Sado-Populism and the Politics of Pain

The sado-populist at the podium

Sado-populism is how society dies

In our previous article, Post-Brexit and the Culture Wars, we discussed the concept of nostalgia: specifically, the difference between history and memory. We have also considered Boris Johnson and his American counterpart, Donald Trump, as eternity politicians. This article will focus on particular language and evocations that politicians like these use to be reminiscent, and what this means in real life.

Trump promised to ‘Make America great again’; Brexit told us that we would ‘Take back control’. In both cases, not only would America be great, but it would be great again: the UK would not just ‘take control’ but take back control. In both cases, the rearview mirror is the one we’re encouraged to look into. For the UK, the word ‘back’ is significant because it does not imply looking forward: it instead means looking behind us: back to a past when we supposedly had power and, pertinently, to a time before we joined the EU. It could perhaps be referring back to the post-war boom era between the 1940s and 1970s. 

A slogan on a bus replaces vision for the future.

It also stimulates people to look back to that era with nostalgia, when Britain had a fully-funded and world-class healthcare system, thriving industries, strong unions and welfare provisions, and movements towards a more equal society. The sado-populist leader, in this case, Boris Johnson, actually has zero interest in reviving those institutions which made such advancements and improvements in living standards for the British in the post-war years. Instead, Johnson only wants to steal the feeling, the energy that the nostalgia from thinking about that time causes. The lived realities of the past is unimportant to leaders like Johnson, e.g. the racism that black people and minority groups faced, the normalised sexism experienced by women, etc. Johnson’s only interest is the glorious myth of the past.

The sado-populist tells us that wokeness and political correctness are out of control. Johnson insists that there was a better time in the past when people were not so easily offended – a time when white people did not always have to apologise. Again, the sado-populist loops us back in time because we only look forward to a time the leader tells us will resemble the past. We are nudged to resist progress, as progress moves us forward and further away from the supposed golden time. Our leader tells us that we don’t want progression but rather regression, back to when we had control. He appeals to English nationalism and all that comes with it. Then, when that English nationalism explodes within communities, he distances himself from it.

Sado-populism feeds corrosive nationalism

The sado-populist does not enact policies that help the majority of the people. They instead implement policies that set out to hurt the working class people who elected the leader in order to benefit the super-rich. We see it in the recent National Insurance hike and Universal Credit cuts. Then we can look at broader policy decisions such as the continued, deliberate underfunding of the NHS and education system. The lack of access to quality health care and education decimates most of society’s quality of life (unless you are rich enough to go private for both).

This is because the sado-populist does not serve the people, despite the posturing. Instead, they help the super-rich. The oligarchs benefit from this kind of leader who hands them lucrative contract after contract regardless of their performance. The oligarchs replace the state institutions (The privatization of everything). The oligarchs who own the media support the leader with controlled reporting in the papers and on their television outlets, and reward the leader and his party with money and donations. The sado-populist keeps the people raging with anger and hate, so they are too distracted to see the real danger to society.

The sado-populist leader tells us it is necessary to have policies that might hurt us to combat those people abusing the system, our hospitality, or our way of life: be it the supposed immigrants flooding our shores, benefit cheats or single mothers. The leaders tell us that benefits need to be cut or taxes raised to combat these people. The people caught up in this dynamic grow angrier and angrier against those people the leader tells them are the reason for the collective pain. Consequently, the people and the leader become locked into a sadomasochist relationship.

The politics of pain is how democracy dies

The question needs to be asked as to why the leader would want to cause pain for so many people? And why would he do this to his voter base? The answer is simple: to create anger, fear and hate. These emotions create deep divisions within society, effectively fracturing it. The leader then ensures that the pain is not directed toward him, but instead outward, to other people and groups: women, different ethnic groups, the unemployed, teachers, doctors, nurses, ‘woke warriors’… anyone but the leader. Additional tools, such as newspapers, news channels, Twitter commentators, also play their part in disseminating this hatred, turning it away from the leader and towards other groups. They don’t necessarily just do it due to a sense of duty to the leader; they do it for their own reasons, e.g. anger sells papers and creates ‘likes’ on social media.

When talking about Sado-populism, Timothy Snyder says that the outcome of this constant pain is a message to those who suffer it, ‘The government cannot help. Life is full of pain, but we have the consolation that others are suffering more.’ When people get lost in suffering, they look to the past for a time they viewed as better and in this sense, they create their own loop back to the past, which chimes with the tone of a leader like Johnson. A time before immigration, or before they felt like they had to be careful about what they said. The reality of the time is not essential, and all that matters is the feeling and nostalgia it brings. The nostalgia brings a desire to return to it, but the problem is that you cannot: external forces propel us forward. We can never really go back, which in turn creates more sadness, anger and rage.

Snyder reminds us that this view of time and looking back instead of to the future is a new paradigm. In traditional elections and party politics, each party offered a vision for the future. The sado-populist shows only an image of a return to the past as an escape from all that ails us.

The sado-populist and right-wing populists, more generally, offer either a limited to zero succession path. They do not plan what the future for their party looks like without them, as they cannot envision a time when they will not be in charge. They know (or like) to believe that their people would not accept any other leader.  For this kind of leader, they ultimately lead themselves, their party and the people who they are supposed to represent, off a cliff-edge, with the leader screaming, ‘Follow me!’ as they all plummet to their demise. Everything can burn once their show is over for all they care.

The leader keeps reminding us of our pain and feeds it constantly with news of everything that is wrong – too many immigrants/the NHS is at capacity/we can’t call it Christmas/more dinghies on the south coast, and so on forever. The Sado-populist is an administrator of pain & suffering, but you can tolerate the pain given to you as long as someone else is suffering more. He sells a vision of victimhood for himself and his people, and this loop sets people against each other to erode all trust in the community. In this system, there is no future; there is only the present or the past, and the people become stuck in a downward spiral of trying to return to that mythical past – a time that never really existed.

The sado-populist also uses this reservoir of anger stored up in the people to fight his culture wars to make sure that everyone is too busy fighting each other to notice the damage he and his party did. No-one notices what is actually going on right in front of them.

Interestingly, writing in the New European magazine, Alastair Campbell points out that we see this sadism not only in Johnson but in members of his party. For example, when Priti Patel orders lifeboats not to save refugees in the English channel, people and the papers chant that it is their fault for trying to come here. We care not for the reasons why they set out on such a perilous journey across unpredictable seas to get here; all we care about is that they don’t make it. We want them to know the pain, which will work to deter others like them from coming.

‘Let them drown’

Ultimately, this constant pain removes the want for us all to move forward as one society and for things to improve incrementally for everyone. It turns the dynamic into only wanting things to get better for ‘me’ and ‘my group’ whilst other, less deserving people suffer more and get left behind. Or, to put it another way, as long as the leader makes things better for me, all is ok.

This politics of pain also erodes the rule of law and should be seen as a severe threat to democracy as it creates a deep polarization between people and groups. It has a demoralizing effect on the populous –if you feel the government or opposition cannot fix what is harming you and make life better, you choose not to go to the ballot box as it feels pointless. This means that the elections are decided by those who accept this lack of vision and politics of pain. This is one step closer to how democracy dies. 

Where the sado-populist goes, corruption and self-serving interests are sure follow. We are seeing it right now in the UK, and it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

~ L&A 16.11.21 ~

Timothy Snyder Speaks, ep. 4: Sadopopulism –


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