The Limits of Sadopopulism

8 mins read
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Trump has no interest in controlling the pandemic. He wants to control the narrative.

To answer this question, I will weave together:

  • The purpose of government
  • The limits of Sadopopulism, and
  • Trump’s lifelong formula: what matters is the appearance of success.

Let’s look at two opposing theories about the purpose of government: Democratic and Hierarchical. 

Democracy folks believe equality is possible, so for them, the purpose of government is to create fairness, to give everyone equal opportunity, and to prevent cheating.

The hierarchical people don’t believe equality is possible. They think people naturally form hierarchies.

They see a democratic government as giving handouts to those who don’t deserve it and hampering people who can get things done. (They don’t like “rules” in their way.)

For the hierarchy people, democracy is messy: You have to compromise and work with people lower on the hierarchy.

Oligarchy (and fascism) is an extreme form of hierarchy: A few people at the top should have all the wealth and power while the worker ants are at the bottom.

Trump’s base loves him because he tells them they’re the top of the hierarchy and he’s the strongman who will defeat their enemies and protect their “liberty.” 

The part they like is being at or near the top of the hierarchy. They think the “weak” are trying to displace them.

When democratic presidents go to work, they try to figure out how to make life better for people (like setting up panels to deal with pandemics)

Would-be oligarchs don’t think government’s purpose is to protect people.

They think government maintains the hierarchy.

To acquire both wealth and power, would-be oligarchs must pass laws that actually hurt the very people who put them in power, like tax cuts for the rich, eliminating affordable health care, and eliminating pandemic panels.

Sadopopulism (a term coined by Yale professor Timothy Snyder) explains how they do it.

They follow a simple formula:

For more on sadopopulism, click here. (It’s a Twitter thread)

This is all Trump knows how to do. He cannot and will not act like a normal democratic president. 

He has no interest in controlling the pandemic. He wants to set up a false narrative in which he is the hero:

Remember the reporting that his impulse in February was to let Covid-19 “wash over” the country?

It’s still what he wants.

He is a one-trick pony: He’s a would-be oligarch intent on dismantling the federal government so he and his pals can get rich.

This brings me to why sadopopulism doesn’t work in a pandemic. 

Ordinarily—as with something like taking away health care—people don’t feel an immediate connection between #2 (enacting pain-inducing policies) and #3 (blame the pain on enemies).

In fact, the moment the ACA is repealed, Trump’s base will feel a momentary surge of joy: We socked it to the enemy Obama! We saved our government from socialism!  

The pain doesn’t come for years. People get used to the status quo. They may never consider what might have been.

One propaganda trick is to create a false dilemma by making it appear that there are only two options, like this: “It’s either us or them.”

Mayor Goodman of Las Vegas explained the false choice the GOP has created around the pandemic: Go to work or die of poverty.

Goodman explains:

  • Working families need food
  • The only way they can afford food is if they work
  • So they must work

If you oppose this (she implies) you want to starve workers.

The problem, of course, is that there is a third option: The US Government marshals our resources to feed the people for a few months while we get the virus under control.

McConnell and the GOP refuse because that is Obama-style democracy.

They think government is to maintain hierarchy, like this from the Wall Street Journal:

NY Gov. Cuomo wants to talk about fairness because he’s a democratic governor.

Mitch McConnell doesn’t care about fairness because he’s a hierarchical leader.

With the pandemic, the hierarchical folks turn to Sadopopulism: “We must all work to save the economy!”

But there isn’t enough lag time between #2 and #3. Turns out most people don’t like the idea of literally dying to save the “economy” (hierarchy)

People don’t necessarily feel a direct connection between ending Obamacare and pain to themselves or their own families. Any pain could be years away. Same with tax cuts for the rich. It hurts in the long run by creating more income disparity which creates an oligarchical class.

This long term effect is different from saying that people over 50 should go out today and expose themselves to a horrible death tomorrow. It’s not abstract or years away. You don’t need flowcharts or to understand economics.

It feels like this: “I am 60. My grandchild was just born. No, I don’t want to die.” Or: “My mother is 65. I am not ready to part with her!”

The “sado” part of “sadopopulism” becomes too prominent to ignore, particularly when a millionaire who just got a tax break basically says, “You wanna eat? You better get out there and work. We need you working to save the economy. There’s more important things than living.”

No surprise: Trump is losing support with seniors. In 2016, Trump won seniors 52% to HRC’s 45%. Now Biden is ahead with seniors. People don’t like being told their lives are worthless. (It’s also a fact that younger people are dying as well.)

In Wisconsin people understood that the GOP said, “If you want to vote, you may die, and we don’t care.”

The GOP understands that their policies will result in mass suffering, but for them, there is no disconnect. 

All of their policies eventually result in mass suffering for those lower in the hierarchy.

A pandemic just speeds it up. “So what’s the problem?” the GOP asks.

And here is Laura Ingraham explaining how Trump can spin the narrative so he appears successful while doing nothing and allowing the pandemic to spread.

It’s all about marketing an idea that hurts the “consumer.”

Originally posted on Musing about Law, Books, and Politics.
Re-posted with permission.


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Teri has written novels, short stories, nonfiction for both young readers and adults, and lots of legal briefs. She is currently working on a book on disinformation to be published by Macmillan Publishers. Her political commentary has appeared on the NBC Think Blog and CNN.com. Her articles and essays have appeared in publications as diverse as Education Week, Slate Magazine, and Scope Magazine. Her short fiction has appeared in the American Literary View, The Iowa Review, and others. For twelve years she maintained a private appellate law practice limited to representing indigents on appeal from adverse rulings. She believes with the ACLU that when the rights of society's most vulnerable members are denied, everybody's rights are imperiled. She also believe with John Updike that the purpose of literature is to expand our sympathies. Teri lives with her family on the beautiful central coast in California.

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