In many ways, the 2016 U.S. presidential election cycle was a rollercoaster of the unexpected, rocking the American public. With the 2020 elections looming in the not-so-distant future, it is instructive to reflect on “what happened.” Much of the unprecedented nature of the prior election cycle was due to two outsiders, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, as they brushed up against a Washington veteran, Hillary Clinton. However, while the media was quick to label both outsider candidates as populists, it is important to make a key distinction between colloquial use of the term and its meaning in academic literature. While Bernie Sanders did depict the elites as corrupt and self-serving, he did not maintain a strictly Manichean outlook and restrained from depicting himself as the sole leader who could serve a morally pure people. In this way, Sanders does not meet the ideational approach of populism laid out by Kirk Hawkins in his work with Latin America . This sentiment is echoed by Jan-Werner Muller in his work on populism, where he too argues that Sanders is not a populist . The categorization of Sanders and Trump under the same “populist” definition should not be taken lightly in that it minimizes the threat Donald Trump’s populist tendencies pose to American democracy.
While President Trump’s rhetoric tends towards Manichean, depicting a struggle of the morally good versus the evil “them,” Sander’s speech does not to the same extreme. In many of his speeches, Trump identifies an evil other that he portrays as being the reason for the struggles of the people. His key targets include the media, immigrants, and democrats. In his 2017 rally in Phoenix, Trump refers several times to the “crooked media.” At one point, he even sets them up in direct opposition with his supporters, saying he “draw[s] the line when they attack you, which they do.” In this, he aims to instill an “us vs. them” mentality into his constituents. Similarly, he directly attacks immigrants, describing them as “criminal aliens” and lamenting for the “wonderful Americans whose children were killed” by illegal immigrants. Again, he sets up a Manichean distinction between the “good American” and the “evil immigrant.” Rhetoric along these lines can also be found attacking individuals and groups such as Hillary Clinton, democrats, and even fellow republicans.
Sanders, in comparison, restrains from setting up Manichean distinctions between forces of good and forces of evil. Instead of attacking specific groups or individuals as immoral, he often criticizes the system from which inequality rises. In his 2015 campaign speech in Vermont, he does indeed question the financial power that wealthy elites have, stating that “the Koch brothers alone…will spend more money in this election cycle than either the Democratic or Republican parties.” However, the important distinction between his rhetoric and President Trumps is that he does not directly attack the Koch brothers as morally evil, and he does not set them in direct opposition with the good American. Rather, he argues that the system needs reforming, that Wall Street and billionaires cannot have the sway they do in a liberal democracy. This important distinction sets him apart from President Trump, who directly attacks people for their moral standing.
The meaning of populism has become muddled in its colloquial use in recent years. Some argue that populism has come to mean something as benign a “widespread unhappiness with the status quo.” However, the word populism is, in some parts of the world such as Europe, related to conceptions such as xenophobia. By labeling both Trump and Sanders as populists, we run the risk of minimizing the threats that true populists pose to our society. Muller points to the many ways populists can lead to democratic erosion, including in countries with established democracies. By bucketing people Marine Le Pen and Sanders in the same category, we are diminishing the dangerous language of truly populist leaders to that of anti-establishment rhetoric, which is not inherently antithetical to democracy. In fact, sometimes questioning the practices elite establishments like Wall Street can be beneficial to society. As a society, however, we must continue to challenge true populists, and not let them pass by as merely challengers to the corrupt establishment. Hawkins, K. A., & Rovira Kaltwasser, C. (2017). The Ideational Approach to Populism. Latin American Research Review, 52(4), 513–528. DOI: http://doi.org/10.25222/larr.85  Muller, Jan-Werner. 2016. What Is Populism? Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.