In Populism in Power: Discourse and Performativity in SYRIZA and Donald Trump, Giorgos Venizelos examines populist power in the last decade through a comparative analysis of SYRIZA in Greece and Donald Trump in the United States. Parsing these two contrasting case studies, Venizelos offers a nuanced, captivating study of how populism operates through dynamics of emotion, performativity and sensationalism, writes Georgios Samaras.
Populism in Power: Discourse and Performativity in SYRIZA and Donald Trump. Giorgos Venizelos. Routledge. 2023.
In his new book, Populism in Power: Discourse and Performativity in SYRIZA and Donald Trump, Giorgos Venizelos delves into the intricate dynamics of populism when it comes to those who wield political power. With a keen focus on two distinct cases – the governance of the Greek political party SYRIZA during the financial crisis between 2015 and 2019 and Donald Trump’s unforeseen victory in the 2016 United States Presidential Election – Venizelos aims to shed light on the commonalities and underlying elements of performativity, emotional appeal, manipulation tactics, and sensationalism that are intrinsic to populism. Despite their disparate contexts, he seeks to develop a robust theoretical framework that allows for meaningful comparisons between the two.
Venizelos aims to shed light on the commonalities and underlying elements of performativity, emotional appeal, manipulation tactics, and sensationalism that are intrinsic to populism.
The book is structured in seven chapters, each contributing to the overall narrative. The first chapter, “Populism(s) in Power,” serves as an introduction, setting the stage by elucidating the key ideological components of populism in governance and highlighting its manifestation as a distinctive political style. Venizelos explores how populism as a rhetorical strategy has been employed by both SYRIZA and Donald Trump to captivate their respective electorates, employing emotional appeals and exploiting social anxieties to amass support.
The second chapter, “Populism in Greece and the United States,” serves as the linchpin of the comparative analysis. It outlines the distinct socio-political landscapes of Greece and the United States, emphasising the differences between the two nations while delving into the reasons why populism, as a shared foundation, has gained significant traction in both countries between 2015 and 2020. The US experienced a period of political realignment as voters responded positively to Trump’s ultranationalist stance on migration, while in Greece, people grew disillusioned with austerity measures and the deterioration of the welfare system. SYRIZA capitalised on this dissatisfaction by promising transformative policies, and Tsipras’s populist rhetoric played a significant role in his rise to power.
The US experienced a period of political realignment as voters responded positively to Trump’s ultranationalist stance on migration, while in Greece, people grew disillusioned with austerity measures and the deterioration of the welfare system.
The subsequent chapters delve deeper into the specific ideological components underpinning the populist discourses prevalent in both nations. Chapter 3, “SYRIZA in Opposition,” presents an exhaustive analysis of SYRIZA’s transformation from a marginal political force to the main voice of criticism within the Greek Parliament. Venizelos explores how SYRIZA adeptly adapted to its opposition role, resonating with a broader electorate and ultimately paving the way for its rise to power. The following chapter, “SYRIZA in Government,” explores the challenges and successes that SYRIZA encountered while in a coalition government with the right-wing Independent Greeks party, shedding light on the complexities of governance in the populist era, as Greece found itself bound by a legally-binding memorandum that mandated the state to implement stringent reforms and adhere to the austerity agenda prescribed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
SYRIZA’s transformation from a marginal political force to the main voice of criticism within the Greek Parliament.
Turning to the American context, Chapter 5, “The Rise of Donald Trump,” offers a comprehensive analysis of the factors that contributed to Trump’s ascendancy. Venizelos examines the pre-election dynamics and dissects the unconventional strategies employed by Trump’s campaign, including a masterful utilisation of media platforms and the strategic amplification of divisive rhetoric. Chapter 6, “Donald Trump in Power,” takes a closer look at the post-election period, analysing the evolution of Trump’s rhetoric and the policy decisions made during his tenure as President. Venizelos unpacks the transformation of narratives and highlights the extreme nature of Trump’s rhetoric, which often aimed to solidify his base and push forward his legislative agenda.
The unconventional strategies employed by Trump’s campaign, including a masterful utilisation of media platforms and the strategic amplification of divisive rhetoric.
The final chapter of the book, “Left- and Right-Wing Populists in Government,” acts as a culmination of the comparative study. Here, Venizelos connects the dots by considering both case studies together, providing a grounded comparative analysis that considers the inherent limitations of such comparisons. Despite the challenges of comparing disparate contexts, he argues that the focus on the populist discourse serves as a unifying thread, allowing for an examination of the different narratives that emerged in both nations.
A notable strength of the book is its analytical approach, which closely examines the discourse and symbolism surrounding the two case studies. Venizelos highlights Alexis Tsipras’ emergence as one of the key populist leaders during a period of political turmoil in Greece, as the nation grappled with near bankruptcy. The book delves into Tsipras’ anti-austerity policy agenda, providing a comprehensive analysis of the highlights of his premiership. Furthermore, it explores the evolution of SYRIZA, transitioning from a heavily populist opposition between 2012 and 2015 to embracing more pragmatic centre-left ideas after the “betrayal” of not taking the results of the 2015 referendum into account.
However, the analysis does have some significant limitations. The comparative nature of the study may be perceived as a risky endeavour due to the geographical disconnect between Greece and the United States, as well as the multitude of factors contributing to the rise of populism in each context, such as migration and austerity. Nevertheless, Venizelos adeptly addresses some of these concerns throughout the analysis, demonstrating a nuanced understanding of the inherent limitations and contextual factors at play.
The authoritarian narratives witnessed during the Trump presidency – such as the controversial ban on refugees and travellers from Muslim-majority and Middle Eastern countries – should not be conflated with populism.
Another critical issue to consider is the book’s primary focus on populism. In some instances, the authoritarian narratives witnessed during the Trump presidency – such as the controversial ban on refugees and travellers from Muslim-majority and Middle Eastern countries – should not be conflated with populism. Scholars have previously rejected the attribution of populism to such extreme entities and actors. Instead, they advocate for the use of terms like “far-right” or “extreme-right” to describe these authoritarian approaches within democratic systems. The significance of precise labelling and the nuanced understanding of ideological aspects in politics is crucial to avoid mischaracterisations.
In conclusion, Populism in Power offers a captivating analysis of the political contexts it explores. The book’s contextualisation and attention to detail make it equally valuable for both academic and non-academic audiences. By examining the significance and evolution of populism in the Greek and American contexts, Venizelos paints a comprehensive picture of the sensationalist narratives that have emerged over the past decade. Despite the inherent limitations of comparative analysis, the book successfully navigates these challenges, delivering a compelling examination of the rise of populism in politics.
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