How are we to understand Han Kuo-yu? How did he rise from nowhere last year to become one of the central figures of Taiwan’s politics? And how has his popularity fallen so dramatically over the course of this year?
I have been asked versions of this question repeatedly over the past 16 months, and I have never been able to give a comprehensive answer. I could explain pieces of the puzzle, but there were always important parts that didn’t make sense to me. I think I finally have a fuller explanation to offer.
Han Kuo-yu is a populist. His rise to prominence was based on the success of this populist appeal, and his decline from that peak is a result of events and opponents eroding the power of that populist message. Populism is the frame through which to understand almost everything about the Han Kuo-yu phenomenon of the past year and a half.
What is populism?
Saying Han is a populist isn’t very helpful if we don’t know what populism is. Unfortunately, the word populism is used both in public discussion and in the academic literature to refer to a frightening variety of phenomena.
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