September 29, 2020; the first presidential debate for the 2020 sent shockwaves into the nation that watched Donald Trump and Joe Biden insult each other live on television and streaming sites. The debaters certainly captured the attention of voters ahead of an election that was 35 days away. It kicked off with Trump taking the first question from moderator Chris Wallace about the Supreme Court nomination of Amy Barrett, and Biden was to offer his own 2 minute argument against it in traditional debate fashion. It was during this debate that Trump exhibited his usual “Populist” method of public speech.
In case one is unaware, “Populism” as explained by Oxford Languages is “a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups.”. This type of political stance has worked well in Trump’s favor; it’s known that he based his platform on being the “odd one out” of those on Capitol Hill and that he represented the true interests of the people. In the debate, After the first open discussion was overcome, Trump spent most of his speaking time interrupting and speaking over Presidential candidate Biden. For example, he immediately attacked Biden for his 47 years of holding public office, thereby painting him as “the Washington Establishment” and making himself (Trump) look like the outsider to the cunning political establishment. On multiple occasions, tensions flared even between him and moderator Wallace who had to beg the interruptions to stop, saying “ I am appealing to you directly about (the interruptions), Mr. President”. It could be that Trump wanted to dominate the stage and assert himself as the one that knows best and was the best standout candidate in the debate, but his actions caused the event to become clearly chaotic.
It was the first time a presidential debate had descended into a “slugfest”, as put by NBC’s Sahil Kapur. What type of persuasion and speech tactics was Trump using? Was it all calculated, or was his mind as chaotic as his speech? One has to truly pay attention to his previous speaking events to see that he uses the same tactics in any public event or interview; not just his habit of speaking over others that was on display at the debate, but the actual inflammatory words and phrases that he uses to rile up his supporters.
Since first becoming president, Trump has had a method of speaking where he advocates himself as the only one who truly knows how things should be, and anyone who speaks against it is the opposition who shouldn’t be listened to. In 2017, Trump said “I have been elected by the majority of the people, so now everyone else should just accept what I do because I have the mandate of the people”. He positions himself as the person who represents the interests of the working class, with anti-establishment ideas. This is a notable trait of a Populist.
Populism has many faces and has most historically been aligned towards left leaning figures. Yet, to say that Populists are only left leaning would be conceptually wrong. As explained by Jan Werner Muller in their book “What is Populism?”, Populists also are known to be inflammatory, divisive, discrediting and generate “Us vs. Them” mentalities. These were all things that Trump was during the debate against Biden. He repeatedly attacked not just Biden’s policies but his personal life too. Standout moments from the debate included Trump repeatedly bringing up Biden’s son, Hunter. He was eager to talk about Hunter’s discharge from the military and his previous drug issue with cocaine. He also was insistent on talking about Hunter allegedly receiving millions of dollars from foreign investments in China and Moscow. Trump jumped on this topic as a debate strategy because he wanted to paint his opponent as incompetent; someone who doesn’t even know how to run their own house and associates with corrupt people. It was to be a “gotcha!” moment against his opponent that discredits them; yet another populist tactic.
To put it simply, Trump wields populist arguments as an effort to draw in and keep his audience. He targets those who could be seen as enemies of the “old-fashioned, American life” and particularly those that openly criticize him. He knows his audience’s grievances, and he taps into them. Even so, it should be noted that just because he uses this type of speech at events, that isn’t to say that he actively considers himself one. He’s never associated or aligned himself with the term “populist”. Yet, one cannot deny that he wields the weapons of a populist well.