While scholars differ on an exact definition of populism, the overall consensus is that it is a “thin-centered ideology” revolving around the will of the people and getting power out of the hands of the “elite” and into the hands of these people (Mudde). Although holding completely opposing views in terms of policy, both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump can be described as populists in their political strategies and actions. However, the specific kind of populism practiced by Donald Trump, in which he characterizes the group of “other” as any group that does not align with white nationalist ideals, is dangerous to democracy in a way that Sanders’ populism is not. Two different articles revolving around an analysis of campaign speeches from Trump and Sanders for the 2016 presidential campaign demonstrate this difference in the populist rhetoric of the two men.
In an article for the Foreign Policy Research Institute, Espenshade analyzes the rhetoric of campaign speeches from Trump and Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. To do so, the author utilizes three groups created in the book On Populist Reason by Ernesto Lauclau that can be used to categorize remarks from Trump and Sanders. Lauclau breaks the strategies of populists into three subgroups: the us-group formation, the other-group formation, and popular demand. The us-group describes the group that feels they are victims and in which power should be returned to, while the other-group is the elite who are subjugating the us-group. Popular demand describes the issues that the politicians discuss in order to gain support from the us-group. For Trump, the us-group is what he calls “true Americans,” while the other-group is the political elite. For Sanders, the us-group is the working class of America, with the other-group being the wealthy billionaires (Espenshade 2020). Both men discussed a wide variety of topics that fall under the popular demand category, with Sanders most popular topic being the class divide in America, which he discussed 40% of the time. However, Trump’s issues were more varied than Sanders, with his most popular topic being undocumented immigrants, which he discussed 16% of the time (Espenshade 2020). In coding for these three categories, Espenshade discovered that Sanders used the category of popular demand the most, showing his focus on the issues and demonstrating his commitment to them to potential voters. In contrast, Trump used the formation of the other-group the most, as many of his remarks on the campaign trail involved painting the political elite as an enemy to the real American people.
Another article, published in the Journal of Political Ideologies, again examines the comparison of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump and both of them being labeled as populists. In this article, Staufer describes multiple different definitions of populism, with a shared theme of the idea being dangerous to democracy. Staufer aligns himself with a definition that describes populism as a “discursive logic” that pits the main group of “the people” against an enemy group. In order for something to be considered populism, there needs to be a group established as the people as well as this group having a relationship with another that antagonizes the people. Staufer then goes on to describe eleven different elements that are a part of populist rhetoric and explores these elements in the campaigns of Trump and Sanders for the 2016 presidential election. While the research done in analyzing the speeches for these elements is lengthy, the overall idea is that Sanders and Trump both use these populist elements in their speeches, but that they go about these elements in different ways. While both politicians create a group that is viewed as the enemy, Trump’s is more focused on things such as race, ethnicity, and religion as he feels that these groups have “incompetence in representing American interests” (Staufer 2020). However, Staufer argues that Sanders seems to be a more traditional populist in the sense that he places more emphasis on his “appeal to ‘the people’” (Staufer 2020).
In examining these two articles, a difference appears in the rhetorics of Sanders and Trump, although they both echo populist sentiments. Sanders’ groups can be distinguished as the working class and the wealthy elite, while Trump’s can be described as the real, hard-working Americans and the political elite. However, Trump extends beyond this, also creating another outside group of people that do not fit in with his idea of what an American is, which can range anywhere from Hispanic people, to Muslim people, to wealthy academics. Although populist sentiment can create concern in general, Trump’s use of populism to create racial and ethnic divides create a threat to democracy that Sanders’ ideals do not. The comparison of Trump and Sanders poses an interesting question, as it seems that the label of populist is not exclusive to far-right politicians and depends on rhetoric and strategy rather than political ideology.