Populists do not face political rivals with whom one could disagree. They transform rivals into existential and symbolic enemies. Differently from fascists, who physically eliminate their enemies, populists do not kill them. Instead they depict them as the dangerous other. In a different way from a rival that one tries to convince about ones point of view in an argument, an enemy needs to be contained because it is an existential threat. Populists are constantly manufacturing enemies. When seeking power, their enemy is broadly cast as the establishment. Once in power, their enemies become particular political, economic, and cultural elites who supposedly hold the real power.
Populists differ on whom they construct as the enemies of the people. Right-wing populists often face two types of enemies: cosmopolitan elites above and dependents of colour bellow. The enemies of European right-wing populists are the global elites of the European community, their cronies at home, and immigrants who do not work and live oft the hard-earned money of taxpayers. Similarly, the Tea Party and Donald Trump struggle against dependents of colour below, who allegedly live oft welfare paid by white producers, and cosmopolitan liberal elites, who tax middle-class makers above.
Racist arguments are used to cast whole populations not just as inferior but as inherently culturally different and inassimilable. The other is imagined as a plague, a virus, or a disease that could contaminate the purity of the people. Their culture and/or their religion is not just different; it is the opposite of the good values and morals of the host ethnic population. Rightwing populists hence politicise emotions such as fear to the different, dangerous, and treacherous other. They argue that citizens cannot be complicit with cosmopolitan elites who allow for the massive entrance of the dangerous other to European or American neighbourhoods and schools.
The other becomes dehumanised. In Europe the Muslim immigrant, for instance, is perceived as an ‘infection agent’ (Traverso 2019, 75), whereas in America the illegal Mexican immigrant, a term that encompasses populations of Latin American origins, is seen as the source of evil. Because ‘Mexican’ immigrants were previously cast as the subhuman other who is willing to do any trick in order to enter into the US, even renting children or putting them at risk in rivers and deserts, they needed to be punished. Families were separated, and ‘Mexican’ children and babies were put in cages in immigrant detention centres. Fear leads to lack of empathy, dehumanisation, and perhaps to extreme measures of containment such as mass detention and deportation.
The enemies of left-wing populists are the economic and political elites of the establishment, the 1 percent, the oligarchy, or the caste. For the most part, leftists do not use xenophobic and racist arguments. If the right politicises fears to the danger of contamination of culture, religion, and race, the left focuses on the angers produce by socioeconomic and political exclusions and by systemic inequalities. They politicise anger, indignation, and envy. These emotions could lead to mobilisation against those who are at the top because of oligarchic privileges or corruption.
Populism’s pars pro toto dynamic and the leader as the embodiment of the true people
Populists do not aim to give power back to all the population. They do not appeal to Rousseau general will either. They aim to empower only a section of the population, those excluded who represent the right and truthful people. The rest are depicted as the oligarchy, the caste, or those sectors of the population who are not part of the sincere and good people. The pars pro toto dynamic of populism is inherently exclusionary. When ethnic and religious criteria are used to name the real or authentic people, these constructs attempt against modern and plural civil societies. However it could be argued that casting the 1 percent or the oligarchy as not part of the people is not such a terrible problem; after all, the hyper-rich and powerful live from the work of the poor. The problem is that even in left-wing populism, the pars por toto dynamic excludes the organisations of the poor that do not uncritically support the leader. The exclusionary dynamic of left-wing populism is not only used against class enemies but also and fundamentally against political enemies. After all, the leader is the person who names those who belong to the good people, and his enemies could become former members of the populist coalition or anybody critical of the leaders claim to embody the people.
For populism to be successful, it needs a leader; otherwise it remains at the margins of the political system. A leader is built as the authentic and truthful representative of the right people. Even when populists are inclusionary, it is on the condition of accepting the leadership of the wise leader.