You can only play the anti-systemic card once. The second time is a bust. Two very different politicians, Donald Trump and Alexis Tsipras, have been learning this the hard way.
Trump was able to become president because he lashed out at the elite and the system. He was able to sell his agenda because he evidently addressed the concerns of a large section of American society. He declared war on the media, the political establishment and the academic elites. He turned his back on reason and tapped into sentiment instead.
But now voters are starting to ask questions. Not all of them, of course; a block of hardline supporters still believe in him. However, this is not enough to ensure his re-election.
The middle ground questions his ability to run the country and are pressuring him for answers. When asked by a Fox News host about his priorities for a second term, Trump stumbled. He did not know what to say, because he only knows how to sell anger, division and anti-systemic hatred.
Tsipras played the same card, and it carried him from 2008 through 2019. That’s quite a lot of years. Some of the similarities between him and Trump are shocking. Like, for example, the systematic, unfettered attacks on the media and their representatives. The former Greek prime minister used division as a way to promote his political ends, a policy that came to a climax in the summer of 2015.
The SYRIZA chief threw all the anti-systemic cards on the table but at the same time tapped his nose to voters, as if to say: “I may be making noise, but I will eventually come to an understanding with Germany, the Americans, the Israelis and the business establishment.” He essentially adapted the gimmicks of the late Andreas Papandreou of PASOK to the age of social media.
This tired old recipe has lost its appeal among the younger voters and in the arena of social media. It may be good enough to galvanize Tsipras’ followers on Twitter or even 20-25% of voters, but that’s it. Anti-systemic populism may be familiar and may come naturally to him, but staging the same show twice will be a hard sell. Sure, there is a troupe out there trying to monopolize the stage with its vociferous performance. However, the voters of the political center are put off by lumpen opposition and are instead hoping to see a different proposal based on a more technocratic approach and a good dose of self-criticism. They expect an opposition that will treat the state and the institutions with respect; not as booty to be plundered. Tsipras will have to sing from a different hymnbook or remain stuck with a respectable share of voters, but not enough to return to power.
Of course, inside SYRIZA developments are unfolding at a frustratingly slow pace. The Gordian knots are being severed, but with great delay. Until then, citizens have a right to be skeptical and wait for tangible proof that the opposition is genuinely changing.