Populist leaders have had great success in democracies around the world throughout the past decade, including in the United States, where Donald Trump had great success in defining himself to his base as a leader that was necessary to combat corrupt politicians in a system that his base already distrusted. This distrust has only increased following the 2020 election, as the United States begins to witness the aftermath of a populist leader in a democratic system. Even after Donald Trump transitions out of the White House, the effects of the fear, distrust and resentment that are the foundations of his base will remain in nearly half of the electorate, signaling a space that remains open for other populist leaders to succeed in the United States following the Trump Administration.
In the weeks following the 2020 election in the United States, the Trump Administration has remained vigilant in its quest to prove the election results to be illegitimate, claiming victory and casting wide allegations of fraud and perpetuating the distrust of both the electoral system and the officials that consolidate and certify the election results. Beyond the direct actions of the Administration, there have been waves of protests and incidents in which supporters of the President escalate the claims of fraud to threats against election officials and associated individuals.
Most notably, this past week in Georgia, the threats to the well being of election officials surpassed those elected to office, with the threats made against a Gwinnett County employee. The twenty year old tech worker became the face of Georgia election official, Gabriel Sterling’s speech on December 1st on the President and GOP’s silence surrounding the harassment of workers, including supporters of the President calling for the young tech worker to be “hung for treason”.
The rise over the past decade of populist leaders in democracies across the world has been a topic of wide discussion. The increased presence of populist leaders, particularly right-winged populist leaders, has subsequently led to disdain and distrust for the electoral process when the populist leader does not win the election. This can be seen not only in the case of the 2020 election in the United States, but also across the world, particularly in Europe. In the United States, President Trump signaled for months leading up to the election that he would not accept the results if he lost, arguing that if the election is legitimate, he is the only possible winner. These signals came to fruition as he continues to assert victory, despite having lost by seven million votes, further fueling his base to protest and distrust the election.
At the heart of Trump’s populist tendencies is his igniting and exacerbating of the resentment felt by his base toward other politicians and the government in general. Trump has always had great success by aligning himself with the working class in America and separating himself greatly from the stereotypical politician, deeming the opposition as elites that are far removed from the values of the true American people. Müller argues in her book, “What is Populism?”, that those who align with populist leaders are largely driven by “anger, frustration and resentment” (Müller, 12), which are all emotions that the Trump Administration has played into throughout the past four years, and specifically in the weeks following the election. The President has been actively sowing doubt in the electoral process following the realization that he had not won, and participating in rhetoric about the falsehood of official, certified election results.
Beyond Trump’s active participation in attempting to undermine the election results and his refusal to concede, Trump and other key Republican leaders have failed to condemn the threats and the outrage that is being spewed by his supporters who also belief the election results to be fraudulent. This presents an interesting issue that will only further evolve in the coming months as the Trump Administration transitions out of the White House and Donald Trump no longer holds the position of President, which is what happens to populist bases after the removal of a populist leader from office? Though Joe Biden won the election by around seven million votes, with the highest number of votes ever recorded, Donald Trump holds the second place record, with the most votes ever won by a sitting president. This leaves nearly seventy million Americans who will likely harbor resentment and frustration with the system that was already seen as their enemy when Donald Trump began running for his first term, further polarizing an already hyperpolarized society.
Another factor to consider in the wake of a populist leader is whether or not another politician will rise to take their place. Though a significant portion of republicans have congratulated Joe Biden on his victory, there are many key GOP leaders that have stuck with the President and continue to inform their electorate that the election results are fraudulent and the results will only be verifiably true if the President remains in office. This further exacerbates the deep division within America’s two-party system, which in turn gives rise to populist leaders on both sides, through the increased anger, frustration and resentment that exists between the right and the left in the United States.
Fausset, Richard. “’It Has to Stop’: Georgia Election Official Lashes Trump.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 2 Dec. 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/12/01/us/politics/georgia-election-trump.html.
Fowler, Stephen. “’Someone’s Going To Get Killed’: Ga. Official Blasts GOP Silence On Election Threats.” NPR, NPR, 2 Dec. 2020, www.npr.org/sections/biden-transition-updates/2020/12/01/940961602/someones-going-to-get-killed-ga-official-blasts-gop-silence-on-election-threats.
Müller, Jan-Werner. 2016. What Is Populism? Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press
Pita, Adrianna. 2016. “The Rise of the Right: Right-wing Populism in the US and Europe.” The Brookings Institution. April 19, 2016.
Riedel, Rafal. “Populism and Its Democratic, Non-Democratic, and Anti-Democratic Potential.” Polish Sociological Review, no. 199, 2017, pp. 287–298. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26383076. Accessed 2 Dec. 2020.
Rosenberg, Shawn W. “Democracy’s Final Act?: Freely Choosing Right Wing Populism.” Horizons: Journal of International Relations and Sustainable Development, no. 15, 2020, pp. 34–59. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/48573636. Accessed 2 Dec. 2020.
Salzborn, Samuel. “German Right-Wing Extremism and Right-Wing Populism: Conceptual Foundations.” Stifled Progress – International Perspectives on Social Work and Social Policy in the Era of Right-Wing Populism, edited by Jörg Fischer and Kerry Dunn, 1st ed., Verlag Barbara Budrich, Opladen; Berlin; Toronto, 2019, pp. 33–40. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvfrxr60.5. Accessed 2 Dec. 2020.
Schmitz, Rob. “After Trump, Europe’s Populist Leaders Will Have ‘Lost One Of Their Cheerleaders’.” NPR, NPR, 1 Dec. 2020, www.npr.org/2020/12/01/938613764/after-trump-europes-populist-leaders-will-have-lost-one-of-their-cheerleaders.
This was a wonderful post! Recognizing Former-President Trump as a populist in his efforts to erode democratic norms is an important first step in analyzing how he has eroded democracy in the U.S. After reading this post, one question comes to mind: do you think Trump’s base was attracted to his “populist” views because they liked him as a candidate, or because the Democrats somehow alienated those individuals? In many European countries, the rise of right-wing populism is often attributed more to the alienation of certain individuals. For example, Germany has recently seen an increase in support for a right-wing populist party called Alternative for Germany (AfD). The increase in support stems from the East German region, where residents feel alienated from their West German counterparts. They are attracted to AfD’s anti-establishment rhetoric because they feel, among other reasons, they have been alienated by the political elites in power. Do you believe this happened/is happening in the U.S. with an increase in support for Trump?
Great post! I think the big question now is how the Republican party moves forward. Do they go towards the kind of scorched earth paranoid conservatism of the QAnon members who have recently found success in congress or recognize that populism isn’t a very sustainable political ideology? I think the populist base of Trump and his initial followers has diminishing returns for republicans. As the rank and file tend to have more financial concerns than the sociocultural issues which animate the far-right. Likewise, Biden’s platform was based primarily on that he was not Trump, do you believe that this could result in a backlash from the populist left? Or does the return to lukewarm centrism cool the flames of passion behind populist radical movements? Personally, I feel as though there’s no putting the toothpaste of populism back in its proverbial tube. Both parties will have to reckon with it. The republican party faces a choice where they must disavow or double down on Trump whereas the Democrats must crush or subsume the critiques of their neoliberal policies.
Hello, Sarah! I really enjoyed reading your blog!
I believe president Trump is on the way to Georgia, or left for Georgia last night, after filing a lawsuit to nullify Georgia’s election results, to rally for GOP senate candidates. Initially, I was surprised by how far President Trump has taken it.
It’s not too surprising that this election had the highest turnout of any election, it’s unnerving to think that Trump holds the record for earning the most votes as sitting president.
Like Chase said in a comment above, I am very curious to see how the GOP moves forward, and especially what kind of candidates they will push from now on.
Hi, Sarah. This is a great blog post that highlights the dangers a populist leader poses even after losing an election and abdicating the throne, so to speak. I recently submitted a post on the dangers posed by groups like QAnon, whose purpose is to support a far-right, populist leader like President Trump. In my post, I wrote about how the dangers presented by groups like this extend far beyond the conspiracy laden fake news that they broadcast; it’s much more about the institutional damage they are doing to our democracy by sewing mistrust in our electoral systems.
How do you think we can combat these actions from populist leaders and their supporters? My two cents are that we need to simply ignore them and increase funding for civic education in the United States. Fact of the matter is that no evidence exists for any of the Trump Administration’s claims and accordingly Joe Biden will be sworn in as the forty-sixth president. By paying attention to these far-right officials who are spewing fake news, we are given their words more power. They are useless, and we should treat them as such. I also think we need to emphasize civic education. While I respect STEM fields and support the newfound attention they have received in the last decade, I think it is important that we do not lose sight of the value a civic education provides. A lot of people believe these conspiracy theories simply because they do not know any better. By educating people on our democracy and electoral institutions, we will see less and less of the populace willing to buy into conspiracies.
Hi Sarah! I thoroughly enjoyed reading your post. In the coming months, it will be interesting to see how former Vice President Joe Biden restores legitimacy and faith to both the American electorate and the Oval Office. Right wing populist candidates actively erode democracy for their own campaign interest. Undermining democracy is more powerful than we think. Polarization is essentially a tool utilized by elites to advertise themselves as one of the working class and then internally polarize them in order to get them to vote against their own interests, while true elites already act within their interests. This sort of deals with expressive partisanship, which is more about gathering people behind some sort of identity rather than actual issue positions. Expressive partisanship generates party stability over time but it also creates highly polarized voters who are willing to sacrifice democratic ideals in favor of their party winning. The willingness to undermine democracy is what generates such a strong fan base for certain candidates who are charismatic and attractive in their ideals. In Gabriel S. Lenz’s priming hypothesis, he posed an interesting “follow the leader” phenomenon in which he claimed that voters actual derive their political preferences from political elites themselves (Lenz 2012). Political leaders have a powerful influence over their constituency and can control their opinion on a multitude of issue positions. Voters can solely adopt the political behavior of the political elites they chose to observe, thereby not independently or comprehensively analyzing the issue position they take up.
Honestly, this concern seems like a slight moral dilemma. Polarization will continue to be a powerful, unifying tool, it’s just a matter of if politicians should be allowed to abuse it. This leads me to ask; what do anti-populist efforts look like? How does a society actively condemn and move away from the normalization of populist leaders?
Sarah – this was well written, and your sources were excellent. Thank you for addressing the rise of populists in democracies; I think that we are all more aware of the dangers they can present to democracy and its institutions after experiencing four years of President Trump. I really like the question you posed at the end of the article about whether or not a new populist will rise and take the place of President Trump. I had not really given that any thought. I can’t imagine someone who could attract as many people as Trump has. Although his methods are extremely unconventional and at this point unconstitutional, tens of millions of people love him.