“I alone can fix it”. Five simple words which have the power to jeopardize American democracy. With Trump’s use of such rhetoric at the Republican National Committee (RNC) in 2016 when referring to the political establishment, his bold statements painting the media as “the enemy of the people”, his fervent exclamations of “drain the swamp”, to his immigration battle cry of “build the wall”, it is no surprise that many have labeled Trump a populist. But have you ever wondered what makes his rhetoric populist? Furthermore, how does his implementation of populist ideologies contribute to the erosion of critical democratic features, such media freedom and free and fair elections? Let us find out.
Trump is a master at rallying support via the usage of rhetoric which plays directly into the grievances of his constituency, the white working class. He utilizes rhetoric which attacks the opposing party in power, claiming that they are engaged in corruption, out of touch, and are incapable of representing the wishes of his base, “the people”. Jan Muller, in his book What is Populism? argues that this type of rhetoric is anti-elitist, and, when combined with anti-pluralistic language aimed at “the people”, can be considered populist. But as you might guess, “the people” does not include every American. Trump’s populist agenda appeals only to a certain fragment of the population, predominantly white conservatives. His rhetoric resonates with those who feel betrayed by the democratic system, are suffering economically, and feel forgotten by conventional mainstream politicians. Trump’s idea of “the people” excludes those who hold opposing views, and those who do not represent his ideal portrait of an American, such as marginalized groups in society. It is important to note that not only does Trump portray himself as someone who has fallen victim to the elitist system, but also one who has a deep knowledge of it and will act as his people’s “voice” fighting against a system which is inherently working against them. This is where Trump’s anti-pluralistic language comes into play. Trump, by instilling in his supporters the belief that he alone can represent them, and that any opposition to their cause cannot be viewed as legitimate as it is corrupt and “crooked”, is suppressing political pluralism and diversity of thought which is critical to democracy.
This type of populist rhetoric which Trump utilizes is detrimental to the health of democracy. In her article, “Is Western Democracy Backsliding” Pippa Norris argues that populist figures, such as Trump, contribute to democratic decay, or backsliding, by undermining public trust in the democratic process. The public’s belief in democratic processes, such as free media and elections, is crucial for its survival. Trump, as part of his populist strategy has sought to instill distrust of these democratic institutions within his base. Trump has repeatedly attacked the media, particularly that which is not favorable to him, calling it “the enemy of the people”. Trump’s usage of his Twitter megaphone provides a platform where “the people” are fed information which has been manipulated to fit his distorted view of the political establishment. Likewise, Muller notes that Trump’s usage of Twitter delegitimizes any alternative sources of information. A poll by Pew Research captures the growing distrust in the media, showing that Republican confidence in it has seen a sharp decline from 70% in 2016 to just 35% in 2021. Free media gives the citizens access to a wide range of perspectives and candidates across the political spectrum. We can expect to see a decline in democracy when the integrity of the media is undermined. For instance, if the media loses its power to objectively convey the actions of the government to the citizens, either through outright suppression or lack of public trust, would not that allow a populist figure to commit undemocratic actions without accountability? Media freedom is crucial to keeping politicians in check and having a healthy dose of public scrutiny can fend off would-be democratic attackers.
Another front where Trump’s populist ideologies undermine democracy is acknowledging the legitimacy of elections. Trump has stated many a time to his base that the elections are “rigged” against him, and that the 2020 election was “stolen” from him. The most drastic result of Trump’s push to undermine the legitimacy of American elections in the eyes of his supporters was Jan. 6th, 2021. A day which should have represented the power of U.S. democracy in action, but instead due to Trump’s vigorous language undermining the credibility of the election led to the assault on the Capital to stop the peaceful transfer of power. This is perhaps the most concerning aspect of Trump’s populist agenda. According to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist National Poll, 75% of Republicans still believe that Trump lost in 2020 due to election fraud. Free and fair elections are the essence of U.S. democracy, and when a populist figure who is unafraid to question and even seek to change the outcome emerges, the threat to democracy is real. For if there no trust in the electoral system, the citizens lose their power to choose the fate of their country. This leaves democracy susceptible to those who seek to obtain as much power as possible by manipulation and filling the ideological void rooted in dissatisfaction with the current democratic system.
So where might these trends, which are exemplified in Trump’s presidency lead us? The growing dissatisfaction with the democratic system coupled with the sowing of distrust in elections and the media by Trump’s populist rhetoric could lead to us to place where democracy is no longer valued by the people. American democracy is only as strong as the people’s belief and investment in it. It is here where democracy’s greatest threat lies. The current highly charged political climate in which we live today inherently fosters distrust in the cornerstones of the democratic system. We should worry about Trump’s strong populistic resistance to dignified bipartisanship and cross-party collaboration. The only way we can address the challenges out of which the dissatisfaction with our current democracy arose is to have respectful and most importantly productive bipartisanship. Ultimately, it boils down to whether democracy in the United States can withstand the whirlwind of polarized politics with which it is currently afflicted, and whether it will emerge with an ever more thriving democracy for all its citizens.