Populists are in power, not because they miraculously solved the overwhelming problems the world faces today but, rather, they have captivating stories to tell. While the recent rise of populism has led to an immense body of academic work — now an industry of its own — this bourgeoning scholarship has focused heavily on social and economic drivers, yet neglected the narrative force of such movements. In fact, if politics is basically about storytelling, populist politicians have perfected the art. An essential question is then: What do populisms narrate?
National (or identitarian) populist leaders simply tell the same stories to their people. If one were to simply hide the names of leaders and national references in the statements of populists, it would be quite difficult to identify whether they belong to US President Donald Trump, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán or Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan. They all position themselves to lead their respective nations with honour, well deserved from the past, through the troubled waters of the present, to the shores of a bright(er) future. By that narrative, they weave seemingly unconnected events to make sense of reality.
I address this point in my Identities article, ‘The chronopolitics of national populism’, and argue that, despite their claim for uniqueness, national populisms employ a common narrative template as a familiar and intelligible framework to interpret national and global developments. In the words of Christopher Clark, ‘As gravity bends light, so power bends time’ (2019, 1), as does populist power. National populisms operate by conflating the past, present and future into a single narrative to mobilise mass support. While materialising according to different cultural traditions, the populist template is underlined by an oversimplified grasp of temporality with stories revolving around binary notions: insiders versus outsiders, the people versus the elite. Its gravity and authenticity, however, derive from the emotive and affective capital invested in different temporal categories.
Resembling the Golden Age-Decline-Rebirth narrative, common to many nationalisms, the populist template is unique in many ways. It fundamentally narrates a present squeezed between two pasts and two possible futures. Contemporary populisms are neither progressive and futuristic nor reactionary and nostalgic on their own, but are instead centred in the present, opportunistically seeking to preserve its momentum in any way possible. In light of the conception of perpetual victimhood, it is the present when the people become embroiled in an existential struggle in a war against multiple enemies. The present represents an ostensibly unprecedented, exceptional crisis and epitomises the fear, uncertainty and anxiety marked by a primal survival instinct. The social contract to get out of this state of war requires more than cultivating the consent of the people — even more than establishing a Leviathan state. Specifically, it asks for the vigilantism of the citizens, who must unite around the populist leadership to withstand the onslaught.
My Identities article mainly illustrates how this narrative template has operated in Erdoğan’s populism with examples from different cases. His Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) has ruled Turkey for nearly two decades, offering an extensive window through which to observe some durable tenacious in both words and deeds. In addition to Turkey’s neo-imperial power projections for the future, the constant battles between conflicting representations of the past to validate the present and the future make the Turkish case especially noteworthy.
Invocations of the Ottoman past in Erdoğan’s populism serve as not only a source of national pride but also proof that the nation is destined for greatness. Despite the bright picture in the distant past, the recent past epitomises how some corrupt elite forces have disrupted the rightful destiny of the virtuous nation. This variation in the narrative helps explain and bridge the tension between a virtuous past and a degenerate present, placing the blame on extrinsic factors. In the Turkish case, multiple victimhood narratives swim in the same current: a) victimhood of the pious Anatolian people in the secular Kemalist regime, b) victimhood of the Turkish nation under assault by Western imperialist powers, and c) victimhood of the oppressed ummah, encircled by Crusaders and Zionists. Beside the differing narrations of distant and recent pasts, Turkish populism also envisages two opposed scenarios for the future: the total demise — if not extinction — of the people, or the return of the ‘good ol’ days’. That is why Erdoğan, in his speeches, commonly identifies references to the country being both teetering on the edge of the abyss of existential crisis, and walking down the path of a prosperous ‘New Turkey’. Between these two options, the present is driven by crisis and emergency and must be redeemed in Erdoğan’s ‘liberation war’ rhetoric.
The temporal construction of populisms has remained a blind spot in the academic literature. A comparative narrative approach across diverse cases in future research will be a much-needed contribution to the field of populism studies.
Blog post by Hakki Taş, GIGA German Institute of Global and Area Studies, Germany
Read the full article: Taş, Hakki. The chronopolitics of national populism. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2020.1735160