On June 16, 2015, the landscape of American politics and democratic norms would drastically change when former reality TV star, and soon to be 45th President, Donald Trump formally announced his run for the presidency. In the speech, he called for the renegotiation of foreign trade deals, strengthening of the military, reduction of the national debt, and more. The look towards an optimistic future was juxtaposed by the stark image of America he painted. The presidential candidate heavily criticized the departing administration’s leadership efforts and policies, denied the legitimacy of the reported national unemployment rate, and targeted foreign countries for making the U.S. “a dumping ground for everyone else’s problems.” The historic ride down the escalator, subsequent speech, and emergence of the slogan, “Make America Great Again,” was just the beginning of what would become the most polarizing era of American politics in modern history.
Donald Trump’s brief political career has been characterized by misinformation and his strong anti-establishment platform that plays upon the frustration of white working-class Americans. He has promised to put America first by fighting against illegal immigration, terrorism, and unfair foreign policy agreements, all to restore American pride and exceptionalism at home and abroad. Trump has tapped into the strong sense of nativism that courses throughout this country by associating those within in base as being true Americans. His successful bid for the White House can be attributed to his appeal to populism, but is populism good for democracy?
What is populism?
Philosopher Ernesto Laclau defines populism in three core elements, an Us-Group, an Other-Group, and Popular Demand. Populists present themselves as political outsiders who create an “us versus them” mentality by representing the Us-Group, a victimized segment of the population, in this case, “real Americans”. The Other-Group, the political elite, is responsible for threatening the existence of the Us-Group. Lastly, Popular Demand represents the policy issues referenced to gain support from their political base, undocumented immigrants served as the unifying element of Trump’s initial campaign. German philosopher Jan-Werner Müller states that the core claim of populism is that only some of the people, the Us-Group, are the legitimate representatives of their respective democracy. Müller further explains how populists are anti-pluralist and will play off the “silent majority” that is purposefully ignored by the elite. Populists believe their competitors are illegitimate as they don’t represent the real members of society. The populist figure will lead the fight against the elite, even if they are a part of the elite themselves. They will engage in undemocratic, in some cases authoritarian, conduct but justify it by claiming they are acting in the interests of the people. Supporters of populism are frustrated by the current system and are looking for a leader that will listen to their concerns and work to improve their quality of life but taking it too far can lead to democratic backsliding.
Citizens of the developed world assume that because their democracies, systems, and institutions have lasted for centuries, it is impermeable to forces disrupting it. Too often we think of instances of democratic overthrow as a quick unstoppable process only occurring in fragile systems, but governments, norms, and institutions at any stage can experience backsliding. It is often a gradual process that can be identified well before it is over. Populism is an easy answer for figures who would like to take advantage of the dissatisfaction expressed by those that feel overlooked in society. Political scientist Sheri Berman explains that the more people see the elite as unresponsive, the more likely they are to fight for reform or abolition of the systems and institutions that mislead them. If a leader comes along representing your interests by appealing to your emotions through social, political, and economic incentives, it is easy to blindly follow without looking at the true impacts of their actions and rhetoric. Our system and citizens must be able to identify threats to democracy and prevent them from reaching positions of power. This unique form of populism that erupted in the last election cycle is now known as Trumpism.
Trump and the 2020 Election
The 2020 presidential election was one like no other in American history as it served as a referendum on Trumpism. Over 101 million early votes were cast, the highest amount ever recorded and twice as many as in 2016. Over 65 million of those votes being mailed in. The election occurred eight months after the COVID-19 virus began ravaging the United States, setting the stage for an unprecedented number of mail-in votes to be cast by members of society choosing to avoid the risk of voting in person during a pandemic. Overall, over 150 million people voted in this historic election with former Vice President Joe Biden winning 51.1% of the electorate and leading by over six million votes.
The sanctity of our democracy rests on the preservation of free and fair elections along with a peaceful transfer of power from one administration to the next. For months, President Trump claimed that the only way he would lose the election would be due to widespread electoral fraud throughout the country. Insisting that an election that had yet to occur would be decided by the Supreme Court. Spreading falsehoods regarding mail-in votes’ susceptibility to manipulation and discrediting their legitimacy. The President even hinted at his eventual refusal to concede at the 2016 and 2020 presidential debates. No presidential candidate has ever attempted to compromise and delegitimize the electoral process as Donald Trump has and it only got worse after election day.
Speculation surrounding the announcement of the winner circled since the extent of mail-in voting was understood. When could pollsters begin counting mail-in votes? When would be the soonest a winner could be declared? How likely is it that we would know the results the night of the election? The answer to the final question being ‘highly unlikely.’ Then, as we all feared, but expected, the President declared himself the victor on the election night, with millions of votes remaining to be counted. As counting continued in the coming days, the president began initiating lawsuits trying to stop the count of legally mailed in votes in Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Michigan states he began losing in after election night. While insisting for votes to continue being counted in Arizona and Nevada, two states he was behind in but saw promise of winning. All while only acknowledging votes for him as being “legal” in a flurry of tweets each accompanied by a warning regarding misleading information. How could a democracy as “strong” as the United States elect a president that doesn’t want the vote of every American to be counted? Despite the election being referred to as “the most secure election in US history” by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, the President and members of his following continued and will continue to believe that the election was rigged against him. These actions are sewing mistrust in our system that will persist for years to come. By prematurely and baselessly declaring victory along with voter fraud, President Trump undermined faith in the democratic process and shaped the narrative around his belief that the election was stolen from him.
Though Joe Biden’s victory indicates that populism could be defeated and not just with more populism, this does not change the damage that has been done to the country. Nearly 74 million people were able to overlook or even accept the blatant authoritarian rhetoric and behavior of the sitting President and thought he was fit to lead for another term. Contrary to poll predictions, Biden did not win by a landslide like so many hoped in an election that felt like a fight for democracy. If he did manage to achieve a larger margin, it would have clearly indicated America’s intolerance for democratic backsliding in any form, but that was not the case. Populist figures and ideas will persist beyond this administration and our borders as voters are increasingly willing to overlook the threat of authoritarian behavior in order to prioritize the promises made by political parties and leaders.