The right enemy can be a major asset in politics, as Chilean voters have just demonstrated once again. All the opinion polls had the two presidential candidates neck and neck before Sunday’s election, but a few days before the vote it came out that the father of far-right candidate José Antonio Kast was a Nazi.
Everybody knew that the elder Kast had fought in Hitler’s army as a teenager, but new documents surfaced last week showing that he actually joined the Nazi Party in 1944. People will forgive a lot of things in the young, but a Nazi teenager? And everybody already knew that Kast idolized his father as much as he revered Chile’s former dictator, Gustavo Pinochet.
So the left-wing candidate, Gabriel Boric, won the election with a 12 per cent lead. Or more precisely, Kast lost it, because the electorate was reminded exactly where Kast’s ideas (and Pinochet’s) came from. He was, in fact, the perfect candidate for Boric to beat.
In the same spirit, Joe Biden’s advisers are praying that Donald Trump stays alive and out of jail long enough to win the Republican presidential nomination in 2024. President Emmanuel Macron hopes that racist TV pundit Éric Zemmour is his main rival in France’s April election. And Britain’s Labour Party wants Boris Johnson to remain prime minister.
That may be tricky, because Johnson is a car-crash of a human being.
Johnson was known as ‘the greased piglet’ by a former employer, and a big part of his appeal to the voters was the way he could wriggle out of every scrape he got himself into. His brazen lies and shambolic manner were just part of his charm; he was a lovable ‘scamp’, not really a cheat and a liar.
His own party never liked or trusted him; it made him leader because he could win elections. But Conservatives are historically ruthless with failed leaders, and now they are having doubts about Johnson’s electoral value.
As a former Conservative cabinet minister told ‘The Guardian’: “The old Boris brand, the old Boris shtick, doesn’t work any more. And the consequence of that is a better-than-50% chance he’ll be dead [politically speaking] by the end of next year.” Cue panic in the Labour Party, which was counting on having Johnson as the enemy in the next election.
Democratic Party strategists in the United States are similarly anxious about Donald Trump’s political health. They know that Trump’s base will vote for him no matter what he does, but they calculate that the ‘floating’ voters who were seduced by his shtick last time will have serious reservations after his claims of a stolen election and his role in the assault on the Capitol.
Any other Republican candidate could also count on the votes of Trump’s ‘base’ (except Mike Pence), but they could also expect to draw a lot more of the floating voters. That could deliver a Republican presidential win in 2024, so Donald is definitely the Democrats’ preferred Republican candidate (though they must never say so in public).
As for Emmanuel Macron, his preferred opponent in the decisive second round of next April’s election is Éric Zemmour, who is so far right that he scares the horses, or, failing that, the perennial neo-fascist-lite candidate Marine Le Pen. Macron’s nightmare is having to face Valérie Pécresse, the new leader of Les Républicains.
She is reasonable enough to compete with Macron for the centre-right vote, but conservative enough to win the Catholic vote and good enough with the ‘immigration’ dog-whistle to draw some of the racist vote. In one opinion poll this month, she actually beat Macron in the hypothetical second round.
The question is whether she can beat both Le Pen and Zemmour in the first round, and Macron will be praying that she can’t. But the assumption in every case, French, American and British, is that populist demagogues are now easier to beat than traditional right-wing politicians.
Maybe that’s true, but all three countries are a long way from Chile.
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is The Shortest History of War.