Narrative is reality and the recent arraignment of President Trump shows just how powerful populists’ use of it can be.
In the Associated Press article, “Love him? Hate him? For Donald Trump, attention is attention” by Ted Anthony, the author notes that support for President Donald Trump has not dramatically dropped in wake of his recent New York court arraignment. If anything, he notes, public perception of President Trump has actually improved. Discussing his appearance outside his home following the trial, Anthony notes, “His intent was obvious — to show that in the arena of the American attention economy, where the fighting forever rages, Donald J. Trump remains a potent force. Commanding attention has been his world, and politics is a realm of attention.”
Narrative and public perception have always been key metrics for leaders to watch. Since even before the introduction of Athenian democracy in Ancient Greece, the thoughts and feelings of the common people have played a key role in the governing of societies. From the outdoor arenas of Greece where people expressed their concerns and voted on matters of governance to the Roman forums where news bulletins would be put up and information shared between citizens, word of mouth and the thoughts of the many had the ability to travel fast and be amplified by others. Through the ages, the magnitude of impact that individuals had on policy outcomes has waxed and waned. Some governments successfully silenced dissent and dissatisfaction whereas others were toppled by these same sentiments. One thing, however, has remained the same: no matter the cost, people are willing to show their support for ideas that align with their own and rally behind individuals who express their values.
With the innovations that led to modern mainstream media, this capacity of people to fully express their ideas has changed. Within the talk shows and panels of these traditional media outlets, many of the opinions expressed are of industry insiders and the other “elites” who have a vested interest in the policies or people in the crosshairs of discourse. To abide by FCC and organizational directives, they often tone down personal rhetoric and quickly work to correct guests who do not follow these same courteous principles. The problem emerges, that the average person—while they may have parts of their views echoed by news anchors or commentators—is not often presented with people who they believe accurately capture the nuance, feelings, and fears behind their beliefs. Instead of their own raw emotion, they hear professionals preaching practiced, polished positions. Historically, when this occurs, people look for a leader willing to truly capture their voice and promising to be different from what is seen as disengaged, disingenuous elites. Without intending on it, the masses look for and welcome in a populist leader.
As delineated by Yascha Mounk in “Pitchfork Politics: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy” populism can be characterized as “some attempt by ambitious politicians to mobilize the masses in opposition to an establishment they depict as corrupt or self-serving. In How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, the authors affirm the importance of institutional and social guardrails on democracies. These institutions work to fill in gaps within the constitution and ensure that democratic erosion can not occur at any pace. However, these institutions are only functional when the masses support them in their efforts. Potential populists are aware of this fact and as a result, endeavor to get the masses behind them. They villainize opposition and undermine institutions while promising to be the voice of the people. If successful, they manage to generate a strong following and convince their supporters to ignore institutions and individuals—such as the media and establishment politicians—who recognize potential warning signs in these emergent figures.
The AP article by Ted Anthony displays just how real and relevant the looming threat to institutions brought about by populists are. Reflecting on the events and coverage of the court trial, Anthony reflects, “the uneasy collision of exhibition with seriousness, of the mannered machinations of government with the anything-goes rhetoric of reality-TV-inflected, 21st-century populism.” As far as public perception and narrative are concerned, the results of the trial are practically irrelevant. Explained by Shanto Iyengar and Sean Westwood in their article “Fear and Loathing across Party Lines: New Evidence on Group Polarization” people have witnessed these extremes and been galvanized by them. President Trump’s detractors have already been against him and will remain that way. President Trump’s supporters will continue to stand with a populist, “anti-establishment” figure against institutions who they believe are corrupt and coordinated against them. The real takeaway from the trial will not be the legal findings or results, but will be the fact that populists are still able to draw crowds of supporters who have no issue with cheering and fighting for them no matter the roadblocks or institutions in their way.
Only time will tell what happens with President Donald Trump. What is clear, however, is that the role of the traditional media in safeguarding democracies has been reduced as social media and popular protest has continued to grow in prominence and relevance. Democracies can and will be eroded when their guardrails are torn down and the people stand behind those who authorize it. When people do not care about the verdict of a former President’s trial and are polarized enough to stand by their beliefs regardless of the results, democratic erosion will occur.
- Anthony, Ted. “Love Him? Hate Him? For Donald Trump, Attention Is Attention.” AP NEWS. Associated Press, April 5, 2023. https://apnews.com/article/trump-attention-indictment-arraignment-president-1e87be51004b12dc7b85728fd7946b56.
- Iyengar, Shanto, and Sean Westwood. “Fear and Loathing across Party Lines: New Evidence on Group Polarization.” American Journal of Political Science 59, no. 3 (2014): 690–707. https://doi.org/10.1111/ajps.12152.
- Levitsky, Steven, and Daniel Ziblatt. How Democracies Die. New York: Crown, 2018.
- Mounk, Yascha. “Pitchfork Politics.” Foreign Affairs, January 30, 2023. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2014-08-18/pitchfork-politics.