How can we classify the self-pitched-Playboy-Cover-model son of a wealthy, racist real estate developer as a populist when he is neither like the people he claims to represent nor does he enact policy to help his supportive minority in a meaningful way? Trump is not a popular populist. In the interest of preserving the longest running liberal democracy, we may want to aim for the tweet-record-holder to remain politically unpopular.
Following Trump’s pontificating that he represents “real” Americans – his claim to drain the swamp of the Washington elite (nevermind his supposed-billion-dollar fortune has been bolstered by banks and politicians since the late 1970s)— we find he interprets “elites” as those politicians who have support of the people who oppose him. Long-term D.C. politician and Democratic nominee for president, Joe Biden (1973-present), has the support of a majority of Hispanic, black, and women voters going into the November 3 general election. The incumbent’s reaction to lagging in the polls is to refuse a peaceful transition of power and heap persistent attacks on Biden’s family.
Trump’s conflation of “elite”, openly discrediting the opposing candidate, and determination to ignore election results, should he lose, are attacks on free and fair elections, one of the core tenets of a healthy democracy. It’s true Trump’s determination to discredit the opposition (or, bizarrely, someone he was never in competition with like Barack Obama, John Lewis, or Heidi Klum) follows the rules of what defines a populist. If “populism is always a form of identity politics” (Muller, p.8), the reality show star has nailed the marketing of what his group following is not. Being so hellbent on exclusionary tactics dwindles his group of “real Americans” to only about 63,000,000 in a country of 330,000,000; a pretty low turn-out. So, is he a populist?
The definition of populism can change depending on the region one is attaching the label. In the United States, Müller suggests populists have historically been, “genuine egalitarian left-wing” candidates with ideals that go against a Democrat party that has become too centrist or too beholden to technocrats and/or Wall Street; liberalism or focus on individual freedom of a majority. Vermont senator, Bernie Sanders, would far more fit this narrative than the executive who once had a day player role in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. In Europe, liberalism refers to adherence to pluralism; recognizing the need for a system of checks and balances that are not particularly concerned with individual inclinations. In an American sense, the populist became synonymous with left-wing grassroots movements like 2011’s “we are the 99%”. But with a swift rise from a third party came a new and opposite definition of the American populist candidate. During the Liberty University speech in 2016, the newly elected president said with his best words, “We’ve done great with the evangelicals… The Tea Party has been amazing and we’re doing really well”.
The tea party did really well, indeed. Although the winner-take-all process of U.S. elections creates a huge barrier to third parties, they can highlight a platform for one of the major parties to adopt. By 2013 ten percent of the population identified as a tea party member whose focus on tax reduction, conservative activism, and heavy appeal to evangelical values, explains the rise of American right-wing populism just waiting for someone’s celebrity reality show to end and notice the vacancy in leadership. Notably, the WWE hall-of-famer’s aligning loyalties to those “real Americans” immediately eroded democracy with its us (the real Americans of the far right) vs. them (the Washington elites, Mexicans, China, the CDC, Crooked Hillary, war heroes, immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers, the Fifth District of Georgia, Chicago, etc.) ideology.
Having so many “thems” and so few “us[e]s” makes the former head of a fraudulent University better defined as a cult leader. What is deeply concerning is that the polis seems to be unaware that the liberal democracy that has held us together through the Civil War, race riots, the Great Depression and a number of pandemics is what is at stake. Americans’ only notion of democracy has always come with individual liberties since our inception… liberal democracy is what we mean as North Americans when we say, “democracy”. As Sheri Berman states, “disdain for rule ‘by the people’ today unites a surprising number of commentators, both on the left and the right, who disagree on nearly everything else” (Berman, p. 30). To those who are confused by the rhetoric, democracy can look like the end of democracy; the social contract can create an illusion that the opposition has robbed one side of their most sacred individual liberties. But, slow-moving policy changes that rely on majority vote is the check and balance for (American) liberalism. It is what prevents us from sliding into oligarchy or technocracy, both of which the United states has dramatically shifted toward since 1980.
Trump may be viewed as a populist not because he is in favor of the majority of the people’s will or even the minority “real Americans” (whomever they may be at the time of his tweets), but that he is against the fundamental establishment that links representative democracy with liberalism– that defines us as Americans. This has placed the U.S. in the category of a hybrid regime… a dangerous place to be in should international conflict arise.
There is a lot to learn from unpopular populist strategies. As Berman stated about Napoleon Bonaparte “[His] populism reflected an important reality—the people, increasingly mobilized, had grown unwilling to accept rulers who did not take their needs and demands into account”. Rising leaders would do well to listen to the Black Lives Matter movement, Antifa, Evangelicals, Union workers and third-party members. It is of no use to demonize Americans if we are to remain a union. As professor Stokes suggested in a recent seminar on American Voting and Electoral Manipulation, Trump is a cult leader. He talks the talk of a populist but walks the walk of an autocrat. This is no more apparent than his threats to refuse a peaceful transition of power if he loses the general election to Joe Biden, a useful populist strategy to dwindle confidence in the system. Tragically, Americans across all parties express their individual liberties are being infringed by the current administration.
Some feel individual job protection from immigrants have been dashed by an unfinished border wall and continued refugee migration. The Affordable Care Act is still in place. The economy has taken a hard hit with a grossly mishandled COVID-19 pandemic. If the economy is a single issue for some tea partyers, they may reconsider their vote for the incumbent in the next 20 days.
We must pursue leadership that strives for neither populism nor demagoguery, but compromise across multiple party agendas by voting for unifying candidates. A focus on popular sovereignty, current issues at the fore, and a properly functioning vertical accountability is the key to restoring the people’s confidence in our backsliding system. Voting early. Voting in person where possible. Voting for policy over puffery. The American people have spoken with their historically low, static approval rating of a quasi-populist. Populism strategies are not popular if there is no credible policy that can provide the individual freedoms that represent a minority or majority. A shake-up by a sexual-assault-condoning, ivy league elite, with a “small million dollar loan” from his father was never a viable replacement for the same-old/same-old liberal democracy.
Hello Ms. Germain
The ‘populism’ label is not how Trump sees himself as leader. His definition is believing he is just ‘popular’ and liked by all! As you stated his ‘cult followers’ or those in his political party ‘base’ are roughly 63,000,000, a small sector of 330,000,000 Americans will not be the determining factor who will dictate final political decisions for the country! Trump and his GOP sycophants should stop fanning flames of blatant ‘racism’ or inciting dire economic and social injustices endured by those of us being forced to survive living below the top 1% billionaires. When a President misappropriates government monies, uses political loopholes for corrupt financial gains including many abuses of: the emolumants clause, taxpayer funded Trump hotel trips or blatant abuse of the Peoples Whitehouse for political endorsements under US Law is called TREASON
Thanks for post!
Hello Amber! Really interesting article. I agree with you that Trump has exhibited populist tendencies in his speeches, tweets, and appeals by showing a clear division between what he considers as real “Americans” and attacking those he does not consider as such. As a recent example, his tweets from two days ago praising his supporters for protesting against the election results vs those of him showing videos of violent people and labeling them as “democrats” and “stealers of elections” portraying a very clear good vs evil narrative (https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1328093294782509060?s=20).
I wanted to comment on your statements on Trump’s unpopularity. I do not consider the fact that Trump can be unpopular and still believe he represents the majority of US people a contradiction and, as you mentioned, it is a clear sign of populism. As Müller highlighted statistics are not representative of the “real people” for populists (Müller, 2016). Trump might have both started and ended his term with an election where he lost the popular vote and his approval rating might be 44.8% as of November 17th -according to FiveThirtyEight- however, this will not faze him. His speeches and tweets are not going to reflect that. For him, if you support him you are therefore part of his imagined “real Americans” and if the numbers do not support him there are many explanations and blame to be distributed (see recent tweets about “fake news media” and “radical left democrats” stealing elections).
Finally, I enjoyed reading alternative explanations on your theory and how you do not only label Trump as populist because he establishes this moral division of the American people, in a Manichean “we are good, they are bad” worldview. You explanation of his anti-establishment nature leads nicely to your proposed solutions to the problem: 1) leadership that listens to the underlying complaints of people which might incite them to vote for populist leaders and 2) compromise. I agree with you that changing presidents from Trump to Biden cannot be expected to magically solve the current state of USA politics. By being so polarised compromise will be hard even if Trump was not in the picture anymore and therefore it must be promoted but might be not attainable in the short-term. However, I would like to hear your thoughts on your first solution -listening to issues-, how do you think this approach could take place without being paternalistic and at the same time preventing legitimization of populist discourse?
Thank you for the post!