One of the specific criteria of populist leaders according to Jan-Werner Müller is antipluralism. He writes, “[Populists] claim that they and they alone represent the people.”  Instead of recognizing “the people” as a diverse set of groups with different identities and interests, populist leaders embrace the group as a whole, pitting them against “corrupt elites.”
President Donald Trump has been one of the emerging populist figures on the global stage. In 2016, he ran as a “political outsider” who would “drain the swamp” of entrenched Washington elites and claimed to represent the “silent majority” of Americans. After four years of furthering division, he has been voted out of office. However, to this day Trump has refused to accept his loss as legitimate and concede, claiming widespread voter fraud.
Trump’s unfounded and one-sided claims of election fraud following his loss in the 2020 election shows that although he has branded himself as the leader of “the people,” he sees “the people” as only those who support him, signifying the rest as a part of the delegitimate “establishment,” and thereby undermining the democratic rights of the entire public.
Many swing states were counting mail-in ballots for days after November 3, either because of extreme caution or because election rules prevented officials from opening ballots before election day. Trump had spent many months discouraging his supporters from using mail-in ballots so, naturally, the counting of mail-in ballots heavily favored Biden. As Trump saw his lead disappearing leading up to the final projection, he did what many people had predicted and tweeted out claims of fraud. He started by disputing Biden’s increasing vote totals, claiming that Democrats’ ballots were being discovered randomly. In a press conference the day after Election Day, he said, “If you count the legal votes, I easily win.”
The margins of votes in swing states were reversed in large part because of the counting of votes from cities like Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Detroit, which have large Black and brown populations that classically vote blue. Trump’s claim implying that these incoming ballots were not “legal” would mean that these voters – most of whom voted for Biden – were voting illegally. Shortly after, he tweeted out: “71,000,000 Legal Votes. The most EVER for a sitting President!”
This comment suggests that he sees every single vote for him as being legitimate, despite the fact that many of his ballots were mail-in as well. Therefore, all the “illegal” voters are in the Democratic camp. This indicates that Trump sees voters’ votes as being legal, or legitimate, based on who it is the person voted for. He went further in his claims of fraud, adding:
“…IF YOU COUNT THE ILLEGAL AND LATE VOTES, THEY CAN STEAL THE ELECTION FROM US!”
Trump uses the classic tools of the populist, casting a “us” vs. “them” scenario . Populists are known to deride their critics as being part of the “establishment” in order to delegitimize them . However, in this case, the “them” does not just include the politicians and “experts” within the Democratic establishment, but the massive proportion of voters who voted “illegally” “on behalf of” the Democratic establishment. To him, those people are allied with the corrupt Democratic establishment to override the will of “us” – the people who voted for Trump. Elections belong to the people. To suggest that somehow a significant proportion of the population’s votes are illegal maneuvers aimed at stealing the election from the “rightful” minority of Americans is a dangerous idea that undermines the legitimacy of American democracy.
Democracy can only occur, in part, when people are able to “signify their preferences” by voting and have those preferences “weighed equally in the conduct of government.”  Despite Trump’s claims to serve “the people” over “the establishment”, his denial of the legitimacy of Biden’s votes suggests that he only cares to have a certain fraction of the people – his supporters – signify their preferences. In other words, he does not recognize the democratic rights of over half the population.
This has significant implications for our democracy in the future. Trump has convinced his supporters and much of the Republican party that counting every vote is somehow not in the best interest of the American people. He has suggested that hundreds of thousands of votes cast by Americans are not legitimate because they were not in favor of him. He and the Republican Party have begun a hunt that considers a high turnout and a low-rejection rate of ballots as an indication of widespread fraud. All of these tactics delegitimize the electoral process: Trump has laid out a roadmap in which the more people’s votes count, the more corrupt and delegitimate the election is. In this way, he is not simply pitting “the people” against “the establishment.” He is placing a significant proportion of the people within the establishment by suggesting that when the people exercise their right to democracy by voting for the opposing party, they are really acting in the interests of the establishment. In other words, the act of voting is quintessentially “elite” based on who you voted for, therefore those votes must be limited at all costs.
Political scientist, Sheri Berman suggests, “[Populism] seeks to limit liberalism to save democracy.”  In theory, it is true that populism places the will of the people far before the views of entrenched bureaucrats or “experts.” However, when figures like Donald Trump place the preferences of over half of the population within the category of “elites” or “the establishment” it undermines democracy by encouraging further voting restrictions and making the electoral system seem like a less legitimate process of accountability.
Works Cited: Müller, Jan-Werner. What is Populism? Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.  Çinar, Ipek, Susan Stokes, and Andres Uribe. “Presidential Rhetoric and Populism.” Presidential Studies Quarterly 50, no. 2 (2020): 240–63.  Kendall-Taylor, Andrea; Frantz, Erica. “How Democracies Fall Apart.” Foreign Affairs, December 5, 2016: 1-6.  Dahl, Robert, “Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition,” 1971.  Berman, Sheri. “The Pipe Dream of Undemocratic Liberalism.” Journal of Democracy, Vo. 28(3), (2017): 29-38.