Rollins College

The Danger of Populism – Lessons from Rwanda by Matt Willis

For this post, I have read an article by Kennedy Ndahiro for The Atlantic, titled “In Rwanda, We Know All About Dehumanizing Language.” The concepts elucidated by Ndahiro, a native Rwandan himself, perfectly reinforce those discussed in relation to course material. His piece is meant to showcase how people within a society allow emotions to get the better of them when it comes to addressing the supposed causes of their ills. Unfortunately, this is inextricably tied with animosity for the “other,” a minority group that stands between the upright majority and complete societal harmony. The Tutsi people are but one victim of this recurring phenomenon. In writing this, I seek to examine some aspects of course material and how they relate to the piece about dehumanizing rhetoric in Rwanda. I hope to reflect upon how the strength of a leader is voluntarily surrendered through such rhetoric; how such rhetoric is connected to our working definitions of populism in a present-day context; and how the overall culture of a state may restrain the associated dangers.

Typically, the projection of strength and the appearance of firm control is an important aspect of the American presidency. This has been explored quite extensively in the domestic media – fans of ABC’s Designated Survivor may recall when Kiefer Sutherland’s character was made to stop wearing glasses so as not to appear infirm. The point here is that it is often important for both leaders and candidates to use their very presence to help maintain civility. History has shown that people generally respond well to a paternalistic or maternalistic figure – someone who is gentle but firm and can confidently assure them that everything will be okay, without excessive lectures or asterisks. It is quite fascinating to observe, then, how some leaders and candidates do not always try to exert such an influence. For example, Ndahiro mentions how one of the early warning signs prior to the genocide in Rwanda was a radio message from a station sponsored by the Hutu majority government. It was dictated that “on the day when people rise up and don’t want [the] Tutsi anymore, when they hate [them] as one and from the bottom of their hearts . . . I wonder how [they] will escape.” This was a clear expression of frustration with a group commonly referred to at the time as “cockroaches” and “snakes.” And granted, these words did not come directly from a government official, but the activities of the station were sanctioned and encouraged by the government, and the blatant threat of violence went unpunished. The wave of propaganda that emerged at this time was meant to express that the coming atrocities might be somewhat out of the government hands – but to them, that’s okay.

Özgür Gökmen’s review of works pertaining to populism provided some characteristics of the phenomenon, which have provided a basis for our ongoing discussion on the matter. First and foremost it is recognized for the assumption of a stark divide between the “the pure people” and “the corrupt elite.” Although this is often the end of any debrief about populism, Cas Mudde’s description continues, further describing the phenomenon as holding that “politics should be an expression of the volanté générale (general will) of the people.” I believe that this is a key aspect to understand. It would seem as if one important distinction between the populist and the more traditional candidate is that the latter can sympathize with the plights of certain groups while claiming to offer the solutions and sentiments that are right for them. The populist, on the other hand, affirms his or her supporters’ feelings and, at least to a certain extent, encourages the base to act on them.

This is where the presidential campaigns run by Donald Trump and, say, John McCain, seem especially divergent. In one notable campaign event, McCain rejected popular fears about Barack Obama by telling a supporter to her face that she was wrong to fear allegations of Muslim heritage. Trump, ironically, was the poster boy of such allegations for some time. During his own campaign, Trump had frequently claimed to be the one who is solely capable of solving the nation’s problems, but he also displayed that populist characteristic of validating fickle emotions. Amongst the many allegations of Trump inciting violence at his rallies, one case stands out: a Kentucky rally in March 2016, during which three anti-Trump protesters were thrown out after supporters were spurred by Trump’s own calls to “throw them out.” The President himself was cleared of wrongdoing, but the individuals involved in the harassment faced jail and expressed remorse in hindsight.

Now, in writing this description I run the risk of comparing America’s current political climate to the situation that enabled the categorical murder of up to one million Rwandans. This does no justice to the profound tragedy that was the genocide of 1994. At the same time, however, I will say that reading Ndahiro’s article about the language that helped to cultivate sectarian hatred immediately reminded me of the tactics employed by President Trump. The above example clearly shows how he is able to take advantage of spontaneous emotion to create a response that might not be clearly meditated. However, in the big picture, I see reason for Americans to be optimistic. At the same campaign rally described above, Trump acknowledged that his words condoning violence would be lambasted in the media. I would say that most people in the United States know that violence on the basis of race, ethnicity, nationality, or religion is not an appropriate solution to a problem. A big part of this is a journalistic culture that largely keeps emotive rhetoric in check. If Trump continues to make claims about the harmful effects of Central American immigration, there will be numerous publications ready to challenge his agenda rather than amplify it. This, along with lessons learned elsewhere in the world at various points in history, should make for a more harmonious future.

*Photo by Rodhullandemu, “Rwanda genocide memorial, St. John’s Gardens,” Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.


  1. Felicia Gordon

    April 16, 2019 at 11:27 am

    This is a very well written post. You capture the intentions of your article in the first paragraph, and then you clearly focus the rest of your paper around addressing the issues you identified. I find your point about typically preferring a stern, yet charismatic leader in the second paragraph to be an accurate observation. In America, and many other countries, we have seen a tendency towards such leaders and only stray from this norm when constituents are feeling dissatisfied. At which point, it seems that a leader who targets a group as being the source of a country’s problems appeals to voters more than a leader with a comforting demeanor does. This is emphasized in Trump’s widespread constituent support on policy which targets immigration into the U.S., seemingly a similar pattern to the preceding support which led to discrimination against Tutsi people and ultimately the Rwandan genocide. Additionally, I believe that your article is relevant as we have seen a shift in many Democratic countries to a populist leader. I recently wrote a blog post on the Brazilian elect of Jair Bolsonaro due to its similar issues stemming from his Populist leadership. Such issues as separating the “pure”, “hardworking” from the “less deserving”, “low tier” of society (minorities) is common to right-wing Populism and is a legitimate threat to democracy. As an American, living in America, it is easy to tell yourself “oh, that’s different. American democracy could never be eroded or lead to such a national crisis”. However, as a student studying Political Science, it is scary to observe democratic erosion in America, especially with such sickening historical events as the Rwandan genocide being the culmination of such erosion in a nation. Thank you for your insight and your article which draws interesting and valid connections between events in history and the current state of American democracy.

  2. Baylee Gunnells

    April 20, 2019 at 2:54 pm

    This article that you have written grants key points about people in society allows their emotions to get the better of them to address the supposed causes of their issues. To which this would happen between an outside class that stands between the high majority and the surrounding societal harmony in that country. The example of the Tutsi people in Rwanda shows the repeated ideology. The ideology is that of the break between the minority and the majority in the surrounding societal harmony. Then, the description of the leading job to maintain the civility in that society is sometimes spread throughout the country, and then sometimes it is not, in the case of the Rwanda Genocide. This ideology of leadership, to maintain the civility of the society in the country, to which a societies emotion to get the better of them to address them suppose causes of issues, can be seen in America. These emotions in American society are shifted towards the minority that is immigrated towards America.

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