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.