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.
Interesting blog post Evelyn! I definitely share the view that Trump is a complete provocateur and that debates with him often turn in to personal attacks. I also agree that he has very frequently appealed to populist rhetoric in a way that has encouraged division and an « us vs them » mentality that most political scientists emphasise as an essential characteristic of populists.
Regarding personal attacks however, don’t you believe a presidential candidates personal life is important and relevant to whether they are fit to be president? For example, we always talk about how many of the founding fathers were slaveowners and certainly racist in their personal lives. Surely this is important as it is an indication of their characters and contributes to their overall image. However, we cannot bring up suspicious cases of fraudulent behaviour in Biden’s life? It is a debate after all, so shouldn’t candidates be ready to address any issues brought up to them to see how they explain themselves and if they truly are fit to run the country?
Also, to answer your question, I don’t think Trump is a mastermind who is fully aware and calculating of what he does. That would be overestimating his abilities. I think everything he says is just a product of his personality and is just very telling of his character of being boastful and full of himself and very combative and intimidating towards his opponents. I therefore don’t think that side of him is part of a populist tactic although it still is a trait in populists. I think it’s just the way he is and more broadly reflects the vicious and crude world of politics in which the goal of many is to win and not to fight for the country and democracy.
Let me know what you think!
I agree that Trump rose to his office by behaving as a right wing populist. In 2016, he railed against political elites, described his opponents as evil incarnate, and demonized ethnic out-groups. However, this post says that Trump in this 2020 debate showed his chops at populism. Can a sitting president be anti political elite? Cinar et al define a populist by being ant-elitist and Manichaean in their attacks. This article gave good evidence that Trump is Manichaean in his attacks on Biden and his family. He describes Biden as evil, and himself as good. However, I wonder if a sitting president can truly be described as anti political elite. I agree that Trump could safely be described as anti elite in 2016. However, even if he tries to recreate that argument, he is now the most powerful politician in the US, as he runs the government. I understand he criticized Biden for being in government for 47 years. This seems to me, though, an indictment of the democratic party, and of Biden’s efficacy. Trump is the head of the government, and therefore describing him as anti-elitist is murky. He might certainly like to be seen as anti-elite, but I wonder if that is possible. He is certainly not anti economic elitists, as Cinar et al. describe left with populists. I am not suggesting that Trump is not a populist. He was definitely anti political elite in 2016. I am asking if, in the setting of this debate, a sitting president criticizing someone else’s role in government, can be seen as railing against politicians writ large.
Hello Evelyn! This is quite an interesting article about how Trump has time and again appealed to the populist rhetoric since before his 2016 win. It’s true how all his speeches follow the pattern of inflammatory remarks and speaking over others to prove his “dominance”. The same was seen in the presidential debate of 2020. Trump has always presented himself as a “people’s person” advocating for their rights and painting the opposition as elitist. You are absolutely correct in saying that although he has never associated himself with the term “populist”, his actions prove the opposite.
Populist movements can be quite destructive in today’s age but this was not always the case as is evident in the American history. If we look back, populism led to a number of positive initiatives such as direct senate elections, women’s suffrage, income tax reforms, and regulation of the railway system. That being said, I believe Trump is a pseudo-populist whose only interest lies with staying in power by riling up supporters and sympathizing with them against his criticizers. I wonder how this changes our understanding of true populism and whether it is capable of bringing about a positive impact in modern politics.
I definitely agree with you that Donald Trump has operated as a populist throughout his time in office and continued to through the election. A lot of the reasons and evidence you supplied to prove this statement, I had only heard of in-class and found populist tactics to be creatively interesting. Now that the presidential election is complete and we now have Biden as the new president-elect how do you think the president will vary from that of Trump’s, in relation to populism.
I agree with your blog 100%! I’m sure everyone has at least heard one of his populist tactics; arguments to persuade voters in 2016 and in 2020. I have also noticed his word choice and his tactic to interrupt people as you stated. I feel you made me look at his tactics in a different light with all the comparisons and facts you presented.