, the rise of precarious work, even the cultural nostalgia insofar as it follows from economic insecurity, and so on. But it’s clear that the people and causes channelling that energy have done nothing but betray it. It’s just as Walter Benjamin said: every rise of fascism bears witness to a failed revolution.