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Uri Friedman |
Why does Donald Trump exaggerate the size of his inauguration crowd, brag about his election win in conversations with world leaders, and claim without evidence that voter fraud may have cost him the popular vote? Why does he dismiss protesters who oppose him as “paid professionals” and polls that reflect poorly on him as “fake news”? Why does he call much of the media the “enemy of the people”?
There are explanations for these things that focus on the individual, characterizing Trump as a self-centered reality-TV star obsessed with approval and allergic to criticism.
What is a populist?
No definition of populism will fully describe all populists. That’s because populism is a “thin ideology” in that it “only speaks to a very small part of a political agenda,” according to Cas Mudde, a professor at the University of Georgia and the co-author of Populism: A Very Short Introduction. An ideology like fascism involves a holistic view of how politics, the economy, and society as a whole should be ordered. Populism doesn’t; it calls for kicking out the political establishment, but it doesn’t specify what should replace it. So it’s usually paired with “thicker” left- or right-wing ideologies like socialism or nationalism.
Is Donald Trump a populist?
Something fundamental in Trump’s approach to politics changed around the time that Steve Bannon, now the president’s chief strategist in the White House, joined the businessman’s campaign, according to Mudde. Trump had been condemning America’s allegedly incompetent political leaders for decades. But when Trump launched his presidential bid, he was not, in Mudde’s mind, a populist. Over time, however, he’s come to style himself as one, in ways that help illuminate why Trump does what he does and says what he says.
Trump’s initial political vocabulary included the corrupt elite but not the pure people. Instead, in rambling speeches, he focused on just one person: himself. “Our country needs a truly great leader … that wrote The Art of the Deal,” Trump declared in announcing his candidacy. Gradually, however, his speeches grew more coherent and populist. His remarks at the Republican National Convention—which were written by aide Stephen Miller, who developed a taste for “nation-state populism” while working for Senator Jeff Sessions—marked a transitional moment. “I alone can fix” the broken system in Washington, Trump said, promising to serve as the “voice” of the “forgotten men and women of our country.” By Inauguration Day, the transformation was complete: Trump’s rhetoric was thoroughly populist. “January 20th 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again,” he proclaimed. That speech was written by Miller and Bannon, who envisions Trump leading a new “economic nationalist movement” modeled on the “populism” of the 19th-century U.S. President Andrew Jackson.
And here’s where the ideological explanation for Trump’s seeming vanity comes in. If Trump is the only authentic emissary of the people, then how does he reconcile that role with unspectacular crowd sizes, weak poll numbers, the loss of the popular vote, mass protests by people claiming he doesn’t represent them, and critical media coverage of the policies the people allegedly want?
Mudde remains skeptical that Trump is, in his heart of hearts, a populist. The chances he becomes more “elitist” in office are greater than for someone like the presidential candidate Marine Le Pen in France, who has been consistently populist for years, Mudde said. But “Donald Trump the politician today is a populist radical-right politician.”
While Trump has been inconsistently populist, Mudde noted, he has consistently opposed elites, demonstrated a nativist attitude toward immigrants, and exhibited “authoritarian streaks.” These could be described as his thicker ideologies.
So what if Trump is a populist?
There’s been little comparative study of whether populists deliver better or worse results for their people than other types of politicians, according to Norris. Not much can be said definitively, for example, about the effect of populist governance on a country’s GDP growth, though a number of prominent populists, particularly in Latin America, have pursued disastrous economic policies.
But what does often happen is that populists, when they come to power and “actually have to deal with things on a daily basis, they often become more moderate as they gradually learn that bomb-throwing doesn’t work when they’re trying to get things done,” Norris said. “And then they often lose their popularity over time as a result because they no longer have that appeal” of political outsiders.
Just because many of Trump’s policies—tax cuts that benefit the wealthy, for instance—may not actually help non-elites doesn’t mean he can’t be described as a populist, Norris added, noting that populists are “all over the place” on economic policy. Nor is Trump necessarily a fake populist just because he’s a billionaire who’s appointed a bunch of millionaires and billionaires to his cabinet. Populism as many scholars understand it is, in Judis’s words, more a “political logic” than a policy program or sincerely held belief system.
In Western Europe, the center Right … and the center Left have taken turns at the helm of Europe for the past 50 to 60 years. But increasingly, they have offered the same programs and thus a diminishing arena of political choice. The leaders of Europe always seem to emerge from the same elite, the same general frame of mind, the same schools, and the same institutions that rear generation after generation of politicians to this day. They take turns implementing the same policies. Now that their assurance has been called into question by [Europe’s] economic meltdown, however, an economic crisis has quickly turned into the crisis of the elite.
But in being anti-establishment, populists typically aren’t just “anti-the other party or anti-particular interests or particular policies, which is normal politics,” Norris said. “It’s really being anti-all the powers that be in a particular society,” from political parties and the media to business interests and experts such as academics and scientists.
And that’s why populists can endanger democracy. “You can’t compromise in a moral struggle,” Mudde explained. “If the pure compromises with the corrupt, the pure is corrupted. … You’re not dealing with an opponent. An opponent has legitimacy. Often in the populist mind and rhetoric, it is an enemy. And you don’t make deals with enemies and you don’t bend to illegitimate pressure.”
As a result, “Populists in power tend to undermine countervailing powers, which are courts, which are media, which are other parties,” Mudde said. “And they tend to do that through a variety of mostly legal means, but not classic repression.” In Hungary, for instance, Orban hasn’t banned opposition newspapers; rather, his government has directed advertising by state-run organizations away from critical media outlets and toward friendly ones. Orban’s government also lowered the retirement age for judges in an effort to fill those positions with loyalists.
Populists are certainly not alone in seeking to consolidate political power. But unlike other power-hungry politicians, they can do so openly, Müller notes: “[W]hy, populists can ask indignantly, should the people not take possession of their state through their only rightful representatives? Why should those who obstruct the genuine popular will in the name of civil service neutrality not be purged?”
While marginalizing opponents, populists also tend to openly dole out favors to their supporters. “In a sense,” Müller writes, “they try to make the unified people in whose name they had been speaking all along a reality on the ground. … [P]opulism becomes something like a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
“All of these measures are small measures,” Mudde said. “And they have a cumulative effect over years. It is some oppositional newspapers that disappear; others start to self-censor. It is various forms of disenfranchisement, all the time a little bit extra, which drops off parts of the electorate. It is the appointment of more and more judges at all kinds of levels who don’t challenge the administration. … This is chipping away at protections.”
Noting the low levels of public trust in the press and political institutions, and Trump’s sustained campaign to further undermine that trust, Norris foresaw not “an overnight revolution,” but a “drip, drip, drip” deterioration in America’s already troubled democracy. “Faith and confidence in your institutions,” she said, is the “cultural basis for democracy.”
The irony, Müller writes, is that populists, after coming to power, tend to commit the same sins they ascribe to elites: “excluding citizens and usurping the state. What the establishment supposedly has always done, populists will also end up doing. Only with a clear justification and, perhaps, even a clear conscience.”