Populism and communism: a ‘bromance’

One of the most interesting geopolitical realignments of our age is the brazen flirtation between democratically elected populists and self-professed “communist” regimes. Last week, for instance, the world was treated to the spectacle of an American president lavishing praise on and cordially hobnobbing with the leader of the world’s most repressive regime.

During his historic meeting in Singapore with Kim Jong-un, a visibly enthused Donald Trump described his younger counterpart as “smart,” a “great personality” and a “very talented” leader who “loves his country very much.” He predicted a “terrific relationship” with the North Korean regime, even raising the prospect of reciprocal state visits in Pyongyang and the White House in the coming years.


The American presidency has long represented the leadership of the so-called “free world.” Yet, Trump’s unremitting admiration for strongmen, most of all for the president of post-communist Russia, Vladimir Putin, has gone hand in hand with a barrage of insults against democratic neighbors and allies.

Just days ahead of his meeting with Kim, Trump described Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as “weak” and “dishonest” amid intensified trade tensions between the two countries. Since coming to office, Trump has seemed far more at home among authoritarian leaders of the East than colleagues from the Western alliance, as seen during his participation at the G7 summit (among allies) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit (mostly among autocrats) in the past year.


Closer to home, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has had his own strategic dalliance with communist nations. Back in April, during my visit to North Korea, a senior official excitedly asked me about the Filipino leader. In a spirit of bonhomie, I quipped that Mr. Duterte also has his own philosophy of “Juche” (self-sufficiency), which he has often described as an “independent” foreign policy.

Mr. Duterte, notorious for his anti-Western cuss-laden rhetoric, has seemingly magnetized North Korean officials more than any other leader in Southeast Asia. Last year, during the Asean Regional Forum in Manila, Mr. Duterte warmly welcomed North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho and described Pyongyang as a “good dialogue partner” of the regional body. Over the succeeding months, Mr. Duterte consistently pushed for dialogue and diplomacy as a solution to the conflict in the Korean Peninsula, earning countless fans north of the 38th parallel.

Yet, Mr. Duterte has reserved his greatest and most eloquent praise for China. He has often described Chinese President Xi Jinping as a protector and friend. Last April, he couldn’t restrain himself from exclaiming, “I simply love Xi Jinping.”

Why the “bromance” between firebrand populists such as Trump and Mr. Duterte, on one hand, and communist regimes, on the other? What’s going on?

The first glue that binds them all is their shared ideological antipathy toward liberalism. While communist regimes categorically oppose liberal democracy as a Western-capitalist perversion of modern society, right-wing populists oppose liberalism as the ideology of cosmopolitan elites supposedly deracinated from their organic-national roots.

Moreover, populism and communism tend to emphasize what British philosopher Isaiah Berlin described as “positive freedoms,” namely social and economic justice, often at the expense of “negative freedoms,” namely civil liberties and political rights.

Most crucially, right-wing populists and communist leaders tend to share similar psyches and personalities. From Trump to Mr. Duterte and Xi, what all these figures have in common is their unshakable belief in themselves as the guardian and savior of their respective peoples, not to mention their limited patience for political rivals and critics.


Political science mentions the theory of “dictatorial peace” (the converse of Immanuel Kant’s age-old theory of “perpetual peace” among democratic nations). As three American political scientists wrote in a widely cited journal piece earlier this century: “No two personalist dictators or two military regimes have gone to war with each other since 1945.”

Trump and Mr. Duterte are no dictators — yet. But their shared psychological as well as ideological affinity with communist leaders may explain the mind-boggling transformation in US-North Korea as well as Philippine-China relations in recent years. After all, as some feminists would put it, all politics is personal.

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TAGS: communism, Donald Trump, Horizons, Kim Jong-un, populism, Richard Heydarian, Rodrigo Duterte
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