Former President Donald Trump has been called a populist ever since the American population, news outlets, and politicians in Washington started taking his campaign seriously back in 2016. After all, he ran on the slogan “Make America Great Again”, accusing every establishment politician of being corrupt and ineffective on the basis that they were establishment politicians. Donald Trump was the outsider. He would lead America out of the dark and into the light. To accomplish this, his strategy was to support his claims with unfounded accusations about his opponents that would – he hoped – discredit them in the eyes of the American people.
Over the past six years as a public figure in American politics, Donald Trump has accused various “corrupted elite” of undermining his campaign and presidency through lying, spying, and secrecy – things that Trump himself has certainly never been guilty of himself. In late 2020, in the midst of his reelection campaign, Trump claimed Obama had spied on him during the 2016 campaign and once again accused him and then-Vice President Biden of launching the investigation into Trump’s campaign due to the Russian probing scandal. The accusations first began in November of 2019 and gained momentum by June of 2020 with Trump stating “Treason. Treason. It’s treason,” of Obama’s alleged actions and all but calling for his execution.
This was in 2020, back when Trump was still in office and had the title to back up his authoritarian power grab schemes. Now, despite the fact that it’s 2022 and the former president is currently residing in Palm Beach, Florida at the Mar-a-Lago Resort, Trump is once again making accusations of spying against his political opponents (his political opponents from 2016). This time it’s Hillary Clinton who’s taking the blame. Based on an indictment that accused a former federal prosecutor of “lying during a September 2016 meeting with an F.B.I. official about Mr. Trump’s possible links to Russia”, Trump claims he was working on behalf of the Clinton campaign. Therefore, Hillary Clinton spied on his campaign and White House.
Such accusations, as we’ve seen, are not uncommon of the former president, nor are they held with much credibility by most media outlets and public officials. However, they do present a concerning view on the stability of American democracy. Donald Trump is not the president anymore, but he is still trying to hold on to loyalty and power as if he is. He has little to no evidence to back up his claims, but he doesn’t need evidence for his base to support and believe him. Trump is a prime example of a populist leader and he is continuing to act like one, even though he is no longer in office. Since his campaign, he has claimed to be the voice of the oppressed Americans, working to shut down the corrupt government and reclaim Washington for the people – the very definition of a populist leader. This in itself is problematic for the survival of democracy in America because it undermines the party system by placing one person as the only “moral” contender and therefore the only able leader. But if that leader doesn’t go away after their term, and continues to spread their message from outside the government, then democracy is really in trouble. Because it’s one thing to say you’re right and they’re wrong when you win the election, it’s another to say the same thing after you’ve been deposed.
It’s also another thing for those claims to be backed up by the media. When Fox News and other right wing media outlets support Trump’s unfounded claims, they are also undermining democracy by perpetuating his legitimacy. Trump wants to come back into power and he’ll do whatever he can to get there – lie, cheat, and steal in the name of the American people. It doesn’t matter that he’s currently far from Washington, his agenda is still being spread by him, by his followers, and by his media. And no matter how false the accusations he makes may be, they’re still being propagated and spread, which gives them more credibility the further they go. Maybe they’ll make it as far as Washington, maybe it will be enough to bring Trump back in 2024, maybe it won’t, but either way, Trump’s populist politics are not going away anytime soon and the erosion of democracy that follows isn’t either. Washington may be out of the picture at the moment, but the Kingdom of Trump is ruled just as easily from his capital city – Mar-a-Lago.
Trump’s populist identity is still very much a threat to American democracy, and it’s interesting to read how the former President is capable of this despite no longer being in office. I’m curious to know your thoughts on the 2024 presidential election and if you believe the GOP will endorse Trump as the Republican nominee. If Trump isn’t the nominee, do you believe he would potentially run as an independent candidate? I believe misinformation by Trump has threated mutual tolerance and your point about Trump acting as the only “moral” leader connects directly to this point. Overall, Trump’s behaviour sets an overall dangerous precedent for future individuals running for power.
I think you’ve done a great job of identifying Trump’s populist impulses, especially his presentation of himself as the sole moral contender to represent the people. I also agree with your assessment that this can undermine the party system; I think this has been evident in a lot of Trump’s run-ins with prominent Republicans, particularly after his claims about the 2020 election. Finally, you were certainly right to point out how Trump’s agenda is being spread even without him. I think an interesting question would be to identify more recent politicians who have risen to power by following this Trump-style populism.
Thank you for your article on what former President Trump is up to. While his 4 years as president and campaigning before was littered with stealth and not-so-stealth authoritarianist behavior, I personally think that not enough focus is given to what he is up to now. Even though he is no longer president, that does not mean he cannot influence “the masses” that constitute his supporter base (i.e. January 6th Capital riots).
You bring up a good point with the media coverage of the recent Hilary Clinton accusations and how they can undermine democracy and provide credibility to former President Trump. However, I wonder how much of that is because right-wing media is trying to undermine democracy or increase viewership (sensationalism). No one can deny Trump’s attempts to undermine democracy. However, is right-wing media enabling this behavior, encouraging it, trying to profit off it, or some combination of the three?