The term “populism” has seemingly oversaturated the American political vocabulary overnight. And yet, populist movements have defined the world stage for generations. Just within the last three decades, Europe’s ongoing sociopolitical developments have shown a resurgence in populist leaders and movements. In his book, Jan-Werner Müller (2016) provides a definition of populism that would provide readers with the tools necessary to identify and properly address populism. According to Müller, populism is a specific form of identity politics that is critical of elites, anti-pluralist, and has a moralistic view (2-3). But what happens when the symptoms exhibited are indicative of a completely different disease? Attributing Trump’s rise to populism undermines the systemic and systematic ways in which conservatives have attempted to safeguard their power. While populism is a very real threat to liberal democracy, Trump’s America is not the real reflection of the will of the people. Both national and state-level elections exhibit that there is institutional degradation that far exceeds solely the role of populism.
With the 2020 elections looming over, it’s only natural to reflect on Donald Trump’s election. Trump looks and acts like a populist leader. Trump began his campaign with the anti-democratic slogan of “Lock her up!” He portrayed the media as “fake news” and incites violence. He singled out immigrants and Democrats and characterizes them as evil and criminals.
Abiding by Müller’s definition, Trump is the epitome of a populist leader, criticizing elites and utilizing rhetoric to “other” his opponents. But behind the dangerous, alarm-ringing rhetoric, there is a much more sinister underlying current: a minority that has undemocratically taken over the representation of the majority.
In most recent elections, the GOP has alarmingly used gerrymandering to confirm their legislative agendas. This plot has played out in a number of states (such as Michigan, Wisconsin, and Georgia) where, despite losing the popular vote, GOP members have been confirmed due to the destructive and undemocratic nature of gerrymandering. These elections will have irreversible, damaging effects within these states. Although not receiving a lot of media attention, the Trump administration has taken full advantage of these wins by appointing judges to further inject and entrench conservative politics within small districts that will be untouched by national politics. These changes will affect laws and regulations for generations to come.
However, since these processes are being carried out in accordance with institutional order, there has not been any outcry to rebalance the scales. The national backdrop to this crisis is that Trump was elected to the White House, even after losing the popular vote 46-48. Rather than receiving support from the majority, he was able to claim victory because of the Electoral College (only the second Republican candidate to do so).
On a party basis, gerrymandering has put a slow but consistent skew on the political system. A lack of safeguards has affected to many elections in the world (McCoy 2017), it’s almost impossible to believe that it would be a problem in the U.S. as well. To put the effects of House gerrymandering into perspective, in 2010, Republicans won 51.7 percent of the vote and were able to secure 242 seats. In 2018, the blue wave helped the Democrats 53.4 percent of the vote but only secured 235 seats. A Republican win translates to a big majority of seats while a Democratic win only secures a narrow majority. In the Senate, Democrats would need to win a huge majority and give statehood to Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico to have any edge.
As Kendall-Taylor and Frantz (2016) have stated, slow and incremental democratic backsliding is difficult to counter because there is no focal point or pivotal moment upon which to coalesce. The visual optics of gerrymandering don’t particularly compare to the media reel of the President’s undemocratic speeches. All of these changes have proceeded in plain sight. A Supreme Court majority here, a redistricting of Senate lines there, a lifetime federal judiciary appointment or two, and all of a sudden every institution is tilted in the same direction.
Trump’s personal style and rhetoric strongly echos the patterns and mannerisms of other populist leaders, ascribing to populism as the pattern that has lead to this crisis in American democracy. However, the problem today is much larger than Trump or his personal traits. The attacks on democracy is a backlash from the larger conservative movement that is trying to lay groundwork to remain in power even when not popularly elected. The issue here isn’t a populist authoritarian who is trampling on institutions; rather, it is the institutions themselves that are being deployed to misrepresent popular will. Levitsky and Ziblatt (2018) state how political parties should serve as gatekeepers to keep political parties within democracies safe. But what happens when the parties themselves are the ones who are eroding the institutions that ensure fair and democratic elections?
There is an actual crisis currently facing American democracy. The legitimacy of the American political order has continued to be upheld as steller because of its accordance with institutional order and accordance with the law. It’s possible that populism does have a place in democracy. Not the type of populism outlined by Muller, one that has been characterized by lawlessness and oppression, but a populism that has political legitimacy and has the ability to reflect the true interests of the majority without institutional misrepresentation.
- Kendall-Taylor, Andrea & Erica Frantz. “How Democracies Fall Apart: Why Populism is a Pathway to Autocracy.” Foreign Affairs. December 5, 2016.
- Levitsky, Steven & Daniel Ziblatt. 2018. How Democracies Die. New York: Crown. Chapter 6
- McCoy, Jennifer L. “Venezuela’s controversial new Constituent Assembly, explained.” The Washington Post. August 1, 2017.
- Muller, Jan-Werner. 2016. What Is Populism? Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.