In Chapter 2 of “What Is Populism?”, Jan-Werner Müller takes to task the concept of how a populist in power operates, mainly deconstructing the concept that a populist can no longer use tactics of finding an enemy in political elites––the enemy just becomes anyone who disagrees with them. The discussion left me wondering about our talk in class about who we could consider populists: we decided that Donald Trump was a populist for the expected reasons, namely that he fits Müller’s definition of someone who is critical of elites and purports to speak for the homogenous people. But has his populist rhetoric actually translated into him running a populist regime? That is to say, has Trump managed to alter the government in a way that essentially gives him complete control? Though it’s hard to say since we are currently unsure if we are approaching the end of his presidency or are not even halfway finished with it, perhaps it’s a testament to the democratic institutions currently in place have prevented American becoming a fully populist regime.
The first technique that Müller states populists use is the “occupation” of the state: the populist leader transforms law by putting loyalists in positions of power, consolidating the power of the populists’ party. Key to Müller’s argument regarding this is the examples of fixing the courts in Hungary and Poland. Truth be told, Trump has done this by way of appointing conservative Supreme Court judges like Neil Gorsuch (the choice of seat that most agree was stolen by the Republican-controlled Senate from Barack Obama) and Brett Kavanaugh: case in point, his recent assessment that the Supreme Court was essentially under his purview, alarming analysts who now cast doubt on its independence. But it’s worth pointing out that though the Supreme Court’s independence from Trump is being questioned, the Trump administration has not actually had much major success in getting their policies through the courts. In fact, major cases such as attempts to rescind DACA have been scuttled by federal judges in the lower courts, which Trump has blamed on “Obama judges,” but could also be blamed on the administrations inability to get their policies past the Administrative Procedure Act (APA), and most of their cases coming to a halt due to APA-violations, making their win-rate 6% compared to the “normal” 70% win-rate for government cases. Trump has packed the most powerful court in America in his favor, but the lower courts still have enough power despite his claims of representing the common will to block his policies.
The second technique Müller offers is mass clientelism, where Trump solicits favors from political elites to gain support. It’s worth noting that while Trump has the tacit support of the Republican party, that support isn’t necessarily the result of him bribing or offering favors to party members. In fact, during the Republican primaries it was very clear most Republican leaders didn’t like Trump at all, finding his rhetoric too dangerous and his behavior damaging to their image. Post-election, though Trump has pushed policies for the Republican party, he has not done any favors for the party that have necessarily won their undying support: the failure of the Obamacare repeal in 2017 was blamed on his inability to create a plan even his own party could agree on. His attacks on the late John McCain, in life and in death, also did not win any favors from the party elites who urged him to stop. If Trump means for mass clientelism from party elites, he certainly hasn’t shown any effort to maintain it.
The last technique Müller claims is used by populist states is the attack on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that criticize them. There’s very little doubt that Trump has done this: in fact NGOs were cited by Nikki Haley for the reason the U.S. withdrew from the U.N. Human Rights Council. But in the prevailing public conscience, I find very few cases where Trump in particular has attacked NGOs for criticizing him: of course, that does not mean he isn’t attacking people, he still has targets in the news media and the Democratic party––in some cases he attacks the state itself. But for the most part NGOs still represent a moral opposition to Trump’s claim to represent the people, something that according to Müller populists states have an incentive to get rid of.
From Müller’s perspective (and mine), Donald Trump is a populist without a doubt. But though he continues to say and do things that are alarming for the state of American democracy, overall the regime he has in place hasn’t become a populist regime that strongly consolidates his power. He is by no means harmless, but it’s hard to say his populist popularity has actually given him strong gains in actual ruling.