One of the most prominent political notions today is the populist idea that there is one and only one People, and that this People is represented by the populist party (at least if we look at the prominence of right-wing populism as expressed in various places in Western Europe and by Trump). Foreign workers, refugees, foreign students, asylum seekers, Muslims, academics of non-national origin who take jobs in contexts they ‘shouldn’t’, etc., pose a threat to the unity of such a People. The People constitutes the One.

It is the One that excludes diversity and difference, which is one of the pillars of democracy. A People seduced by a populist leader, and there is always one, is a People that hears one voice. It is a People that has the impression that a leader (e.g. Le Pen in France and Viktor Orbán in Hungary) is responding to its appeal[1]. It is the People, insofar as they are incarnated in the party.

The populist idea of the One, who excludes the dangerous foreigners, builds on a hatred promoted by particular discourses about foreigners. It is possible that a so-called flow of foreigners into Western European countries will undermine the welfare state, as other political parties also claim, but if the regulation of this flow is to be based on the idea of the One, it promotes fear. The populist therefore reinforces fear, which in turn reinforces his obsession with foreigners. A populist discourse not only promotes hatred of the other, the foreigner, but also threatens democracy. Populist nationalism is, moreover, nothing more than the reverse of globalisation.

Globalisation is creating a gap between political and economic power; political power remains localized, attached to a territory, of a nationalist nature, while economic power has dissolved territories, and appears as opaque and internationalized[2]. The uncertainties that accompany this gap constitute a key reason for the affects that play a major role in populism. The “People”, who are supposed to contain fears and strangers, is a false name for a social totality that is not grounded in the life-world, since the gap precisely excludes such a total life-world. For the populist, it is not the system as such that is the problem, but foreigners, immigrants, the wrong believers, etc., who erode the identity of the populist (e.g. to be English, one of the English People, etc.). Such a totalitarian identity denies the differences, giving existence to an Other that threatens the identity of everyone. The Other who would be the cause of disturbances or disintegrations that the individual experiences within himself[3].

It is also clear that populism is not only a notion of grasping the social totality[4]. It is also a passion that grips those involved. A passion is always something greater than the subject, and the populist leader acts out this passion by virtue of his seduction. But as Sigmund Freud states in “Mass Psychology and Ego Analysis”, there is a kind of mirroring between the subject’s self, its narcissistic self, and the leader. The seduction effected by a populist leader is due to a projection of the subject’s own idealized ego-image onto him. Of course, this is not only something that happens in political contexts, but sometimes also occurs in the social relationships that go by the name of relationships and love. However, it takes on a particular twist in the passionate relationship with the leader, as the masses want to be dominated by unlimited power.

That is why it is of no importance what such a leader might be revealed for: corruption, dealing with prostitutes, etc. It is possible that other political movements may use such phenomena to undermine the leader’s parliamentary influence, as was the case with Jean-Marie Le Pen, but the leader does not lose his supporters. This is paradoxically seen with Jean-Marie Le Pen’s daughter, Marine Le Pen, who has taken over from his leadership in the National Front, had him expelled for racism and had the party renamed the Rassemblement National (National Rally). However, the accusation of racism can also be directed towards his daughter, Marine Le Pen, which is why her father’s expulsion and the renaming of the party should be seen merely as an attempt to calm criticism – an attempt that may at the same time maintain passivity. During the 2017 election campaign, Marine Le Pen was accused of misusing public funds, but this did not harm her, whereas one of her political opponents, Francois Fillon, was hurt by similar accusations.

Once the passion is activated, the exclusion of the leader is impossible. There is no choice between the leader and another, only the leader is attractive. This is due, as indicated, to the particular mirror relationship that exists between the leader and the subject’s narcissistic ego ideal: if the subject betrays the leader, it will also betray itself. “Passion is structured like a mirror”[5], and therefore it usually ceases only when death occurs.

[1] Cf. Hélène L’Heuillet: “Pourquoi tous ces populismes?” (in Joel Birman & Christian Hoffmann (eds.): Une Nouvelle Lecture du Populisme: Psychanalyse et Politique. Paris: Maison d’Édition langage, 2019), p. 50.

[2] Cf. Vincent de Gaulejac: La société malade de la gestion. Idéologie gestionnaire, pouvoir, managérial et harcèlement social (Paris: Seuil, 2005), p. 39

[3] Cf. Clotilde Leguil: ‘Je’. Une traversée des identités (Paris: PUF, 2018), p. 47.

[4] Cf. L’Heuillet, op. cit., p. 51ff.

[5] L’Heuillet, op. cit., p. 51.