BOGOTÁ - We often confuse a phenomenon with its causes. We're in the 21st century but we still believe that the problems we face are due to political personalities, whether it's Donald Trump in the U.S., the combative former president Álvaro Uribe here in Colombia or Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela and so many others of their ilk.

We imagine that leaders are still able to change the course of history, even if it's for the worse. We want to ignore that it is our societies — our collective spirit — and all the beliefs, instincts and emotions of the people that they encompass, which make it possible for populists to emerge. These leaders, or their advisors, are merely able to interpret the signs of their times in advance.

These personalities are conjured up in the unspeakable recesses of the social conscience. Then one day they appear and feed on sensational myths and become immune to diatribe and criticisms. They take control of these narratives as they learn to make the language of hate their own and use it to forge emotive pacts with their constituents, and even, somehow, with their opponents.

These leaders blind the masses with exaggerations and distortions while their supporters applaud. These personalities and their advisors are well familiar with our nervous systems and our conditioned reflexes. Once they start firing their stun guns, who can stop them?

Some propagandists might cite reason as the only proper response to agitators like Steve Bannon — Donald Trump's éminence grise of ideas. But history shows otherwise. Before the hullabaloo and jeering, before the lies and deceit that constitute food scraps for the needy masses (like Pavlovian dogs), the only thing that works is indifference. Sometimes, arguing and contradicting lies simply fuels them.

To cleanse the public sphere of the fumes of the Trumps and Uribes, let us deprive them of the oxygen they need — our attention. In the process, we could cure ourselves of a toxic addiction.

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