On November 2nd, 2020, just one day prior to the United States’ general elections, President Trump established the “1776 Commission” through an executive order. The commission is tasked with ensuring the United States’ children receive a “patriotic education.” The 1776 Commission targets education on systemic racism, and is just the latest in a series of moves aimed to quell civil opposition to the United States’ systemic inequalities. Given that Trump has officially lost re-election, it’s unlikely the commission will come to fruition. Still, the attempt to form the commission is concerning since it highlights the populist tactics which fueled the rise of our nation’s soon-to-be-former President, and which continue to pose a unique danger to our democracy.
Populist rhetoric is not new to the United States.  Yet Trump’s rhetoric is different than that of his predecessors and contemporaries, and poses a very real threat of democratic erosion. Trump’s populist rhetoric is not only stronger than that of other populist Presidents, but also capitalizes upon historical divisions to call into question the legitimacy of certain social out-groups. This, combined with the present political moment creates a substantial threat to the inclusivity and security of our democracy.
What is Populism?
While populism is difficult to define precisely and frequently misapplied, one generally agreed upon feature of populism is the use of “Manichean” rhetoric, where political struggles are portrayed not merely as ideological differences, but as moral battles between good and evil.  
Trump’s political rhetoric surrounding the 1776 commission exemplifies this. In a September speech announcing his intention to form the commission, he referred to education on topics like systemic racism as “a form of child abuse.” In the order itself, Trump accuses those teaching about the United States’ historical racial injustices of depicting the founders as “villains”, and educating children in a way which “obscures virtues…resulting in the truth being concealed and history disfigured.” The 1776 Commission makes it clear Trump not only wants to attack the ideology, but the moral legitimacy of those the order targets.
Trump displays other emblematic characteristics of populism, including anti-pluralist rhetoric, trying to establish himself as the representative of “true” citizens and the targeted group as un-American.  This is again evident in his rhetoric regarding the 1776 Commission. The order itself claims that teaching systemic racism threatens “our common faith” in America’s principles and makes authoritarianism “increasingly alluring”. By suggesting all Americans share one “common faith”, Trump implies anyone without that “common faith” is not truly American. In another executive order from September, designed to remove topics such as critical race theory and white privilege from diversity training programs, Trump employed similar rhetoric, referring to the topics and their supporters as “anti-American”.
It’s evident Trump engages in the anti-pluralist and Manichean rhetoric which distinguishes populists. To fully understand the danger of this though it’s important to understand who this rhetoric really targets.
Who is the Target?
Trump’s 1776 Commission comes after months of speeches, tweets and executive orders targeted against those drawing attention to the United States’ racial inequalities. Trump has accused a Black Lives Matters leader of “treason, sedition [and], insurrection” over twitter, called the New York Times’ “1619 Project” a form of “toxic propaganda”, and repeatedly attacked critical race theory. The 1776 Commission extends these attacks against those who are calling for racial justice.
Trump follows the typical pattern of right-wing populists. While all populists are in some sense anti-elitist, this does not mean populists only ever target elites, or that all populists target the same types of elites.  Left-wing populists use their rhetoric to target economic elites. However, Right-wing populists tend to target political elites, while simultaneously antagonizing ethnic or racial out-groups to mobilize their support base. 
On the surface, Trump may seem to target an ideology, rather than a minority out-group. However, his actions and rhetoric are clearly aimed at suppressing civil dissent of the United States’ continued racial injustices. It’s ultimately not very important that Trump is not explicitly targeting African American citizens in particular. By explicitly targeting those advocating for racial equality, the result is still a system which works to oppress and raise resentment against a minority racial group in order to mobilize his supporters. Such out-grouping leads to unequal legal protection for the minority out-group, another tactic of right-wing populists.  In the United States this means continued racial inequalities in legal and political systems, even as support grows for rectifying these systemic injustices.
How Is This Unique?
The history of racial injustice which Trump seeks to suppress is exactly what makes his populism so dangerous. Other Presidents have used populist rhetoric targeting ethnic and racial minorities, but Trump has targeted these groups more frequently and with a much stronger negative sentiment than others.  The threat of Trump’s populist rhetoric is further multiplied by the present political environment. Trump’s time in office has been an extremely polarized period, and marked by the erosion of a number of important democratic norms. These factors combined with the United States’ long history of racial division have allowed Trump to challenge the legitimacy of the political membership of minorities.  The 1776 Commission would further facilitate this. A commission designed to censure education on the United States’ past racial injustices would detract from the legitimacy of those seeking to rectify these injustices in their modern forms. By painting such dissent as unpatriotic, or un-American, Trump attempts to call into question the legitimacy of their citizenship and political membership.
While Trump will leave office in January, and his commission will likely disappear, the threat to democracy remains. Trump’s rhetoric capitalized off of a political environment and historical divisions which existed long before he came to office. While they continue to exist, there’s little to stop another right-wing populist leader from rising. America has won this round in the fight for democracy, but until the United States can leave an era of hyperpolarization and resolve systemic racial injustices, democracy will remain insecure.
 Ipek Cinar, Susan Stokes, and Andres Uribe, “Presidential Rhetoric and Populism.” Presidential Studies Quarterly, vol. 50, no. 2 (2020): 240-263 Jan-Werner Mueller, What is Populism? University of Pennsylvania Press, (2016).  Robert Lieberman et al., “The Trump Presidency and American Democracy: A Historical and Comparative Analysis,” Perspectives on Politics (2018): 1-10
This was a wonderful post! You very clearly outlined specific evidence from President Trump’s term that allows him to be considered a populist, namely through the 1776 Commission, him accusing a Black Lives Matters leader of treason, etc. However, one question that comes to mind when reading your post is, where do we go from here? You mentioned that the “political environment and historical divisions” that Trump exploited to gain popularity still exist, but what can we do to prevent another populist from coming to power? Is there even anything that we can do at this point in time? You also mentioned how even though Trump was voted out of office, he leaves behind a country that is in the midst of hyperpolarization and severe systemic racial injustices, which means democracy will remain insecure for the time being. I agree with this statement because even though Trump is leaving, there are over 70 million Americans who believe he is their true president and leader. His supporters contribute to the growing problem of existential polarization in the United States today. Do you think President-elect Biden can do something about this? Will he do anything about these issues?