Populists routinely lie. Dont think they do it to be believed, says author Catherine Fieschi
The torrent of lies that flows from the mouths of populists feels relentless: from Donald Trumps routine lying about everything from Iran to the weather, to Boris Johnsons fictitious 350m for the NHS, Turkey on the cusp of joining the EU or most sensationally misleading the Queen about why the UK parliament should be shut down.
My research on populism elsewhere in Europe confirms that lying is a constant feature of populist politics. In France, Marine Le Pen lies about how her party spends public money and her (fake) Twitter accounts. Viktor Orbn, the Hungarian prime minister, lies gigantically and systematically about the migration to his country. As for Italys Matteo Salvini from migration to sanctions against Russia as the song goes, if his lips are moving, hes lying.
The defiant line, found nestling in most populist party manifestos, used to be: Were only saying what everyone is thinking. Which for the far right is a coded way of saying: we dont like immigrants, we dont like people who look different, dress differently, speak differently. The aim is to draw a sharp line between the supposed common-sense instincts of ordinary people and the highfalutin ways of the elites. But as the reach of their ambitions and grasp on mainstream politics and power has extended, populists have escalated to routine, outright lying. To be clear, this is not about the far right or the far left, but rather that as populists, these politicians resort to shameless lying.
Many of the lies are shocking because the statements are so verifiably, obviously false: the crowds arent there, the numbers were entirely made up, and the declarations so furiously denied are on the public record. The blatant dishonesty leaves us speechless.
Politicians have, of course, always dissembled, but the traditional political lie was designed to cover up an unpalatable fact. No one wanted to be caught lying. If accused, they had to explain (I didnt inhale, I am not a crook, not with that woman, the dossier wasnt sexed-up) and they might then fall from grace, face a public inquiry, or indulge in that staple of political redemption exercises, the televised apology.
Populist lying, by contrast, is designed to be seen it is the opposite of a cover-up. In the populist playbook, lying itself is glorified; it is an instrument of subversion, its purpose to demonstrate that the liar will stop at nothing to serve the people. The lies are signals that these politicians are not bound by the usual norms of the liberal democratic elite. Liberals have virtue signalling populists have outrage signalling. This is the politics of appealing to the gut over the brain.
Above all, though, the lies are about taking one of representative democracys creeds authenticity and turning it on its head. The idea of authenticity is at the heart of the populist worldview, yet it is rarely studied as a political concept. In liberal democracies the notion that politicians will uphold basic values of honesty has long been a given. It means delivering on what you promise and doing as you said you would or paying an electoral price if you fail. With ever closer media scrutiny and the growing reach of social media, an even deeper correlation between the private and public self has been demanded of politicians. They have to be true to themselves, not just true to their word.