When Donald Trump tweeted, the world listened. More than that, the world reacted. A new @realdonaldtrump Tweet represented an endless array of possibilities—would he announce a new policy? Refute the results of the 2016 election (that he won)? Attack Alec Baldwin? No matter the subject, every Tweet was the start of a predictable news cycle that would remind the public how Trump was an “unconventional political outsider,” which fed directly into his populist appeal.
While Trump’s use of Twitter was seen as novel in 2016, it has become clear that a strong social media presence is part of the new normal for the political outsider. Though it has always been the case that new mass communication tools affect how politicians engage with the public, social media appears to have taken that to a new level. Politicians are now expected to engage with the people constantly, which, when applied to political outsiders, can present a particular risk to democracy. Specifically, because social media rewards users for maximizing their own engagement, the political outsider, and especially the complete outsider, is incentivized to adopt populist messages, subvert democratic norms, and further political division in order to succeed.
The Political Outsider
Political outsiders have long been a staple of American politics. Outsiders claim that the political system is broken, and that because of their unique perspective, they can help fix it. Notably, Americans tend to like outsider politicians. According to a 2018 Monmouth University poll, 52% of Americans would prefer an outsider candidate to an insider candidate. American political outsiders can be split into two distinct groups: “Insider Outsiders” and “Complete Outsiders.”
According to the same 2018 Monmouth poll, 61% of Americans viewed having political experience as a positive for candidates. While these two results may appear contradictory, they point to a common phenomenon in American politics where candidates with some political experience will campaign as outsiders. For example, in 2008, despite being a member of the United States Senate, Barack Obama campaigned as an outsider because of his age, race, and policies. Often, as was the case with Bill Clinton and George Bush, governors will run as outsiders, claiming that they’ve gained experience legislating and leading outside of Washington.
While insider outsiders have some sort of experience in the public sector or military, complete outsiders do not. Typically, complete outsiders campaign at the local or congressional level, as, after all, all politicians need to start somewhere. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, for example, was a bartender before running for New York’s 14th congressional district. Most notably, Donald Trump was the first complete outsider to successfully win the presidency.
While outsiders often campaign on changing the status quo, their messages don’t necessarily reflect a threat to democracy. Rather, outsiders can be threatening to democracy when they adopt populist platforms, as was the case for Donald Trump. According to Jan-Werner Müller’s What is Populism?, populism is a set of political ideas that pits a fictional, morally perfect conception of “the people” against a corrupt, morally imperfect or evil “elite.”
Because populism transcends any sort of left-right ideological spectrum, it can take many forms. However, all populist movements tend to hold a deep distrust of existing institutions, experts, politicians, and any other part of the “elite.” While inflammatory language is not a requirement for the populist, they often use emotional, moralizing rhetoric in order to stoke fear and outrage against the “elites.”
Within the US, left-wing populists like Bernie Sanders will claim that our political problems are a result of corporate greed that exploits the working class—”the people.” Right-wing populists like Donald Trump will claim that our political problems are a result of a Washington establishment that is out of touch with middle America and the Christian Right—”the people.”
As Andrea Kendall-Taylor and Erica Frantz argue in How Democracies Fall Apart: Why Populism Is a Pathway to Autocracy, populists often claim that democracy has been hijacked by the elites, and that they can fix it. However, as is often the case, successful populists tend to leverage their popularity to undermine norms, punish internal dissent, and reward loyalists with positions in important institutions. In other words, though populists claim to represent the will of “the people,” they often subvert democracy for personal gain. For outsiders looking to galvanize support, adopting populist messages can be seriously lucrative, especially online.
The Effects of Social Media
As is the case globally, social media has been a disruptive force in American politics. Trump’s tweets have moved markets and poll numbers, mass social movement mobilization happens in a moment’s notice, and misinformation pollutes political discourse. But how exactly does social media shape the behaviors of political outsiders? Evidence suggests social media amplifies outsiders’ tendency to use inflammatory populist rhetoric as a mobilizing tool.
Some scholars, like Nils Gustafsson and Noomi Weinryb, suggest that social media is changing the way that populist movements function. They argue that social media subverts democratic institutional middlemen like civil society organizations and the media. After all, why would I join a formal nonprofit activist organization when a Facebook group can mobilize me faster? Why trust the media to give me news when I can get it faster from Twitter? Why would I trust the government to help me pay my hospital bills when I get better financial assistance from my Gofundme page? In other words, social media provides a platform to bypass existing institutional channels in favor of potentially more efficient and effective results. Naturally, this phenomenon leads people to distrust those institutions, creating fertile ground for digital populists to succeed.
Gustafsson and Weinryb also point to user engagement as a core component of modern digital populism. For political outsiders to succeed on social media, they must seek to maximize their user engagement, or how much people interact with their content. For relatively unknown candidates, and especially for complete outsiders, this presents a unique problem. According to Pew, candidates who regularly post more incendiary content, including attacks on political opponents and opinions on polarizing topics, tend to receive the strongest engagement. In other words, complete outsider candidates have a strong incentive to lean into populist messaging. While populists are already known to use emotionally charged language, social media gives them a direct reward for their language. Indeed, populist candidates tend to accrue significantly more social media followers and name recognition than their more moderate counterparts.
For example, Marjorie Taylor-Greene, Madison Cawthorne, and Lauren Boebert have all accrued a combined one million Twitter followers. Their populist appeals have boosted their political profiles significantly, giving them an even larger platform to spread their views.
Consequently, when a mass of networked political actors individually seek to promote a set of similar populist messages, that movement shifts from rallying around a single charismatic candidate to rallying around to what Gustafsson and Weinryb call “charismatic situations.” The most notable recent example of this is the fallout from the 2020 presidential election, where right-wing populists vehemently contested the validity of the results. By rallying around a shared conception that the election was stolen, Trump’s populist movement can far outlast the man himself. If many smaller populist figures reinforce a similar message, they can unify around any candidate they want to represent the wider movement.
If Gustafsson and Weinryb’s analysis continues to hold true, that could present serious risks to democracy. We’ve already seen how Trump’s populist rhetoric has appeared in all levels of government, threatening civil rights in the process. The most recent example comes from recent restrictive voting reform laws, which conservatives across the country claim will protect their elections from nonexistent widespread fraud, echoing Trump. If future complete outsiders work to make populism more resilient, that could mean that any democratic backsliding today may be harder to reverse tomorrow.
Populist Outsiders: The Status Quo?
Although social media is a new phenomenon, outsiders and populists have been part of the political status quo since the earliest days of democracy. Democracy has survived insider outsiders like Andrew Jackson, Ronald Reagan, and Herbert Hoover. It has also survived complete outsiders like Arnold Schwarzenegger. So how can we say contemporary outsiders, insider or complete, present a novel risk to democracy? The answer comes down to social media. Prior to social media, if someone wanted to gain enough name recognition to be politically competitive, they had to appear on radio or TV, both platforms with a high barrier to entry. On social media, however, the barrier to entry is far lower. Someone’s viral TikTok or Tweet can accrue them hundreds, thousands, or millions of views and followers seemingly overnight. Candidates who capitalize on their social media presence can catapult themselves into political prominence, as was the case with Marjorie Taylor-Greene or Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. These complete outsiders have a strong incentive to maximize their digital engagement, as every follower, like, and retweet reflects another opportunity to gain wider name recognition. As it stands, populists appear to achieve comparatively strong engagement metrics on social media platforms, which means that complete outsiders are encouraged to adopt their rhetoric in order to succeed.
While no candidate is required to use populist language or tactics, because social media rewards users for maximizing their own engagement, the political outsider, and especially the complete outsider, is incentivized to adopt populist messages, subvert democratic norms, and further political division in order to succeed. Across the board, those who seek to maximize their digital political engagement are encouraged to use more emotional, moralizing, and norm-breaking rhetoric. While that’s true for all politicians, complete outsiders often need to accrue far more name recognition than established figures in order to succeed. Therefore, they are at a higher risk of adopting the kind of populist messaging that threatens democracy.