During their election campaigns in 2016, both Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte made such appalling remarks about assaulting women that many thought it impossible either man could become the leader of their respective countries. Despite this, the former got into the White House and the latter into the Philippines' Malacanang Palace. Now it seems that another man with a tendency for vile misogynistic comments is set to join them on the world stage – Jair Bolsonaro, the nostalgist for Brazil's past dictatorship who once said he wouldn't rape a female deputy because "she wasn't worthy of it" and is the odds-on favourite to win the second round of his country's presidential race on October 28.
That is not all the three have in common. They share a tough approach to law enforcement and a fondness for the martial: Mr Trump's pride in "his generals" in his administration is well-known; Mr Duterte has boasted of personally shooting criminals; Mr Bolsonaro, meanwhile, has promised to put the army on the streets if he wins. They also share a disdain for elites (despite having come from privileged backgrounds, in the case of Mr Trump and Mr Duterte), a contempt for democratic norms and a penchant for outrageous and prejudiced outbursts that their supporters either forgive or find rousing.
Mr Bolsonaro is, in short, another example of the candidate deemed too fringe and maverick to succeed but who nonetheless does, by courting popularity through a cult of personality; and by tapping into the seething discontent of those left behind by a globalisation that only seems to have made their lives worse. We see their likes around the world.
Centrists of left and right appear powerless to fight back effectively, even when – as is the case with all three above – the populists’ political philosophy is either incoherent or almost entirely absent. (As one Philippines’ political scientist put it earlier this year: “If Duterte had a platform, nobody knew what it was.”) Nor can they blame that failure on a post-truth news environment they played a part in creating. For they promised growth that never seemed to trickle down to those whose livelihoods were shattered by the great recession and jobs that were increasingly being outsourced to low-income developing economies. The “gain” that was supposed to follow the “pain” still appears illusory in many countries. No wonder their arguments, however cogent they might be, are so often dismissed by the masses who have also noticed that the rich, it seems, “are always with us”.
The failure and the rejection of centrists is also connected to their marginalisation of nationalism, an always-powerful force that globalists often regard as an embarrassing anachronism. It may seem strange to accuse any US presidential hopeful of ignoring nationalism. Aren’t they always eager to cover themselves in the flag and preach American exceptionalism? But by the end of the Obama years, what nationalism the Democrats exuded appeared utterly disconnected from the large numbers of people who didn’t believe it was doing anything for their lives.
Mainstream politicians were once far more eager to demonstrate their devotion to their country and its people. In Britain after the Second World War, for instance, it was a Labour government that introduced the National Health Service and it was a subsequent “one nation” Conservative administration that declared housing “a priority second only to national defence”. Both parties were unashamed of a nationalism that was deeply committed to producing results for the people.
Harold Macmillan, the Conservative housing minister at the time, later prime minister, would certainly not have sneered at nationalism for being small-minded, insular or xenophobic. He would have thought love of country was the most natural feeling imaginable and said as such when he acknowledged the growth of “national consciousness” in African countries in his famous “wind of change” speech – which gave a green light to the renewed decolonisation of the British Empire.
In the same period, many historians have argued that America saw only Ho Chi Minh’s communism and underestimated his appeal as a Vietnamese nationalist. It was under his rule that general Vo Nguyen Giap won perhaps the greatest battle in the history of anti-colonialism at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, which led to the collapse of the French empire in Indochina.
The later eclipsing of nationalism by an internationalism that was sometimes laudable, such as when stressing a common humanity and sharing progress, and sometimes divisive, in the desire to subsume individual countries into a United States of Europe, for example – could perhaps stand firm in times of high growth. During times of hardship, however, it strikes many as elusive and of no benefit to the ordinary person; an indulgence of the elite.
But the appeal of nationalism had not disappeared and if the way has been cleared for right-wing populists to raise its banner instead, it is no surprise that it has returned in a toxic and intolerant variety. It does not matter if Mr Trump never builds his wall, if Mr Duterte fails to rid the Philippines of the scourge of drugs or if Mr Bolsonaro has little knowledge of economics (he said he'd leave that to his finance minister). What matters is the way they have successfully stirred the hearts and souls of countless voters who are proud of their countries and feel that their aspirations might – just might – be met by politicians who share that same earthy belief.
The mainstream must reconnect with that tradition and swiftly. Otherwise there will be plenty more Bolsonaros who espouse not a dignified, decent nationalism but a type that carries deep dangers for democracy, independent institutions and a humane political discourse – which, ironically, many would consider to be part of the very fabric of a civilised nation state.
Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia