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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 17-Apr-16


Sunday 17-April-16

Populism and terrorism: two trends with a common cause

There has recently been a spate of populist politics around the world, from Syriza in Greece to Podemas in Spain to UKIP in the UK. It works with individuals too, and the popularity of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in the USA presidential primaries plays to the same basic audience.

Imagine you are young, possibly unemployed and finding life incredibly tough. Your pay is low, rents are high and rocketing, and the general gap between where you are and where you would like to be seems to be widening way faster than you could ever catch up. Your future, if you ever had one, seems to be fading even before you got going. You see older generations or middle classes who are doing ok and feel you will never have it as good as them. You see fat cats in business who pay themselves enormous salaries and even bigger bonuses. Politicians naturally suck up to these richer voters and seem to have all but abandoned you. And, for that matter, your friends and maybe your entire family.

Imagine alternatively that you have moved to a new country, or perhaps your parents did. From birth, you are an outsider. Yes, you have your local community, but the older people just hark on about the old country which you know little about. You faced bias and bullying when growing up. Then much of the jobs market seems closed to you. And when some idiot who only has the same religion as you commits a terrorist act, you are suddenly a prime suspect, being stopped or ignored even more. You feel abandoned, outside the system. Even if you were doing well within the system, perhaps working towards a well-respected profession, you know you will always be treated with suspicion.

Then somebody comes along who understands your plight. They criticize the corrupt establishment who do not understand you and care even less. They promise to make things better. They say your world will be so much nicer, if only you follow them. So you do. You like them. You may even get to love them, for at last here is someone with who you can connect. And when their rhetoric is criticized by outsiders, this only serves to intensify your connection with them. Of course those establishment people will criticize, just like they always have. What do they care about you? Not like your new leader, who truly understands you, who will fix things for you, and for who you will do goodness knows what.

 Populism and terrorism are not the same, but they target very similar audiences and hook them in the same way, by first empathizing and then converting. It is not surprising that outsiders going to Trump rallies have found them pretty scary, or that Trump scares many establishment Republicans. The same is probably true within religious groups, where the radicals attract the disaffected and terrifies the mainstream.

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