How to Fight and Defeat Populist Candidates in Elections [PODCAST]

In this episode of the Liberal Europe Podcast, Leszek Jażdżewski (Fundacja Liberté!) welcomes Arun Chaudhary, Creative Director at the Social-Changes, a former Creative Director of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, and an official videographer of the White House under Barack Obama’s presidency. They talk about being a filmmaker to President Obama and what President Joe Biden should do next, but also touch upon elections in Argentina, the result of the recent election in Poland and lessons from voter mobilization.

Leszek Jażdżewski (LJ): What was it like to be a filmmaker to the president of the United States?

Arun Chaudhary

Arun Chaudhary (AC): People think of being a filmmaker to the president as being a fly on the wall to some historical moments, forgetting that if you are a guy with the camera, you are more like an 800-pound gorilla in every room. Everyone is very aware that there is a person with a camera there, and they know what you are doing.

Therefore, being a filmmaker to the president is an incredibly difficult proposition. However, being a videographer to Barack Obama was the only way that someone like me could do it. It would be impossible with most presidents. President Obama is a unique individual, who was very much the same on and off screen. Thanks to that, important and powerful people were allowing me to film him in unguarded moments.

Interestingly, every single moment that I recorded when I was at the White House in the service to the president is not only preserved by law but will also be demandable by the public starting next year. So, if you want to see a particular trip on Air Force One (and I have footage of it), you just need to request it from the library giving the date and approximate time, and they will just deliver it to you.

This is why it was a risky proposition, as there was so much transparency in the law after Richard Nixon was in the office. I could not erase nor change anything – even the titles of my files are in the factory camera language for every single shot that was ever taken on my camera because if anything would be missing, it would be against the law.

In the end, you feel like you are taking a b-roll for this incredibly long documentary about a person, and you do not know if it will ever get made. Nonetheless, it was an incredibly interesting experience.

The thing that you will find out about President Obama when you dig in on the archives is the message of the work that I put out to the public. There are very few unguarded funny moments that I did not put out. People got real insight into his and Michelle Obama’s personalities through these real little moments. I remember a time when Michelle was holding a crying baby and then Obama picks the baby up and it stops crying, and Michelle is genuinely mad about it. These imperfect moments are, actually, what helped the Obama’s image. It was powerful.

Pete Souza (the photographer) and I were given by Obama just one rule: you can do whatever you want (of course, checking in with the communications and national security people) as long as it does not involve the girls. If it is an official event, it is fine – even if they are horsing around in the background, that is okay. But if you stumble on them playing with the dog, in their house, that is not fair game. That was the only rule and he absolutely abided by it, just occasionally asking us not to follow him into the bathroom.

LJ: What features should a president have to be well-equipped to the function?

AC: Barack Obama is uniquely talented – he is very confident in who he is and what he wants to say, and because of that confidence he does not worry about the nitpicking like ‘Oh, where is Arun and the camera, what is that edit going to look like’. He can just trust people to get it done, which contributes to a much more professional feel because it made me more confident in who I am as a filmmaker. It is a very rare thing in politics. But the fact that he is good at that is simply idiosyncratic.

I do worry that post Obama presidency, in light of the projects we did together, we did set a benchmark according to which you need to be good on YouTube to be the president of the United States. But is every person who is good on YouTube going to be a good president? Well, no. One has nothing to do with the other. It is more about being able to show your true authentic self. Meanwhile, Donald Trump showed his true authentic self about twelve times a day and we were all equally horrified by that.

Barack Obama’s unique talents and his effortless transparent and authentic style of leadership has set precedent for how democratic campaigns are run. These, however, cannot always match the personalities of the candidates running.

For example, for years, people were unsure if Bernie Sander would have a great personality, but it turned out that he very much did. Hillary Clinton has never conquered that. Her doing badly on YouTube, however, does not mean that she would have been a terrible president – this did not seem fair.

We are now facing what is going to be a very close election. Folks like me, who are very communications forward, look at it as a race in which Joe Biden is very far behind, because he will not be able to do the things in an online video that Donald Trump will do on a multi-daily basis.

There are a few reasons why Joe Biden is struggling a little. We have seen that progressive democratic policy – be it about abortion, healthcare, or a number of other issues – is quite popular with the American electorate. In the mid-term and special elections in Virginia last week, or in Ohio, we see repeatedly Democrats overperforming and doing very well -especially against more radical opponents. The polls have been showing that. At the same time, the polls have observed Joe Biden sinking lower and lower. It seems to be an idiosyncratic problem, where it is a ’Joe Biden problem’.

Part of that problem is image-based. Frankly, he does struggle in public. Sometimes, folks from across the pond are not sure how Americans perceive it, but he does not appear to be ‘as strong’ as Donald Trump, who is just a few years younger than him (and who is clearly one of the least healthy people one could imagine). It is a presentation issue.

It is also policy issues. One of the things that is fueling the Democratic winds, but is also hurting Joe Biden at the same time, is that people are leaving him first before the party, but young people, people of color, or those from immigrant communities – people you would never think would entertain voting for Donald Trump – are starting to flirt with voting for Trump. As someone who watched this happen with the Confederation party in Poland, we can understand that it is not necessarily about buying the radical policies, but rather about feeling disrespected or that someone has not delivered on an issue. Eventually, they become open to supporting anyone who offers change. This is the real danger.

In the case of all of these elections and why are they becoming harder, why are these radical guys still in the race, the reason is that, oftentimes, the pro-democratic government is failing to deliver on basic social services for people on the things that they expect. Therefore, when it comes to Joe Biden, the student loans fiasco, and his response to Gaza, which leaves the concerns of a lot of young people and other communities behind – and they are not going to forgive him for it that quickly.

At this point, however, it would be very difficult to change the candidate. It would make everything look like a disaster. But I do think that changing the candidate would make sense. Joe Biden is an authentic guy and there are things that he is not going to change his mind on. Unfortunately, some of these things do not line up with the electorate (legalizing marihuana is one that is seemingly frivolous, but also an obvious example) – so a lot of free votes will be available. There are many people exactly in those communities that are abandoning Biden in droves, but this is something ‘Uncle Joe’ is not going to be able to do because it is what he actually believes.

When it comes to Biden’s neo-liberal votes against union issues, whereas recently he has been embracing the union movement, he was never an ideologue. It was the 1990s, it was a different time – Bill Clinton was in office. But Joe Biden remembers a time when unions were important. Still, there are some issues on which he is not willing to change his stance, so a different candidate would be needed to embrace these topics. Assuming that this is impossible, Biden needs to run as vigorous a campaign as possibly can. He needs to think outside the box about what that campaign would look like.

In this regard, I would look to the past. Any kind of future-thinking endeavor has to be soaked in a bit of nostalgia. We have a false notion in our own history about what the ‘front-porch campaign’ means. We think of it as lazy, where one president (like Garfield or Harrison) was just hanging out that front porch, but in reality massive, complicated policy discussions were happening every day – discussing their vision and what they stand for. Joe Biden should do just that – first explain what he has done in his first term (minute by minute), and then he should attempt to overwhelm people with the idea that there is a plan (almost in an ‘Elizabeth Warrean’ fashion) instead of just being the ’good vibes’ guy.

LJ: What lessons should we learn from the recent parliamentary election in Poland in light of the forthcoming European election? How to successfully confront far-right parties in the election race?

AC: Anyone who is closely following Polish elections would be struck by the tsunami or a symphony of oppositional content and voices. The Law and Justice party (PiS) was not prepared for that. A lot of different elements of civil society were all standing up. It gave the impression of an authentic movement happening – it was not just a political party asking for a gig. It was not just Donald Tusk asking for a second shot at the job as that was not a message that would resonate with everyone – a lot of voices were asking for it. This is the lesson that everyone should take away in a positive way.

Another lesson concerns the importance of specifically targeting the Confederation (far-right) change agents, who seem exciting to broad swaths of the electorate despite them having increasingly radical views.

Poland is a place where that issue was tackled correctly. The polarization was not between good and evil. Evil is quite attractive – young people would vote for Darth Vader. I would! I could have said, ‘Well, I don’t know, Darth’s got a plan, and low taxes!.’ It does not sound totally like him, but he would surely pretend in some way. It becomes very attractive.

There is a running joke in politics that between the populists and the radical right-wingers it does not really matter what they say, all they are going to deliver is anti-establishment, anti-normality – anti-whatever. Once you can redefine the joke as joke between all of us in society, that these guys are kind of losers, then that is the polarization that you can get behind. This is where you see people start to move in this election.

There are, however, things that people should have done differently in the end. In general, election campaigns see lots of conversations with people and relying on micro-targeting different communities. This was not a micro-targeting election. It was a massive movement, which translated into almost 75% of votes casted. It is an incredible turnout, which dwarfs any other.

Instead of targeting young men, Poland showed us that with the same messaging that was aimed at women, they did not need a different special messaging as men were also responding to it. They, actually, know what is right. We should not give up on young men – that is another important lesson coming from Poland. It may sound simplistic, but this topic does oftentimes appear in many conversations.

Finally, you need to be prepared for success. This was an election in which everyone was very depressed about it, until all of a sudden it felt like the victory of the opposition was possible. This is when we saw people blossoming. We can hold those feeling with us in the ‘off’ season. If we can maintain the same kind of community building and keep the positive energy about what kind of a country we want going, then we will see situations like what happened in Poland more often.

This is a year of very tough elections – a lot of them will be fought and lost on migration issues, which is why election in Poland is often perceived as an exception. Even in Poland, Law and Justice seems to have eventually turned towards some of these issues, but they were stopped in this by a couple of scandals. Here, again, we are talking about systemic versus idiosyncratic. We cannot always count on having two pretty big scandals hit the bad guys in the last week of an election. But when they do, we need to be prepared to win.

LJ: Let us have a quick look at Argentina, where on November 19 the second round of the presidential election will be held. The candidates are right-wing libertarian Javier Milei and Economy Minister Sergio Massa. What did the campaign look like?

AC: The latest round of polling from pretty respectable pollsters has Milei, a far-right crypto-libertarian running a little bit behind – which is not a problem because in the final poll you want to be a few points behind as it motivates the electorate. Nevertheless, Massa has also run a good campaign – he separated his policies and what he wants to do from the government record.

More importantly, however, what constitutes a wild card at the moment – and what makes it different from elections in Poland or the United States – is the fact that Peronism still has a mass appeal in the heartland of Argentina. People worry about losing what they have today – the so-called ‘loss aversion,’ which is the most powerful motivator in politics.

People want to know If they can trust the most important subsidies in their life or educational transportation to a person who seems very generous in what he wants to do. The dollarization is just the beginning. He would like to legalize selling of human organs – he was confronted on this issue multiple times and he keeps affirming that it is his intention. He really is a unique character.

Massa has also run into some headwinds culturally. He seems to have misunderstood the Argentinian people, who are hungry for change – this is the reason why such a craze person like Milei is in the game. Inflation is rampant, whereas Argentinians have a miserable grey economy experience. Therefore, he has borrowed some tactics from Bolsonaro and some from the United States. But these are tactics that people play anywhere – like, for instance, legalization of guns, thinking that people are really into this, but in reality, they are extremely scared of gun violence. They look at America and they see school shootings and horrible violent incidents, and they have strong emotional reaction to it.

In the run-up to the election, we see everyone’s closing arguments – a poor debate performance from Milei and a good one by Massa. It is going to be a close race, but the forces of democracy are going to prevail.

LJ: What is the line between populists gaining traction (like Donald Trump in the 2016 U.S. election) and winning, and actually eventually losing their support? Is there any general rule for this phenomenon?

AC: In the United States, it has a lot to do with how Americans sell cars. They do it in three ways, which are accompanied by three levels of messaging. The first level of messaging is brand identity, which is closely tied to whether or not ‘do I feel like a Ford’. The second level is more practical – do I need a minivan that is big enough to fit twelve kids and how much does it cost. Finally, at the end, it is a clown on the street waving a circle inviting people to come to the store. We might question who would come to the store based only on that clown, but this stage is supposed to get you across the threshold/ Because once you are in the store, I know that you want a Ford minivan because you feel it.

The election is just ‘the clown’ part. The real communications on the things that people care about, building community around politics and issues happens at different stages of the game – not during the election. We may be surprised that many people voted for Trump or Bolsonaro (the ‘crazy’ people), but the fact is that they are not voting for the crazy part, but that it is the carnival barking that got them through the door and moved them in.

These guys are too much (and I am saying ‘guys’ because it seems to be a gendered experience). And when they are too much, it is not necessarily because of what they are selling because the people who are buying, do not necessarily believe in what they are selling. What those voters are actually buying is change.

These ‘crazy’ candidates are frustrated by not being allowed to participate in politics because they feel that the elites look down on them or because of the so-called ‘smoke-filled rooms-, where candidates are decided. Because they cannot participate in the game on the field, they know that the next best thing is to get naked, run across, and stop the way that game is being played.

What we can see in all of these elections on all sides is that parties do not really have control of their members like they used to. They sometimes do not even have control of their elected officials. This is why we see people very happily moving from one party to another one, while people are clutching their pearls and say they do not understand it, that the polls are always wrong. The reason for that is that now people are making decisions in a more rapid way – based on things that are coming in at them.

It is a local phenomenon, but there are some global trends. What happens election to election matters. Simply put, there is no Trump without Brexit.

This podcast is produced by the European Liberal Forum in collaboration with Movimento Liberal Social and Fundacja Liberté!, with the financial support of the European Parliament. Neither the European Parliament nor the European Liberal Forum are responsible for the content or for any use that be made of.

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