The ‘Pop for President’ joke likely died an inglorious death in a gas station in Idaho sometime in October 2017.

Walking into the station to grab a coffee and smokes, Johnny Nobody looked up at the grainy black-and-white television screen, saw an ESPN headline about how Spurs’ coach Gregg Popovich had called Trump a ‘soulless coward’, looked down at the man behind the register and said ‘I like this Pop guy. Maybe he should run for President. He can’t be any worse than the one we have now.’ Johnny Nobody chuckled to himself in the way that one chuckles to oneself when they believe they’ve just invented humour, and then quickly stopped, once he realized that the laughter wasn’t being reciprocated. And just like that, after the eleven billionth ‘Pop for Prez’ reference, finally, mercifully, the joke had run its course.

And no, I’m not here to breathe new life into it.

Being an informed, articulate, high-profile citizen shouldn’t automatically qualify you to run for President (although, that’s probably not a bad bare minimum). The size and complexity of the American government is impossible to understate, as are the demands on the person tasked to oversee it. Just because Gregg Popovich speaks in a politically-minded way, doesn’t mean that he’s the right person to run an entire country. Besides, I have something much grander in mind for Popovich.

As the world hurls itself closer and closer towards its own destruction (whenever I watch Armageddon now, I’m cheering for the asteroid), and Twitter trolls posing as the political intelligentsia race each other to see who can gaslight each other’s followers into psychosis first, unorthodox solutions are not only becoming more palatable, they’re becoming necessary. Gregg Popovich shouldn’t be asked to print bumper stickers, and begin stumping in Iowa (that’s best saved for this guy) — he should be encouraged to spread his personal ideology as far as it can go.

I call it Popovism (t-shirts being printed as we speak), and it might just save us all.

(Now, before you scoff, recall that a reality star/American Psycho deity is negotiating denuclearization with the dictator of a rogue terrorist state that once invited everyone’s least favourite Chicago Bull and his band of merry Globetrotters into his hermit kingdom for a charity basketball game/visit to his Mines-of-Moria-esque shrine to a Michael Jordan basketball. If every word of that previous sentence can hold-up to rigorous fact-check, is it really that crazy to suggest that a basketball coach could inspire a new political ideology?)

And inspire a new ideology he has. While this political movement is still mostly confined to one man and his post-game press scrimmages (and likely, R.C. Buford, but clearly not Kawhi), the spreading of Popovism has become an existential necessity. Popovism offers something that angry pundits and desperate hope-seekers have been pining for several years now— a playbook to defeat populism.

On the surface, it may look like Gregg Popovich is simply voicing his opposition to Trump, another angry voice in the incomprehensible Slack Channel known as #theresistance. When you look more closely though, at Popovich’s words and behaviour, something else becomes clear. Popovich is willing to wade into the same territory and themes that grant Trump his power but have been deemed too toxic to touch by most politicians. Popovich (whether intentionally or not) has shown a deft ability to recognize that below the vile rhetoric of nationalism is a mainstream problem that requires solving, but only Trump has provided a solution.

Popovism’s greatest strength is that it actually steals several tactics from the populist playbook. While it might seem counter-intuitive to mimic a figure like Trump, there’s merit in imitating without replicating. When Trump goes low, Popovism says to go low with him, take a look around while you’re down there, understand what you see, and then go high afterward. The power of this approach is that it allows its followers to attack populism at its roots, and bring the real issues to light. By doing so, the ideology can theoretically peel-off enough of those who have succumbed to the appeal of populism and prevent ‘a worse than Trump’ from coming to power in the future.

Trump followed Populism 101 (ironically, one of the few courses not offered at Trump U) to come to power, which included attacking the ‘elite class’, blaming the bogeyman ‘other’ for what ails society, and running an unrelenting campaign again a democratic institution, in this case, the free press. Popovism also taps into these themes, but without the Trumpian nasty bits.

Take, for example, Popovich’s view of ‘elites’. Attacking this group has become a powerful rallying cry for Trump, with his easily chantable ‘Drain the Swamp’ refrain. While some critics try desperately to convince anyone who will listen that Trump is he himself an elite, Popovich takes a different approach — he leans into the role. When asked about his position within society, he self-identifies as a privileged, rich, white, male. He acknowledges that there’s a growing gap between himself and those that live in poverty. And most importantly, he provides a solution that puts the onus on elites to do more for their community, mostly because, they can. In his words, the rich need to be more charitable because “We’re rich as hell, and we don’t need it all, and other people need it. Then, you’re an [expletive] if you don’t give it. Pretty simple.”

Instead of treating elites as an invisible, antagonistic ‘other’ (like Trump does), he humanizes them by giving them a face (his own) to serve as a point of reference. It’s easy to hate ‘elites’ when they’re an amorphous group, sitting in ivory towers, sipping chardonnay, and discussing screwing over the poor. It’s much harder though to attack them when they’re sitting out in the open, attacking themselves, and telling each other that they need to do better. Popovich delivers a populist-ish message (elites are rich as hell), with a relatable, mainstream solution (the rich need to do more to help close the gap, otherwise, they’re assholes). Popovism brings the ‘elite’ bogeyman out of the shadows, gives them a face, and puts the onus on them to resolve a point of tension, ie., income inequality.

Speaking of bogeymen, Popovism also doesn’t shy away from Trump’s claims about differences in the American experience. Rather than wrap up America’s social fabric in a tidy ‘we’re all in this together’ bow, Popovich correctly recognizes that not everyone is the same place from the start, and those tensions can lead to turmoil if left unresolved. The difference in Pop’s approach is that he treats the existence of ‘others’ as a starting point for conversations rather than the end of them. From ESPN:

“Obviously, race is the elephant in the room, and we all understand that unless it is talked about constantly, it is not going to get better. People get bored, ‘Oh, is it that again? They are pulling the race card.’ Because it’s uncomfortable, there has be an uncomfortable element in the discourse for anything to change. Whether it is LGBT, women’s suffrage, race, [it] doesn’t matter. People have to be made to feel uncomfortable; especially white people. We still have no clue what being born white means…Because you were born white, you have advantages systemically, culturally, psychology there. They have been built up for hundreds of years. Many people can’t look at it. [It] can’t be something on their plate on a daily basis. People want their status quo. People don’t want to give it up. Until it’s given up, it’s not going to be fixed.” (ESPN).

Once again, Popovich doesn’t shy away from the ‘otherism’ that Trump regularly exploits. Except in his worldview, the blame shifts to a different ‘other’ —in this case, those that are comfortable in their whiteness. As Popovich argues, when a person begins to see others as a threat to the status quo, they shouldn’t attack the others, they should attack their own notions of comfort. Popovism’s approach is less ‘kumbaya’ and more clear-sighted than most of today’s political rhetoric, as it doesn’t reside in a dreamscape where everyone’s experience is the same.

The final tenet of Popovism is its belief that historic institutions can become complacent, and veer from their purpose. Trump’s attacks on the press and media are well-documented, as he views them as a challenge to his strength. Meanwhile, Popovich attacks the press for not challenging his authority. Take for example this exchange at a scrum after the Spurs were blown out by the Warriors.

Sure, you can make a case that Popovich could be more civil to reporters, or simply write this off as ‘Pop doesn’t like the media’. But watch that clip again. On a national stage, he was asked by a member of the press a question that was essentially ‘The bad strategy that didn’t work, did it work?’ Pop’s response? Be better.

What’s really going on here is that Popovich is demanding more from the press that covers him, and if you go back through his library of quips, you start to notice a pattern. Popovich clearly understands the critical role a free press plays in society, and he becomes frustrated when it doesn’t live up to that purpose. He’s not angry because he has to face the media and be held accountable, he’s angry because he’s faced with a constant wave of insignificant, surface-level questions that a Popovich-programmed Chatbot could respond to. Similar to traditional populism, Popovism believes that institutions like the media can become corrupted or ineffective without constant re-invention. It’s up to them to ensure their value within the discourse.

So why the pressing need for Popovism to spread? Well, ‘How to stem the rising tide of right-wing populism’, has become the topic du jour in many circles, and for good reason. This dangerous virus has infected far-reaching and once-thought-impenetrable places (hello Doug Ford), and it’s not unrealistic to think that this new movement will continue to grow if left unchecked. Populism is the self-help book of political ideologies, offering surface-level, easily repeatable mantras to a willing audience, and off-loading the pain onto whichever ‘other’ the populists select during their conspiratorial Wheel-of-Fortune-style selection process.

It’s the strategy Hugo Chavez used when he tapped into discontent with the judiciary to claim power in Venezuela in 1998. It’s the strategy former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori used when he attacked neoliberal institutions on his way to eventually shutting down Congress and purging his political opponents. It’s the strategy recently re-elected Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan used to consolidate his power after his initial rise as a religiously-minded liberal. While it’s fun (and temporarily gratifying) to scream into the Twitter ether about how idiotic of an ideology it is — and how grotesque the people that support it are — it does little to actually halt its momentum. Populist rhetoric is effective because it often taps into common and festering themes of elite-dominance and disenfranchisement, and gains momentum because these complaints are at least partially, rooted in truth.

That’s where Popovich and Popovism come in. Unlike those who believe the best approach to quelling the tide of populism is to lodge fingers firmly in ears and shout until it goes away, Popovism directly addresses the roots of these frustrations. It recognizes that uncomfortable conversations need to be had. It understands that key institutions need to battle complacency. It acknowledges that yes, below the vile nationalist sentiment, the are common challenges that need resolutions.

Popovism doesn’t lock the drunken uncle in the closet during family gatherings — it forces that uncle to sit at the grown-up table and stand-up to scrutiny. If the family starts nodding along to what the blowhard is saying, it’s then up to Uncle Pop to step in, and not just shut-down the drunken fool, but to examine why the family was nodding along in the first-place. Then, once an understanding is ascertained, old Uncle Pop needs to provide some reasonable, rationale, grown-up solutions to answer their anxieties.

Yes, it all sounds very boring. Popovism isn’t the flashiest of ideologies, or the most instantly gratifying, or one that will inspire people to take to the streets. But it is a winning strategy, one that’s proven to work throughout history, and is based on communication, sacrifice, and discomfort that leads to greater cohesion.

At the end of the day, what else would you expect from Pop?


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