In some academic literature regarding the definition of populism, a politician like Bernie Sanders could never be considered a populist. These scholars argue that modern day, right wing populism is the only true form of populism, because it is based in an exclusionary moral argument that only some of the people are the people. By other reasoned arguments, Bernie Sanders embodies a “traditional” populist, who uses their political platform to rile up supporters against an economic elite class – this dichotomy has left me in a rut, not fully convinced that it’s possible to declare that President Trump is a populist either.
Müller defines populism as an otherization of some sect of society; a claim by a nationalistic leader, that only “some” of the people are truly “the people.” (20) He argues that Bernie Sanders is not the populist that many make him out to be, and goes so far as to deny the fact that a left-wing politician can truly be a populist.
This is rooted in the notion that “populism isn’t about policy content . . . [it] is a certain kind of moral claim,” (93) of excellence and superiority to apparent threats to legitimate members of society. This is an effective argument, admittedly. Müller’s offers the view that, leftist, social democrat policies are almost too legitimate an alternative to conservative policies, or exclusionary right wing politics (98). Sanders’ messaging, by Müller’s logic, is far too inclusive to be populist in the historical sense – though it criticizes the economic elites, calling elites, “the one percent,” necessarily implies that they are part of the “one hundred percent” as well.
However, according to Ipek Çinar, Professor Susan Stokes, and Andres Uribe of the University of Chicago, the core argument of populism is not rooted strictly in the elevation of one section of the polity. Rather, populism in this sense is a doctrine of anti-elitist political rhetoric. In their framework, Bernie Sanders’ rhetoric fits under a “traditional left wing populist” (242). He uses rhetoric which mobilizes the “everyday” worker against the electoral elite – for these authors, his increased use of this rhetoric is enough to suggest that he is a populist, in the historical sense of the term. They argue, too, that “right-wing populists”, like President Trump, use their political platform to capitalize on their followers’ fears of political elites, and racial/ethnic outgroups.
Is There Such a thing as a Right-Wing Populist?
Çinar et al’s definition of “right wing populism” has peculiar xenophobic undertones, leading me to question whether Trump’s right-wing populism is a legitimate counter to what they consider traditional populism. The otherization of ethnic outgroups? The stirring of unfounded suspicion in the legitimacy of political opponents? These don’t sound like the flip side of their “traditional” populist coin to me.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve not dedicated my academic career to the study of this phenomena. However, I am not sure that pinning Trump as a right-wing populist alternative is fair to their standing definition of “traditional” populism. The president calls predominantly black countries “shitholes”, and argues that we should want more “good” immigrants from “countries like Norway.” This is not populist rhetoric, it is xenophobia. Much the same, declining to accept the results of a fair democratic election, and attempting to delegitimize your political elite opponents is not populist, it is authoritarian.
It seems to me that Donald Trump is not some dogmatic representation of neo-populism. He’s a xenophobe. It’s time to call a spade a spade – it’s much simpler that way.
What the Heck is Populism?
If, by Müller’s account, it is impossible for Bernie Sanders to be a populist, and by my analysis of Çinar’s account, it seems unlikely that right-wing “populism” (Çinar, 242) is anything other than xenophobic authoritarianism, then what the heck is populism? In short, I’m just going to keep running with Çinar’s definition of traditional populism.
Frankly, I’m not sure why scholars are giving weight to this segmented definition of populism. Straying away from the “traditional” anti-economic-elite definition that scholars seem to have been comfortable running with for the past century and a half, seems potentially unnecessary, in a sense. If traditionally we have viewed populism as a mechanism to leverage the workers against an all too wealthy elite economic class, I don’t find much sense in trying to add to that definition. We did not change our theories of conservative and liberal political ideologies in the United States after the realignment of the parties in the 60s and 70s, we changed our views of the parties. Just as well, we shouldn’t force the definition of populism to acclimate to the times.
Regrettably, I am still uncertain as to what populism really is. After all, the preeminent scholars of our time are in stark disagreement about this fact. Yet, if we take Çinar et al’s definition of traditional populism as left-wing politicians who “rail against economic actors and elites: corporations, Wall Street, the wealthy. . .” (242, 243, 251) it seems unreasonable to me to claim that, of yet, there are any legitimate right-wing alternatives to populism. If we take President Trump to be this archetypal, right-wing populist, I’d say it’s fair to argue that right wing, anti-pluralist populism is really just a roundabout way of saying that Donald Trump is a xenophobic authoritarian.
 Ipek Çinar, Susan Stokes, and Andres Uribe. 2020. “Presidential Rhetoric and Populism,” Presidential Studies Quarterly