On May 24, an 18 year old entered a classroom at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas and murdered 19 children and 2 teachers. This event, coupled with a different mass shooting at a grocery store the week prior that killed 10, quickly gave resurgence to the debate on gun control in the United States. Since the Uvalde shooting, Republicans have gone on the offensive on the subject of gun control legislation. This stringent opposition was most on display at the National Rifle Association’s annual convention last weekend. Occurring just 300 miles away from Uvalde, major Republicans like Texas Senator Ted Cruz, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, and Former President Donald Trump spoke at the convention—and made clear their direct opposition to any form of gun control. While the position these Republican figures held on gun control came as no surprise, the rhetoric used should alarm us all about the state of American democracy.
According to political scientist Cas Mudde, populism is an ideology that considers society to be separated into two groups, the ‘pure’ people and the ‘corrupt’ elite, and argues that politics should be expressed by the general will of the ‘pure’ people. Since Trump’s 2016 election, we have seen a sharp uptick in the use of populist rhetoric throughout the mainstream Republican party. The language used by various party leaders at the NRA convention this past week reflect this fact.
South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem made remarks that referenced the French Revolution and used it as a means of explaining why the Founding Fathers added the Second Amendment to the Constitution. Then, she turned to gun violence in the United States.
“when a deranged mentally unstable murderer who fits the left’s political narrative kills innocent children and people, the media seized the opportunity to paint millions of law-abiding gun owners, and you and me as barbarians—monsters,” she said.
This language is an example of the populist rhetoric that was used multiple times throughout Noem’s speech. Here, she is clearly using populist ideology by dividing the “left” and the “media” from the “law abiding gun owners”—those on the right. The left and the media are to be considered the ‘elites’ in this scenario, and Noem is painting them as looking down upon those on the right, or the ‘pure’ people, that see themselves as not having done anything but practice what they believe.
Ted Cruz also made remarks at the convention that mirror the purpose behind Noem’s. Except this time, Cruz used the specific language identified in the earlier definition of populist ideology. Cruz argued that the “elites that dominate our culture” want to take guns away from law-abiding citizens in order to push their agenda. This language is, again, meant to draw a clear line between those who are ‘elites’ and the people. Here, Cruz is defining those on the right that own guns as the ‘pure’ people and those on the left that want gun control as the ‘elites’.
This rhetoric is clearly using populist ideology as its blueprint. This division between two groups of people is meant to invoke fear in those that believe they are going to be persecuted by the ‘elite’ that are in power and do not understand them, or in this case, want to control them. In fact, it should be noted that the main theme behind these remarks is that the elites in government and on the left want gun control so they can take away the rights of those on the right without guns as opposition.
The question still remains: why does this populist rhetoric work so well and, in turn, what makes it so dangerous? This can be explained by the most basic aspects of human psychology. Throughout history, Americans have always valued safety and security as being a top priority in their day-to-day lives. If we narrow it down to specifically Republican voters, most of the NRA’s audience, there is a very specific trend. In 2020, a Gallup poll found that 93% of Republican voters had national security as an extremely important issue to consider when they were voting in the 2020 election. Both of these speeches at the NRA targeted the values of safety and security, and made the argument that ‘elites’ were trying to take that away from the people.
This rhetoric can be very successful because these values are important to the individual. The psychological theory commonly known as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs supports the level of importance these values have to the individual. Maslow’s theory states that the basic needs of the individual are more important, because without them they cannot reach other psychological and self-fulfillment needs. Maslow’s Hierarchy identifies safety and security as one of the basic needs. Targeting these basic needs is sure to get a reaction out of most because they are values that, if threatened, can cause the most reactionary result.
With Americans being more divided than they have been in at least three decades, the use of this populist rhetoric on a mainstream platform should be concerning to all of us. The country has already seen its first-ever insurrection that was motivated in part by Republicans pushing false conspiracies that democratic elites were attempting to overthrow a sitting, legally elected president. Yet, despite the insurrection, little has changed when it comes to the populist rhetoric being used. If anything, its success on the political playing field has made it more popular. Recent primary wins by Trump backed candidates show those in politics that using populist rhetoric works—and they are using it successfully.
A democracy cannot function with the division we are currently facing, and it cannot function with voters believing that one side is out to get the other and take away their rights. If the use of this rhetoric does not end, we could see even more democratic backsliding within the United States.