Populism has been defined by Encyclopedia Britannica as: a political movement which champions, or claims to champion, the common person, usually by favorable contrast with a real or perceived elite. Common examples of populist leaders include Evo Morales, Alexander Lukashenko, and of course, Donald Trump. Rather than sticking to the simple discrimination between the people and the elite, many populist leaders push the envelope into other areas of discrimination.
Apart from simply being populist and using this ideology to amass a base of incredibly faithful voters who they manipulate with rhetoric, a few other things tie these leaders together. Namely, the practice of discrimination. The main way that these leaders discriminate is based on race. Evo Morales championed the causes of his own indigenous people and made sure to stick up for the working class citizens. He also used the classic populist tactic of taking back power from the corrupt, wanting to fix the country, wrest control away from the crooked elite, and so on. While he did not explicitly degrade other people groups or call names, this is a case of positive discrimination where in his attempt to enfranchise his own people, and he expressly began focusing more and more of his attention on pandering to that supporter base. Alexander Lukashenko used much rhetoric against migrants from the Middle East and other countries to create an attitude of hostility in that country, and even began weaponizing them against the EU. However, he did not use the expressly populist tactic of pitting the citizenry against the elite. This is because since 1994, his last legitimate election, he is now the elite. Rather, he bases the whole of his populist ideology on race and discrimination. This is a clear example of populism because he claims to be sticking up for the people by keeping “unwanted migrants” out of his country. Donald Trump not only claims to be in favor of middle-class America, and using everything he can to benefit “real Americans”, but he has also referred to Mexicans as “rapists” and told Congresswomen of color to “go back where they came from” (Karen Bates, 2020, NPR.com). So here, he seems to exemplify the pretty clear attributes of using discrimination to garner support. Secondly, he is quite probably the perfect example of pitting the populace against the elite. Phrases like “drain the swamp”, “crooked Democrats”, and the ever-popular “stolen election” are no stranger to Trump. He uses these phrases and the underlying rhetoric to not only try and convince Americans that he would (or even could) fix everything wrong with American politics, but also that while he was doing it, he was actively being delegitimized by the supposed “deep state” or something to that effect.
But why do these leaders appeal to discrimination at all? It seems to be powerful enough to convince the populace that the elite in charge of the country (or whoever has the most money) are the ultimate enemy, and policies must be made to equal the playing field, give more opportunity to the working-class, or things like that. This is enough discrimination on its own, but it has been proven to be a lot more powerful to intertwine different kinds of discrimination into the prevailing ideology of the leader to further convince, dissociate, and polarize the people. It has a lot to do with the concept of scapegoating. Rather than being some extreme form of populism, scapegoating is the next logical step. Sometimes the corruption of the “elite” is not enough of a problem. This is the usual bedrock of populist ideology, but it is often inefficient. A more practical or tangible enemy must be made who the people can rally against. This usually takes on a racial tint, and becomes an undercurrent for the main thrust of the populist leader’s ideology. January 6th for instance, was not an attack against the migrants, or any other racial group. It was an attack on the supposed elite of the country who were allegedly fixing the election and engaging in corruption. However, over the course of four years, Trump subtly (or not so subtly) wove in racist undertones to cement his support with “the people” and inspired them to think conspiratorially, which ended in the attack. Though race did not have an explicit role in the January 6th events, it was a subtle undercurrent in the methods Trump used to amass supporters.
The Trump era shows the utility of discrimination to stengthen a populist appeal. It was never the driving force of his policymaking or his administration as a whole, but the discrimination played a big part in the way he amassed supporters and ended up convincing them of his delusions. Just like populism is a tool of some unsavory authoritarians (or illiberals), discrimination is a tool of populism.