Exaggerating the short-term threat from populism inures people to the threat it poses

The establishment’s dangerous habit of crying wolf


Brexiters dubbed it “Project Fear”. President Donald Trump’s supporters call it Trump derangement syndrome and Bernie Sanders fans think of it as corporate scaremongering. What links each is the habit of exaggerating populism’s short-term fallout, which inures people to its mounting dangers.

The parallels to global warming are strong. Predicting apocalypse tomorrow instils a sense of fatalism, which creates a paradox for liberals. They want to warn people of danger, but not so much that they breed a spirit of surrender. So far, liberals are failing in that task.

In Aesop’s fable of course, the wolf eventually shows up. But false alarms have numbed people to the present danger. Sometimes its fangs are more apparent than real. It is hard to prove that Mr Sanders, for example, poses an existential threat to the US republic. Nor, as Mr Sanders’ detractors insist, is there strong evidence that Mr Trump would automatically beat him. To judge by his successes in Iowa and New Hampshire, each of these claims will be heavily debated in the coming weeks.

The first rests on the cost of his spending plans. These are indeed huge. Were Mr Sanders to implement all his pledges — from Medicare-for-all to a federal jobs guarantee — US taxes would need to rise sharply. This would hit the Democratic establishment as hard as the rest of the US financial elite. That is why a growing number of wealthy Democrats, such as former Goldman Sachs chief Lloyd Blankfein, are speaking out about the Sanders threat to America.

In practice, however, he would be unable to push even a fraction of his promises through Congress. In the unlikely event the Democrats won 60 Senate seats in November — the filibuster-proof threshold — enough of them would be opposed to Mr Sanders’ agenda to block it.

A more realistic expectation is that he would subvert traditional US foreign policy by ending overseas interventions. National security is where a president’s real power lies. Ironically, such military restraint would improve America’s fiscal outlook. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost the US trillions of dollars. The second bromide — that Mr Sanders would lose a presidential election — may just be wishful thinking. Head to head polls show him beating Mr Trump by similar margins as Michael Bloomberg.

Some wolves have real fangs. This week the US Department of Justice abandoned the pretence it would keep any distance from Mr Trump’s vendettas. Bill Barr, the attorney-general, is deploying America’s machinery of justice against the president’s enemies.

A few optimists thought Mr Trump would move on after having been acquitted by the Senate. Quite the reverse. He has made it clear he wants to punish anyone who testified against him and protect those who kept their silence. It took a few hours for the DoJ to say it would intervene to reduce the nine-year jail sentence for Roger Stone, Mr Trump’s former henchman, after he had complained about it on Twitter.

Had Mr Trump acted this brazenly during his first week, the uproar might have forced him to climb down. Today’s outrage is largely confined to Washington’s beltway. America as a whole has acclimatised to the shock. Long before Mr Trump took office, the US public was familiar with warnings of imminent fascism. It is little surprise that most people have grown too numb to pay heed. This is the point at which Mr Trump is escalating his abuse of power. The boy is crying wolf again but fewer Americans are listening.

Remainer warnings of Britain’s collapse after the 2016 referendum have had a similar effect. By failing to come true — or happening more slowly than forecast — they have licensed a free season on facts. Those who say reason is on their side should be careful how they use it. Outbidding populist rhetoric is a loser’s game. There used to be a saying that a neoconservative is a liberal mugged by reality. Today many liberals might be described as drunk on apocalypse.

It is possible today’s society is so desensitised to shock in general that our politics is doomed to a rhetorical arms race. In which case, the boy has no choice but to shout ever more loudly. A more positive view is that the “still small voice of calm” will ultimately prevail. Believing that, however, requires a leap of faith that does not come easily.