If 2016 is likely to be remembered for anything, it is the ascension of populist, largely right-wing movements and parties to the heights of political power across the world. The Brexit vote in the United Kingdom, the election of Donald Trump in the United States, Matteo Renzi’s ignominious defeat in Italy, and Rodrigo Duterte’s victory in the Philippines are just a few examples of how old political certainties have been swept away by a wave of sentiment directed against the status quo. In each of these cases, as well as others including the rise of Marine Le Pen in France and the premiership of Viktor Orban in Hungary, the factors fuelling right-wing populism are not difficult to discern; economic stagnation, rising inequality, and curbs on public spending have fused with resentment about cultural change and the assertion of identity politics to create a constituency of voters and supporters arrayed against a political, economic, and cultural elite – the ‘establishment’ – perceived as being indifferent to these concerns. The failure of mainstream liberalism to adequately grapple with questions relating to economic distress and uncertainty, coupled with the structural weakness of the traditional Left (with some notable exceptions), has created a political vacuum in which quasi-authoritarian leaders are able to effectively sell the promise of upending the established order and ushering in an era of prosperity and national renewal.

Just as it is possible to understand the factors giving rise to this new brand of populism, similarities between the different leaders and movements comprising this new wave of political engagement and contestation can also be identified. As was the case with the populists of the past, part of the appeal of these actors relies on their ability to convince significant sections of the populace that they represent the ‘people’. This, of course, necessarily requires defining exactly who and what the ‘people’ are. It is here that nationalism rears its head in its most toxic form, with the scapegoating of the ‘other’ – racial, religious, and ethnic minorities, immigrants – for a variety of societal ills serving the purpose of delineating exactly who can or cannot belong to the nation. This is supplemented with the cultivation of anti-elite sentiment; the ‘people’ are characterised as being diametrically opposed to an establishment comprised of an eclectic mix of plutocrats, career politicians, intellectuals, and cultural progressives. It is by attacking those at the margins of society, as well as seen as being at the apex of power, that populists acquire the mantle of popular legitimacy. Many populist leaders also claim to be outsiders, insurgents neither linked nor beholden to the interests and individuals associated with the establishment. Burnishing these credentials helps these leaders further cultivate the notion that there is little to distinguish them from the masses they aspire to lead, with the latter and the former united by a common lack of access to the levers of power and decision-making.

Having thus established a claim to being the only true representatives of the people, populists seeking power provide solutions to the problems they identify in society. Given that their popularity lies in their ability to tap into, and even whip up, anger at the status quo, it should not be surprising to find populists suggesting policies and proposals that run counter to it. For example, Donald Trump’s economic proposals include reversing the USA’s commitment to free trade, bringing back jobs to parts of the USA ravaged by deindustrialization, ensuring American goods and services remain competitive on the global market, introducing tax cuts for the richest segments of the population, and boosting public spending on infrastructure. If some of these ideas sound contradictory, it is because they are; one of the hallmarks of populism has always been its ability to capture support through appeals to the fantastical and the impossible. While there is obviously much that is problematic about the status quo, and a lot that could potentially be done to change it, right-wing populists like Trump are often unconcerned with the minutiae of policy and governance, preferring instead to simply use charged rhetoric, half-truths, and obfuscations to sway the electorate. In the wake of Trump’s election, much has been made of the ‘post-factual’ nature of contemporary political debate, with it being argued that closed media ecosystems, amplified by social media, have made it increasingly impossible for the average citizen to distinguish fact from fiction, with this cognitive dissonance fuelling increasingly partisan political behavior and, more importantly, allowing demagoguery and falsehood to go unchecked. When interventions are made to correct this state of affairs, such as by scientists issuing warnings about climate change, they are simply dismissed as tools in the hands of the establishment.

Finally, it is important to recognise how many populist leaders today are also massive narcissists. This is arguably true for all politicians; after all, it takes a certain amount of self-belief to make the claim that you can right society’s wrongs. However, one of the things that distinguishes contemporary populism from mainstream democratic politics is an almost messianic belief in ‘strong’ leadership. The logic here is as simple as it is seductive; given that the institutions of the status quo are inherently dysfunctional and/or corrupt, and that the establishment has its tentacles everywhere, the only way to change things is by circumventing those institutions and purging them of the influences, rules, and personnel that currently exist. To accomplish this, the modern right-wing populist argues, it is necessary to provide the leader with the power necessary to get things done quickly and efficiently. From Putin to Erdogan, Trump to Orban, and Duterte to Modi, the cult of the strongman has witnessed a massive resurgence in 2016. As Oxford professor Archie Brown has recently argued in The Myth of the Strong Leader, the belief that a single, authoritarian leader with the right intentions and plans can deliver good governance is deeply misleading; good intentions are usually not synonymous with autocratic politics, and effective planning is more likely to emerge out of consultative processes than the arbitrary whims of a single individual.

Not all contemporary right-wing populist movements are the same. As pointed out by Paul Krugman in a column for the New York Times earlier this week, populist governments in Poland and Hungary, for example, have actually introduced measures that provide a modicum of help to their core constituency of white working class voters. Nevertheless, this comes at a cost; rising racism and xenophobia, the valorisation of ignorance, and contempt for the rule of law. Comparisons with the 1930s may be premature and misplaced, but it is clear that the world is entering 2017 as a meaner, smaller, and more dangerous place.