“I wanna live like common people, I wanna do whatever common people do…”Pulp “Common People”
The technique we are going to look at in this, the second chapter of the populist’s playbook is “Folksy Man of the People Posturing”. Our examples come from over two thousand years of history and across the political spectrum. Maybe the similarities are more surprising than the differences.
The Pulp song common people is a great summary of the tactics of this technique – it tells the story of a rich kid being taught to slum it – “Smoke some fags and play some pool, pretend you’ve never been to school”
- We are going to look at a scandal-ridden posh millionaire playboy going to extreme lengths to become the champion of the mob in his quest for vengeance through political power.
- We’ll see a millionaire banker with 6 well-paid jobs, calling back to an idyllic rural past and saying he’s a a simple subsistence farmer, we’ll meet the urban equivalent when his colleague, a middle-class professional graduate, defines herself as a humble cooker of street-food.
- There’s the curious case of the high-powered lawyer with the voice of a foul-mouthed fish-wife.
- The corrupt and irreligious billionaire businessman, who becomes the champion of blue-collar evangelical rust-belt workers against the, erm, swamp of billionaire corrupt politicians.
And a few other examples we will touch in passing – with a surprise appearance by Enkleburt Humperdink,
What do we mean by Folksy man of the people posturing?
Of course, in democracies with near universal suffrage we expect politicians to present themselves as a man, or women, of the people. They need to appeal to the lowest common denominator to win a majority, or the largest minority, of the votes to draw their authority from. Most politicians shake hands and kiss babies. Still, as you’ll see when we start to look at our examples, the populist is taking things a bit further. And the examples we are looking at today all come from democracies, but this technique is used by authoritarian populists too, it isn’t specific to democracy.
If you think back to our prologue: We are using an ideational definition of a populist as someone who seeks to gain power by positioning themselves as the champion of ‘The will of the people’ against an “elite”. One of the pure against one of the corrupt.
To do that, the populist needs Ethos – the need to establish credentials, make a connection, and show they have the right to speak for the will of whoever they define as “The People”: to target whoever they describe as the “Elite”.
We saw in chapter one “Promising the impossible” that these techniques can operate on a number of levels. Sometimes people believed the impossible promises, sometimes it seems populists even believed in the impossible themselves, but what seemed to really be happening was that the impossible promise was a “signal” – they had no intention of keeping the promise, and voters didn’t even need to believe they would for it to perform its function.
In a similar way with folksy man of the people posturing can operate at a literal level, where it’s a claim made in all seriousness, but more often at a symbolic level – it’s not taken as a literally serious claim, but it is used as a signal – and from it they present their public caricature and gain ethos.
We go first to 1st century BC Rome of the late Republic.
“Those who don’t remember history are condemned to repeat it. Those who DO remember history are condemned to watch others repeat it.”Anon
There’s a danger in reading too much into historical analogies. With apologies to Professor Neville Morley, Professor of classics at the university of Exeter. who censured me for making this analogy, but I have to admit that in 2016 – I was thinking a lot about Publius Claudius Pulcher.
Publius Claudius Pulcher was a Rich Roman aristocratic playboy, plagued by sexual, and sacrilegious, scandals in the late Roman republic around the Middle of the first century BCE.
He got embroiled in corrupt scandals, accusing opponents of defiling vestal virgins. He bribed himself out of trouble and in various posts he held accepted bribes to let others off. He fermented mutiny against the legions of his brother-in-law and in return was accused of incest with his sister.
Even in the extremely patriarchal Roman Society, he showed incredible disrespect to women; he disguised himself as a woman and gate-crashed the “Good Goddess” ritual – a mysterious female-only religious rite.
What was very probably little more than a drunken rich-kid prank turned into a show trial for a capital crime. blasphemy, upset the balance of power, and caused such chaos it contributed to the instability that led to a generation of civil war and the collapse of the Republic.
The crime had happened in Ceaser’s house. Ceaser was power-hungry, in debt, and about to leave to take control of his legions in Spain – which would both be profitable, and put him at least temporarily beyond prosecution.
Claudius had allegedly gate-crashed the ritual to seduce the hostess – Ceaser’s wife.
Ceaser’s enemies said Ceaser couldn’t leave Rome while there was such scandal and suspicion over his household. This would have been disastrous for him. Ceaser immediately divorced his wife saying he didn’t believe she was guilty, but “Ceaser’s wife must be above suspicion.”
Cicero claimed had wanted to stay out of the trial, but he was either pressurised, or calculated the benefit of, testifying that he had seen Claudius in Rome on the day – destroying his alibi.
Cicero says the jury was bribed, Plutarch says the Jury was already afraid of Claudius’s popularity with the mob. The result was much the same – Claudius was acquitted, and Cicero had a bitter enemy. , and He burned with desire for revenge, not against the people who had prosecuted him, which he seemed to think was fair enough, but against Cicero for breaking his alibi. Populism was his path.
So a rich, disgraced, billionaire playboy, with little in common with the man on the street.
How did he become, literally become, one of them?
What’s in a name? ‘Claudius’ Becomes ‘Clodius’.
Roman society was stratified into distinct classes of citizens. At the top were the Patrician class – literally the father class, Roman Aristocracy, they were descended from the oldest families that claimed descent back to the founding of Rome and, in some cases, the Gods themselves.
There was a middle-class of “equestrians” the “knights” who stemmed from those wealthy enough to take a horse into battle. Then, still higher than slaves and non-citizens, were Plebian class- the freeborn commoners, the crowd, the mob.
Claudius went to extreme lengths, within Roman law but mocking Roman tradition.
In Rome adoption of adult males was a common tactic to arrange dynasties; for example, Octavian, who was to become the Emperor Augustus, was the adopted son of Julius Caesar. It was done in a similar way as arranged marriages. By convention is was done by Childless older Romans with little chance of producing a male heir, to create a dynasty.
Claudius made a mockery of the practice, He had himself adopted by someone who was –
- 1) several years younger than him and
- 2) of a much lower social class -a plebeian, and he argued that this now legally made him plebeian and lower class. Looking at other chapters in the populist’s playbook, this was Pure “Vulgarity and Outrageous behaviour.”
– We could spend all day unpicking the machinations of late republican Rome – he had got off on attempting to seduce Ceaser’s wife because the jury was bribed by Crassus, who then went into a secret power deal with Ceaser, who then used his official position as pontifex maximus and helped Claudius become a plebian and take revenge on the witnesses at the trial.
This was important because of the way Roman power was divided between classes. As a patrician Claudius had held political offices, but the form of Roman democracy was SPQR- Senatus Populusque Romane – the Senate AND the People of Rome. While the patrician’s were the upper class, and only patricians’ could hold the ‘top office’ – one of the two annual consols that led the senate, the senate did not actually pass laws – the senate proposed laws, and they were ratified, or vetoed, by the people
As a plebian, Claudius could hold the post of ‘Tribune of the Plebians’ one of the most powerful roles.
And to cement his new role as a ‘Pleb’ Claudius became “Clodius”
Classical Latin pronunciation was very different from the medieval Latin we are more familiar with.There was no Soft-C, the C was from the Greek Kappa and hard. Ceaser was actually, “Keaser” ( From where we get “Kaiser” and “Tsar”). Cicero, who was the target of much of Claudius’s hatred was “Kikero”, but within that, from what we can tell, there were different pronunciations between the ruling class and the Plebian class.
After his adoption, Claudius changing his name to Clodius, was – literally – making his name sound more ‘common’. You don’t have to look far for a modern equivalent, think of one “Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson” going by just “Boris”, “Boris Johnston” or “BoJo.”
I call this the “Reverse-Humperdink” If Engelbert Humperdinck had been the birth name of a populist politicians, he probably would appear on the ballot paper as Arnold George Dorsey.
He cemented his role as champion of the people by passing Rome’s first “free grain dole” guaranteeing citizens a certain measure of free grain to make bread with.
Juvenal later observed about the Romans that all they cared about was “bread and Circuses” – fill their belly with bread and put on some entertainment and they would let you get away with murder, it was Clodius who put the bread into that equation.
The next thing Clodius did was allow ‘guilds’ to meet in the street. These were essentially street gangs loosely based around professions, that had previously been restricted to help keep the peace.
So with the Plebs behind him, gangs of armed thugs on the street, and positioning all his actions as the plebians striking back against an oppressive elite, Clodius pursued his revenge.
He had Cicero exiled. Cicero who just a few years earlier had himself been a champion of the people and hailed ‘father of the fatherland’ for foiling the Cataline conspiracy, He even confiscated Cicero’s house, had it demolished.
He eventually got his come-uppance, murdered in a skirmish with a pro-ciceronian gang, but he certainly added to the chaos, instability and machinations that led to 20 years of civil war and the collapse of the democratic roman republic, to see it replaced by autocratic one man rule. Once the citizens had been granted their free daily bread, this also proved impossible to take away and the need to fulfil the Claudius’s free dole of grain to an exponentially growing Roman Urban population has been seen as a driving force behind the expansion of the Roman empire!
But this was all only possible because this rich, aristocratic, spoilt, cream of the elite used a questionable adoption, a change of name, a bribe to the mob, and folksy posturing to make himself a ‘homo-plebian’, a man of the people, while he pursued his own bloody vengeful agenda.
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“The Crofter, the Fish-wife and the chip-shop fryer”
In the UK, like Belgium, is a united kingdom with several devolved regional parliaments, a national parliament in Westminster, London, and devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The two parliaments the Scottish Nationalist Party operates in are Holyrood, in Edinburgh, where they are led currently by Nicola Sturgeon, and the house of commons in the palace of Westminster, where they are led by Ian Blackford.
In the UK Westminster two-chamber parliamentary system, the House of Commons is literally meant to be the house representing the common people – with checks and balances and quality testing of proposed legislation from the house of Lords.
Compared to the US two-house system of government, it has been said –
“The US system works in principle, but not in practice. In the UK it is the other way round.”
Looking to London first – simply being a member of parliament means you are representing the “Common” folk already – your constituents, but we are going to look at how Blackford presented himself, why is it “folksy man of the people posturing” bordering on the absurd.
In a speech to the house on 29th October 2018 Blackford claimed –
“I am just a simple crofter with 10 acres”Ian Blackford
If you are not familiar with the term a crofter is one of the poorest, humblest farmers, generally, a tenant renting a small parcel of land, a croft, with shared access to poor quality grazing. Generally it’s enough to feed some cows and grow vegetables for the kitchen.
It’s, literally, about as down to earth and humble a person as you could imagine. About 10% of the population of the highlands of Scotland are crofters.
Blackford does, technically own a croft. Though he doesn’t spend much time there, being a member of parliament living much of the time in London. There are actually legal requirements to be considered a crofter – you have a legal duty to be ordinarily resident within 32km of the croft, but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt there – He owns a croft so what is the problem?
In a pattern we a will see repeated, this politician pretending to be *just* the poor, down to earth man of the people is wealthy. Very wealthy.
Ian Blackford was an investment banker for over 20 years. On top of the £77,379 a year MPs salary he earns £3,091 a month from his role as Chairman of Golden Charter Trust, £1,000 a month from acting as Chairman of Commsworld Plc ( Where he says in the register of members interest he only works 8 hours per quarter – so that’s roughly £385 per hour.) While most crofts aqre rented, His acres of farmland owned and are worth over half a million pounds themselves!
Now, the speech he was making was with reference to farming and crofting, but describing himself as “just a simple crofter” was ‘textbook’ folksy-posturing. For proof that is it disingenuous – Blackford lists 5 jobs besides being an MP, none of his second jobs are “Crofter'”.
One other reason I have chosen this example is, in this case the posturing is *literally*’ folksy.’ Folksy is defined as “simple, rustic, friendly, to invoke traditional, or rural crafts, or to appear to do so.”
This is a common Romantic Nationalist trope; calling back to an idealised rural past. Romantic or ‘Organic’ Nationalism – equally apply to ethnic or to civic Nationalism, and it arose in answer to ‘Dynastic’ Nationalism where identity flowed down from an authoritarian Monarch. This is the Nationalism that parades in a real, imagined or idealised “National Dress”
This call back to an idealised rural identity is also what has driven the Scottish government to politicise Gaelic. In Modern Scotland, around 2% of people speak Gaelic, and 99% of Gaelic speakers speak English, but still millions are spent branding train stations, road-signs, ambulances, police cars and more in a language no-one speaks, even in areas where the language was never spoken historically.
Just as a contrast, where Blackford appealed to the rural common people, his ‘prolier than thou’ colleague Mhairi Black made a similar appeal to the urban poor. Perhaps the most down to earth folksy of them all is Mhairi Black.
Mhairi can be a compelling speaker , and is one of the youngest people to ever become a Member of Parliament, but she can lay on the working class tropes a bit thick to the point of even accusing the MIDDLE class of being the elite – saying in one interview –
“No matter what they [young working class people] vote…You still end up with middle-class, middle-aged guys who make your decisions for you”Mhairi Black
When she spoke to the SNP conference in 2015, after being elected, as an MP she said
“it is symbolic of what has happened in Scotland over the last year. The idea that a then 20-year old chip shop fryer could become a MP would have been laughed at, but not anymore.”Mhairi Black, SNP conference 2015
So, a working-class hero – chip shop worker railing against the middle-class career politicians.
“20 year old Chip-shop-fryer” is an urban equivalent to “Just a Simple crofter” – this is very much spin, it’s a rhetorical device in establishing ethos – the caricature of how they are choosing to present themselves with their defining charaterisic. “just a simple crofter” “
Mhari comes from the well-to-do suburbs, her parents were professionals- first teachers, and then business owners, and she – hating career politicians, went straight from completing her politics degree into being a member of parliament.
Now, much like Ian Blackford technically owns a croft, Mhari did work in a fast food shop – as a part time job while she was at university. It’s not like it was her defining trade, or a family background – think about if your part time job at college was used to define your origins – think of all our senators and members of parliament – what part-time jobs have they had?
It’s relating well to the man on the street through ‘fast- food’ and where we have fish and chips in Scotland, in America we have hamburgers, Specifically: Wendy’s and McDonalds.
But before we cross the pond, our next example is one of my favourites – it’s clever, low risk, as common as muck, and deniable. The next example of ‘folksy man of the people posturing’ is, actually, “woman of the people posturing” and it’s unusual in the way it is being done by Proxy.
Nicola Sturgeon, first minister of Scotland, has a different style from her predecessor, and mentor Alex Salmond, but they were both traditional qualified professionals; where Alex Salmond was an economist at the Royal Bank of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon was a practising Lawyer.
‘Oor Nicola’ as she’s known, makes presidential-style TV addresses that would have been unthinkable in Scottish Democracy even a decade ago, but what’s most interesting about them is what you might call “folksy man of the people posturing by proxy.” This is from an online version of one of her daily Corona virus briefings:
“Naebody’s goin’ tae Torremolinos, we’re aw jist talkn’ on the Snapchat group” and “everybody’s gonnae die if yees aw keep goin’ aboot and meetin’ each other and goin’ hame with a virus oan ye, so av telt ye wance and am no gonnae tell ye again”. “if I see any o’ yous oot there, I’m gonnae take a run and put a toe up the crack ae yer arse, so quit it!”
Prominent Nationalist campaigner Jane Godley produces comedy versions of these addresses with a voiceover, with the tacit approval of Sturgeon. While all politicians must turn a wry smile to having fun poked at them, the voiceovers are in no way critical of the subject in the way most political comedy is. They are sycophantic rather than satirical, and Nicola Sturgeon openly approves of them.
“Nicola Sturgeon has voiced her approval of a tweet by comedian Janey Godley that makes light of her daily coronavirus briefings. The First Minister retweeted a clip on Sunday of Glasgow comic Godley performing an expletive-laden voiceover on one of her official government messages.”Scotsman Newspaper – 23rd March 2020
Sturgeon has described then as very funny and said
“she’s making people laugh but, if you listen very carefully, she is very powerfully getting the key message across… So I think she is doing a good job.”Nicola Sturgeon
But the unusual situation has arisen where we have a middle-aged lawyer, in the supposedly respectable job of First Minister, revelling in being presented as a foul-mouthed Glasgow fish-wife.
In these tirades in broad Glasgow accent using the coarsest Scots patois and slang she is seen to hurl abuse at opponents and mock people who disagree with her policies.
Nicola gets the down to earth associations without needing to hurl the abuse herself. But it’s possible this folksy persona has then crossed over, with potentially harmful effects.
The UK government advice for coming out of pandemic lockdown was “stay alert” – here is how Nicola sturgeon described that advice.
“I don’t know what that means, it’s vague and imprecise.”
Given that Nicola Sturgeon didn’t understand what “stay alert” meant, the equivalent SNP health message, when Scotland started to ease restrictions a couple of weeks later, came as a surprise.
Thousands of new-scots for whom English is a second language, Thousands of Scots who were brought up in other parts of the UK, or outside of the central belt in Scotland were being advised in the colloquial Glaswegian Godley’s fishwife character to ‘hashtag “#KeepTheHeid”
This is a colloquial Glasgow slang meaning to stay calm and not lose your temper.
Now, this isn’t a tourist message, or a cultural branding exercise, this is public safety advice in a time of deadly pandemic. There are many guidelines on writing optimal safety advice. There’s plenty of advice out there from academics, from the NHS, from Health and Safety research, UK government, EU advice.
The first rule of a public safety notice is use ‘plain language’ for effective communication.
Effective safety messages are best written in clear language that can easily be understood by the largest amount of people.
- Wear Eye Protection!
- Danger-high Voltage!
- Highly Flammable!
- Stay alert!
- “Keep the heid?
Even if you understand it doesn’t make perfect sense, and if you don’t is only confusing.So what is being done here? Surely if the SNP have competence in *anything* it’s in controlling their message. This went through some sort of committee, or approval process, with brainstorming and approval at the highest level.
It’s hard to believe they genuinely found “stay alert” utterly incomprehensible, but thought #KeepTheHeid was much clearer.
There is a pattern in Scottish Nationalism, which is an identity based, of working to make things deliberately different. Reverse engineering this, there’s a good chance they started with the UK message and desperately looked for ways to make it different and Scottish; maybe it’s a colloquial translation of “keep calm and carry on”?
Why would they do this? Who are the audience, what is the purpose?
The phrase is used; and will be readily understood by, a sub-section of Scottish Society, working to lower-middle-class Scots raised here, and those that affect to be so. Chip shop fryers and the like. It’s in ‘Scots’ language – Of the over 5 million people living in Scotland, in the most recent census in 2011 over 3.2million over the age of 3 said they had no knowledge of the Scots language.
Frankly, That’s bound to be an underestimate, Scots has a large overlap with English, and many phrases are plastered all over Thistle mugs and tartan tea-towels for the tourists.
But Scots is being used here to signal a connection to the SNP Target and core voters; not new Scots, not posh Scots, not Scots raised in other parts of the UK, Not Unionists who don’t feel obliged to teach kids how to write mock Scots dialects in school, not many Scots outside the central belt. Certainly not the many, many European and international Scots for whom English is already a second language.
You might call it “Vox Godley” What it tells us is: when designing a public health motto, they were certainly thinking about ‘Scots’; just not all of us. Sending that ‘man of the signal about identity was more important than the most effective public health message.
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The (Hamburger) Hill
In chapter one we looked at Trump trying to fulfil his impossible promise to build his wall – creating the longest Government shutdown in US history as he demanded a fraction of the wall costs be included in the government budget. During that time there were no caterers at the Whitehouse, he invited the Clemson Tigers, national college football champions, to the White House on January 14 2019 As there were no caterers, he ordered in around 300 hamburgers & Pizzas. And in true Trump style he later claimed it was over 1,000 hamburgers.
Is it folksy man of the people posturing? Well, In one sense, the hamburgers probably aren’t ‘posturing’ – all the signs are that Trump genuinely pretty much lives off fast food and diet coke. It’s a long association – In the 90s and early 2000s he made adverts for Pizza Hut and McDonalds
We can say it’s posturing because it was a narrative, it was a lukewarm fried photo-op, it was a deliberate choice for PR – and that the even though the federal government is shut down so there are no whitehouse caterers, trump has personally paid for the fast-food.
As vox magazine pointed out – Trump owns the “Trump International Hotel” just three blocks from the whitehouse, that has an entire kitchen and catering staff employed by him that could have easily catered the event.
Vox magazine also reported-
“For some, Trump’s comments, particularly when he speculated to reporters prior to the event that “I would think that’s their favorite food,” referring to chains like McDonald’s and Wendy’s, rang as classist or racist.
Possisbly, but if he sees it as classest, he was playing for the working class association, the photo op of the fast food is performing the function for him. When reporters asked him
“to name his own favourite fast food” Mr Trump said that he liked them all. “If it’s American, I like it. It’s all American stuff,” It’s a signal – the hamburger is the modern ‘Apple Pie”
And he liked the coverage – we know this because he did it again even after the lockdown had ended! Two months later in March he had a similar photo-op fast food buffet to North Dakota State’s football team
“We could have had chefs — we could have — but we got fast food,” “I know you people very well.”Donald Trump
“I know you people very well” – we’re nnot sure who exactly he means , teenagers? People from Dakota? Football players? But where other politicians would server their elite foods, Trumps events even at the whitehouse are down-to earth $27 worth of fast-food, and hey- he ikes that himself so he must just be a regular guy.
There is certainly, as well, a ‘regular guy man of the people’ style to Trump’s rhetoric. Analysis has shown that Trumps forms of speech that are closer to everyday conversation and ‘folksy’ compared to the polished speeches of orators like Obama.
Language analysis of Trump’s speech patterns, compared to other politicians, suggest that there is a difference in how he communicates – other politicians use written speeches, they use complex clauses and structure. They use metaphors regularly.
Trump often ad-libs rambling speeches, which jump from tangent to tangent, and which are the bane of transcription. One analyst suggested that his speeches simply do not make sense when written down – but they do when spoken due to other visual clues.
One linguist suggested that this may be a New York feature of speech – New Yorkers can often finish each other’s sentences, and in Trump’s speeches he can trail off and leave things unsaid, and the mind of his core voters literally fill in the blanks. It’s a folksy way of communicating (and indeed he regularly calls his audience “folks”).
in “What are the three characteristics of Trumpism?: A Discourse Analysis of Trump ’s Four Major Campaign Speeches” Rachel D. Beeman writes in POLITICAL ANALYSIS · VOLUME XIX · 2018
“President Trump throughout all of his speeches has demonstrated a colloquial tone and a determination to keep things simple for his audience. He does not wish to make grand promises such as ‘the sun setting’ or leading people to the promise land.”Rachel D. Beeman, Political Analysis Volume XIX
However, striking comparisons have been made between the Trump of today and the trump of 30 years ago, and question what is style and what is decline.
“The change in linguistic facility could be strategic; maybe Trump thinks his supporters like to hear him speak simply and with more passion than proper syntax.”Stat News 2017
Linguist Ben Michaelis is a psychologist in New York City, performed cognitive assessments for New York Supreme Court and criminal court said – “He may be using it as a strategy to appeal to certain types of people,” with a “clear reduction in linguistic sophistication over time,” with “simpler word choices and sentence structure”
So whether by accidental decline, posturing or, as seems most likely a bit of both – it works. Remember Trump is a billionaire grown up playboy with a real estate empire. He’s a modern Claudius ( sorry Neville!) Yet in a letter called “Why Trump Won” published in the Aspen Times, in November 2015 one Michal Glavis wrote –
“Donald Trump didn’t run a political campaign. He couldn’t, because he isn’t/wasn’t a politician. That was their problem. The models that everyone had only compare apples to apples or should I say, politicians to politicians.
If you have a commoner going against a political elites or several political machines, the dynamics change, the rules of the game change. Models and prediction algorithms can’t calculate what it can’t comprehend.
Trump knew this from Day 1. He used this knowledge to leverage his position past his Republican opponents and then against the media and the democratic machine”Michal Glavis – Letter in the Aspen Times
Grassroots America shows the people support Donald Trump
Anthony Scaramucci writes in The Hill that Trump really is a man of the people – justifying it with an ‘ad populum’ appeal because he gets large numbers of small donations, saying
“While Trump might be a billionaire, he is really a man of the people whose top priority has always been making our country much stronger and more prosperous, especially for the forgotten men and women that Washington ignored for so many years. “Anthony Scaramucci
He’s a billionaire, but he talks like the man on the street, he doesn’t sound like a politician, he sound like an outsider, he eats McDonalds, he is so openly, proudly, flawed and isn’t constrained by fact checking – he just says what he thinks, and for many poor white rural Americans, that’s feels honest, compelling and appealing.
So why do they do it? How can you spot it, and what can we do about it?
Well, they are doing it to curry favour. All politicians will be told by their advisors to ‘connect to the average voter’ because of the belief that if people can relate to them, they will be more likely to vote for them. That’s part of it – That’s why politicians are photographed eating fish and chips, drinking irn bru, or in one photo opportunity that went memorably bad for Ed Milliband, failing to eat a bacon sandwich. But the populist application of this is more extreme like they have taken that point and wildly exaggerated it to excess.
Going back to the ideational definition of populism that we are using, to quote from “Populism – A Very Short Introduction” by Cas Mudde and Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser
“Agreement is general that all forms of populism include some kind of appeal to ‘the people’ and a denunciation of “The Elite, Accordingly, it is not overly contentious to state that populism always involves a critique of the establishment and an adulation of the common people [ …] Populist leaders have to convince their followers that they do not belong to the (corrupt) elite but that they belong to the (pure) people. ”“Populism – A Very Short Introduction” by Cas Mudde and Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser
The populist pursues power by positioning themselves as the voice of the people against their designated elite. It can be a way of giving a wink to the crowd who are ‘in the know’, allowing the insiders to believe they are party to the real things that are going on behind the scenes.
In her book, “Demagogue for President. – the Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump” ( which I strongly recommend- you can see the link in the bibliography on populistsplaybook.com), Professor of Rhetoric Jennifer Mercieca identifies several techniques he uses. Some of them overlap with the 12 techniques I outline in the populist’s playbook, but with the academic rhetorical names. For example, Ad Baculum or argument with the stick is “Threats of violence and intimidation.”
One of the techniques she outlines is “Paralipsis” She defines this as
“Paralipsis, or “I’m not saying; I’m just saying” “Used by dangerous demagogues to avoid accountability by saying two things at once”Jennifer Mercieca
Like when Trump retweets something and is challenged on it, he says “hey I didn’t tweet it, I’m just retweeting it” or “I’m not saying there was a conspiracy, I’m just saying a lot of people were talking about it.”
So when we look at the Fishwife tapes in Scotland – When Sturgeon gives her nod and wink tacit “she knows what I’m really thinking” approval, the Godley Voiceovers perform the same ‘double-speak’ function of paralipsis. Godley can be offensive, abusive, folksy, rude- and Nicola gets the benefit while she can also disassociate herself. She is in effect saying “This is what I really think, but I’m not allowed to say” while not having to say it herself, gaining plausible deniability.
When Ian Blackford claims to be a simple crofter, it’s an attempt to position himself as the honest voice of the underdog. It is to develop the ethos to be speaking on behalf of them when raising grievances – but it is also, in the ‘Romantic Nationalism’ of calling back to a rural idyll, in this case the reference to crofters speaks to the mythos of the Highland Clearances – one of many long held grievances still used to stir up anglophobia amongst nationalists.
What’s in a name?
As we’ve seen from Claudius onwards there’s a long tradition of politician’s changing their names.
– Eton educated bulligdon club member Alexander de Pfeffle becomes affable clown ‘Boris Johnston or BoJo’, Patrician Claudius becomes Plebian Clodius, Christopher Murray-Grieve thought his name sounded too English and became the Scottish caricature “Hugh McDiarmid” – you can imagine that is a name for the ‘simple crofter’ Ian blackford was aspiring to represent himself as.
The right honourable First Minister Nicola Sturgeon MSP becomes “oor Nicola” – calling bask to previous folksy SNP slogans like ‘It’s Oor Pound” .British ex chancellor “George Osbourne” was born “Gideon Osborne” Donald Trump’s closest running rival for the republican nomination “Jeb” Bush, is actually John Ellis Bush Sr. The florida politician “ Cornelius Harvey McGillicuddy” is better known as “Conny Mack”
Some of this is folksy man of the people posturing – but there is also a genuine other benefit for politicians. In a study called
“The name-pronunciation effect: Why people like Mr. Smith more than Mr. Colquhoun”
Authors Simon M Laham, Peter Koval and Adam L.Alter
“Names are rich sources of information. They can signal gender, ethnicity, or class; they may connote personality characteristics ranging from warmth and cheerfulness to morality. But names also differ in a much more fundamental way: some are simply easier to pronounce than others.
Five studies provide evidence for the name-pronunciation effect: easy-to-pronounce names (and their bearers) are judged more positively than difficult-to-pronounce names[…] Study 5 highlights an important real-world implication of the name-pronunciation effect: people with easier-to-pronounce surnames occupy higher status positions in law firms.
These effects obtain independent of name length, unusualness, typicality, foreignness, and orthographic regularity. …The easier a name is to pronounce the more positively it is judged. This holds for name evaluation, voting preferences, and occupational status.
“The name-pronunciation effect: Why people like Mr. Smith more than Mr. Colquhoun”
Simon M Laham, Peter Koval and Adam L.Alter
So – first of all check if the politician is being presented as a media character. If you see a nickname, or ‘Character’ being used, be suspicious. People have every right to change their names, and there may innocent explanations – Jeb Bush always went by the acronym long before he was in politics. President Ford changed his name from Leslie Lynch King Jr.; to match his Stepfathers surname over his birth name. Just as well , we can only imagine how republicans would have reacted to having a King in the whitehouse!
Gideon Osbourne changed his name to George at age 13 saying
“It was my small act of rebellion. I never liked it [the name ‘Gideon’]. When I finally told my mother she said, ‘Nor do I’. So I decided to be George after my grandfather, who was a war hero. Life was easier as a George; it was a straightforward name.”George (Gideon) Osbourne
So check the name, you should be voting for a person, not a manufactured persona.
Regard the Resume. If you were going to employ someone to do an important job for you, you would be entitles to a background check – So have the sense to do the same for your politicians- who are they really, what is their work history?
Look out for any of the ‘rags to riches’ ‘self-made-man’ or ‘Humble Beginnings” narrative, or any claims to particularly humble jobs – subsistence farming, cooker of street-food.
First – there is an exception that proves the rule – Dennis Skinner, Labour MP genuinely was a coal miner for 20 years. He went onto become the youngest chairman of the Derbyshire National Union of Miners. So that’s clearly not posturing! Silivio Berlusconi, You may be surprised or not to learn that he was a singer on a cruiseship before getting his law degree and creating his media empire.
So – before you vote, Look at the background of the politicians, what jobs did they do – what jobs are they still doing,
- Donald Trump was a billionare son of a millionaire, whose Niece says has been sheltered from the consequences of any decision he’s ever made, leaving him with no empathy or higher functions. He has a long history of being one of the elite.
- Ian Blackford is a millionaire investment Banker, His day job as an MP earns him several times the average UK salary -and he lists 5 second jobs including sitting on a financial board with David Davis, our Brexit impossible promiser from chapter one.
- Plebian Clodius was a millionaire patrician aristocrat from one of Rome’s oldest, richest, elite families.
- Nigel Farage, who has cultivated his straight talking, tweed wearing, fag smoking pint drinking persona is a millionaire who started out as a commodities broker in the city of London.
You might be seeing a pattern here.
- So look out when they claim to have humble job or beginnings, especially that they use to define themselves “Just a simple crofter” , “a fish-shop fryer” Check their actual background: jobs, qualifications and the context.
- Look out for folksy, colloquial or slang language. “Keep the Heid”
- Check that the name they are known by is the real person, or if it’s a created persona
- And if you see a staged photo or event – ask – what is being shown, what message are they crafting to get across, how genuine is it – who are the target audience.
And when you see folksy man of the people posturing – call it out, point it out- Using the Birth name highlights the artifice of the persona. When you call Boris Johnston Alexander De Pfeffle, I might make some people realise the trick. Putting the context shows the hyperbole of the over-humble claims – ‘Just a simple crofter’ being a millionaire banker with 5 jobs. People don’t like being manipulated, so highlight the manipulation.
The good news is that, when called out, this technique can backfire.
Like a dog lying in a corner
They will bite you and never warn you
Look out, they’ll tear your insides out
‘Cause everybody hates a tourist
Especially one who, who thinks it’s all such a laugh
Yeah, and the chip stain’s and grease will come out in the bath
You will never understand
How it feels to live your life
With no meaning or control
And with nowhere left to go
You are amazed that they exist
And they burn so bright whilst you can only wonder why
Rent a flat above a shop
Cut your hair and get a job
And smoke some fags and play some pool
Pretend you never went to school
But still you’ll never get it right
‘Cause when you’re laid in bed at night
Watching roaches climb the wall
If you called your dad he could stop it all, yeahCommon People – Pulp
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