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Trump’s vaccine heresy shows populism has separated from its heroes.

Before the revolution devours its own, it gives them a chance. “People oftentimes forget, like, how old Trump is,” said an understanding Candace Owens over the weekend. The right-wing broadcaster had just listened to the former US president bang the drum for vaccination against Covid-19 over the quack alternatives. As mitigation for this heresy, she has asked dismayed Republicans to consider his generation’s ignorance of alternative media and “independent research”. “Like, they came from a time before TV,” Owens said, of The Apprentice megastar.

Trump has elicited boos and jeers at his own rallies for, like, praising the vaccines. The even farther-right pundit Alex Jones wonders if it is ignorance or “evil” that lured him off the righteous path. None of this adds up to a Robespierre-grade fall from the mob’s affections.

The Republican presidential nomination in 2024 is still Trump’s to squander. But events elsewhere in the democratic world suggest that something is going on. For much of the past decade, Marine Le Pen has tried to paint a veneer of respectability on the French far right. Her party changed its name, softened its line on capital punishment and made a kind of peace with the EU.

For this “rapprochement with power”, as her father calls it, she has to endure more than the sting of his parental displeasure. She also has to watch a meaningful number of her voters turn to the much less hedged nativism of Eric Zemmour. Runner-up in two presidential elections in this young century, polls suggest the French far right might be too split to make the final round next year.

At least this is a schism within the opposition. In Britain, the purity tests take place within a governing party. Having attained the premiership as a Brexit hardliner, Boris Johnson now has the Conservative right doubting his doctrinal commitment. Whither the tax cuts and bonfire of labour laws? And what’s all this about an EU border in the Irish Sea? The Brexit secretary, David Frost, quit on him earlier this month. He is unlikely to be the last to find half or even nine-tenths of a loaf unsatisfying. Right or left, the eternal condition of the ideologue is disappointment.

Hard to satiate

It would be rash to rule out coincidence here. These are three very different polities, but in all of them, a leader pandered to the angriest class of voter, enjoyed huge success, then found that tribe ever harder to satiate. In two of the cases, the fracture between leader and led is not even taking place in government, the usual venue for enforced compromises with reality. Imagine Trump’s plight right now if it were his White House having to disseminate the vaccine. Imagine Le Pen having to make President Emmanuel Macron’s real-world decisions about fuel taxes.

There is something here to encourage political moderates in 2022, and something to disturb them. The first is plain enough. Populism is fissiparous. By all means, confront, rebut and out-campaign it. Take it all very seriously. But don’t imagine a monolith where there is only inchoate negative energy. Don’t underestimate the capacity of the other side to fall apart under its own steam. Trump once said that he could gun down civilians on the street without losing his core voters. And it is still true that no crime has turned them against him. But that doesn’t mean that no ideological infraction can.

How populism has hardened

The friendly fire against Trump reveals his vulnerability. The trouble is that it also shows how much populism has hardened. If we have learned anything in 2021, it is that this is now much more than a personality cult. It has become a creed with philosophical and almost theological red lines, even if it took a once-in-a-century pandemic to etch them. The townsfolk won’t follow the pied piper just anywhere.

This wasn’t so obvious a few years ago. Trump failed to build a wall against Mexico, to no great heartbreak on his own side. On such high-stakes foreign policy questions as North Korea, he alternated between nuclear threats and unconditional abasement to a dictator half his age. Again, his supporters went along with him. He even cut taxes and regulations for corporate America, having run as an everyman.

A British Labour politician, exasperated with textbook ideologues, once defined socialism as whatever “a Labour government does”. For much of his presidency, it seemed that American populism was whatever Trump did. As recently as this year, it was forgivable to ask if the movement could exist without him.

It is now clear that it can exist in active defiance of him. It has substance and momentum that is independent of any leadership. As true as this is in the UK and France too, it is in the US where the situation is diciest. Inquiries into the Capitol siege of last January reveal that various Republicans, including blood relatives, urged Trump to cool his people down that day. How touching to believe that he had their ear. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021

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