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Recently SupportTheCenter.Org reviewed an excellent book which explains what has given rise to populism in Europe, the US and around the world. Populism according to John B. Judis (“The Populist Explosion”) is a logic and not a set of policies. It sees ordinary people as virtuous, and elites as self-serving and undemocratic.
In our era, Trump’s populism appeals to those who have been left behind by globalism, and those who do not like the changing and more diverse makeup of modern America. Trump’s core issues are immigration and what he considers “bad trade deals”, both supported by the ruling elites supporting diversity and free global trade. As these two issues are at the core of his world view and populist support, it is in these two areas that he has taken immediate action (Muslim ban, withdrawal from the Paris Agreement – a symbolic rejection of an international economic agreement, rejection of TPP, NAFTA negotiations, reversal of Dreamers executive order leaving them stranded until Congress acts, etc.).
This helps explain support for populism in the electorate, but what defines populist leaders? “What is Populism” by Jan-Werner Muller explores characteristics of the populist leader. The populist leader, Muller explains, is a leader who purports to speak for the “real people” in their opposition to powerful elites. (By this definition, Bernie Sanders is not a populist because he does not define a mythical group of Americans as “real Americans”; he merely opposes the policies of the current elite.) By purporting to represent the “popular will” of the “real people” (which is a mythical entity), the populist leader is by nature an authoritarian who defines all opposition as illegitimate.
When out of power, the populist criticizes the in-power elites in the name of people. Competitors are likewise portrayed as illegitimate. When in power, the populist seeks to take control, in the name of the “real” people. Accordingly, he will weaken institutions that attack his power. Benefiting all or even part of the people is not the paramount concern of the populist, but instead the populist is concerned with actions which promote the “real people” as a symbolic entity. The populist leader is able to justify his/her actions, whatever they are, and as anti-democratic as they might be, as representing the true will of the people, as he interprets them. Institutions are suppressed in the name of the true will of the people, such as weakening the checks posed by the judiciary, which is cast as a defender of the old elite guard.
Fast-forward to Donald Trump. It is not clear that restricting immigration, withdrawing from the TPP, Paris Deal or the Muslim Ban will benefit Trump’s base, but they do support the notion that diversity is out, and those who disagree oppose the will of true Americans. It is no accident that restricting immigration is Trump’s main hot button, and that he has referred to some countries non-while immigrants come from as “s–t-hole” countries. Immigrants from Mexico are disproportionately rapists and thieves, according to Trump. The judge who first rejected the Muslim ban, was not qualified as he was Mexican and therefore unqualified to be a judge. The opposition press is not representative of a true opposition, according to Trump, but is “fake” and so promotes “fake news”. The press is the “enemy of the people”. When opposition Democrats do not stand and clap at the right times during Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech, they are not just the opposition, they are traitors of the people, as Trump stated a few days after his speech.
These authoritarian words on Donald Trump’s fit the mold of the populist leader. Without the checks and balances of our deep democratic state, and a special council sniffing around the White House, we could see far worse erosion of our democratic institutions. Some damage is being done nevertheless. For example, the reputations of the FBI and intelligence agencies, and the independence of the Justice Department, have been eroded by Trump’s constant attacks, and the tendency of his base to go along with his rhetoric.
Those of us in the center need to be on guard to preserve our democracy during Trump’s reign.