I had mixed feelings as I watched scenes from the prime minister’s visit to Crete last week. One part of me was pleased to see Alexis Tsipras at the receiving end of the ugly unfettered populism he has helped generate. The leftist leader did not just caress the beast; he fed it until it grew to its present proportions. A few years ago, it would have been Tsipras leading the attack against a prime minister who dared hold a meeting behind closed doors, accusing him of being a traitor and despot. Now it is Tsipras himself who wants the door to close.
The prime minister rode in on the back of the extreme populism that was born in the anti-memorandum crusade. He found the strangest allies in this campaign, from the far-left to the far-right, from hotheaded nationalists to borderline anarchists. Now many of those allies – those who didn’t benefit or who remained true to their beliefs – perceive Tsipras as the propagator of the memorandum regime. The beast is biting the hand that fed it – as it inevitably does.
Since the start of the crisis, we have warned against stoking division and animosity in Greek society. The preachers of hate, mere peddlers of popular/populist notions, accused us of supporting the oppressors and exaggerating. We warned that conspiracy theories and the debasement of public debate would carry a hefty price. Social media crushed the old (and admittedly unhealthy) media establishment to replace it with something much sicker and more dangerous, so that common sense and moderation have become reason to come under attack. Those who persist are bullied by the fanatics, who have their own way of tearing everything of substance apart.
I never imagined that we would reach such lamentable depths, that we would read and hear the kind of rubbish that was said and written, for example, about Thanos Plevris, the former MP who nearly died of a hospital infection. Nor could we imagine that the problems Greece has been experiencing since 2010 would today be issues troubling analysts and academics in the West.
To get back to Tsipras, what we’re seeing is the victimizer becoming the victim. It would be very shortsighted to take pleasure in the fact that he’s getting his comeuppance because the beast of populism is a robust animal that can’t be easily killed. It is actually becoming stronger and making new friends in Europe and the United States. The crisis is not over and it will chew up and spit out a lot more prime ministers before it is, so we need to think seriously about how we must respond to this widespread vulgarity and extremism. The time has come to seriously question whether this country is actually governable or not.