Like many of us, I have worried about the rising tide of rightwing populism, nationalism and polarisation across the world. Within just a few years, we’ve witnessed the election of Donald Trump in the US, the Brexit decision in the UK, the rise of Matteo Salvini in Italy, Victor Orbán in Hungary, the Freedom party in Austria and the Law and Justice party in Poland. The world’s largest democracy, India, is menaced by a newly virulent nationalism and xenophobia.
For a long time I wondered what explained the appeal of these apparently fringe movements that, in my view, had accidentally gone mainstream. They seemed like the exception to a general rule of progression towards, not away from, democratic norms. But this year I came to a different conclusion: it’s democracy that is a precious exception to the rule, and one that is extremely fragile, for a simple reason: the human craving for order and security when chaos feels imminent.
Leaders are aware of this basic psychology and exaggerate threats to gain popularity. Trump did so masterfully: at campaign rallies throughout 2015 and 2016, he warned his ever-growing crowds that the US was a nation on the “brink of disaster”.
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