President Donald Trump will one day leave office, whether in January of 2021 or four years later.
But the people who voted for him — nearly 63 million Americans in 2016 — are going nowhere, and analysts say these voters and the populist underpinnings of the Trump presidency may remain a political force for years to come.
Populism, loosely defined, is a construct of politics in which ordinary citizens battle an entrenched, and often seen as corrupt, leadership of elites. The term originated late in the 19th century when struggling farmers in the South and Midwest formed the People’s Party as an alternative to Republicans and Democrats.
The fledgling party, which came to be known as the Populist Party, did not survive. But the narrative of the common man and woman versus the elite remains powerful today, and Trump invoked populist imagery in his 2017 inauguration speech when he said, “Today we are not merely transferring power from one administration to another, or from one party to another — but we are transferring power from Washington, D.C., and giving it back to you, the American people.”
“We the people,” however, do not all agree that populism is a good thing. From its earliest days, populism has been derided in editorial cartoons as a sort of governance by rube. Imagery associated with populism is rich with pitchforks and mobs, or, as Thomas Frank, author of “The People, No,” a history of anti-populism, put it, “the people as a great, rampaging beast.”
More recently, one political scientist has likened populism to a chronic disease that society must guard against, even though even some critics concede that populism can attract disenfranchised people into the democratic process, renew enthusiasm for civic life and even result in beneficial policies.
So how did populism come to be demonized, and is it something to be guarded against, or encouraged?
Was talking to a colleague. What if Trump wins? I think the Right will be locked into nationalism-populism for a very long time -- and that the Left will become more radical, thinking, "Moderation [as they see it] gets you nowhere." And if Trump loses? Don't really know ...— Jay Nordlinger (@jaynordlinger) October 23, 2020
Movements, not leaders
In his history of anti-populist sentiment, Frank said that the earliest expressions of populism were much different than descriptions today. He defines them as “multiracial, working-class movements for economic democracy” which derived power from the group and its ideas, not its leadership.
“Leaders are important, but movements are more important,” Frank said.
Similarly, while Trump came into the political arena as a celebrity, Ellen Fitzpatrick, a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire, said there were preexisting conditions in society that contributed to his popularity with his base.
“All of the various factors that led to his election and unfolded over the last three years need to be well-understood because they are more deeply rooted than a single individual. It would be a mistake to conflate Trump himself with the factors that made his political success possible,” Fitzpatrick said.
Should the president lose the 2020 election, the celebration of Trump’s opponents should be short-lived, she said, because the same factors that led to Trump’s election in 2016 still exist.
“The forces arrayed behind him and with him are not going anywhere. They will remain a factor in American political life,” Fitzpatrick said.
Populist leaders tend to stick around after their terms end, too, according to research by Yascha Mounk, a political scientist and associate professor at Johns Hopkins University. Writing recently for The Atlantic, Mounk said that populist leaders around the world, on average, stay in office twice as long as nonpopulist leaders: 61⁄2 years compared to three.
“The international context, moreover, also shows that those few populists who don’t get reelected for a second term tend to retain a significant and damaging presence in their country’s politics,” Mounk wrote.
“Silvio Berlusconi, for example, first became Italy’s prime minister in 1994. He lost his governing majority within months, then quickly recovered, dominating Italian politics for the next two decades. Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński became prime minister in 2006. He lost power in 2007 and remained in opposition for the following decade. But his party regained power in 2015, and has been subverting the country’s democratic institutions ever since.”
Is Trump a populist?
Kirk Hawkins is the director of Team Populism, based at Brigham Young University. It’s an international consortium of scholars who study populism, its leaders and its language around the world. The group has identified three markers of populist speech: a worldview that depicts a battle between good and evil, a romanticized vision of ordinary people, and depiction of a corrupt establishment that works against the needs of ordinary people.
When Hawkins and his colleagues analyzed Trump’s speeches leading up to the election in 2016, they found a difference between his prepared speeches and his impromptu remarks: The prepared speeches were classically populist, his casual remarks dramatically less so. This led Hawkins to conclude that Trump’s aides, especially Steve Bannon, were more populist than the candidate himself. He calls the president a “half populist.”
While Trump is anti-establishment, “populists talk about the will of people. Trump doesn’t do that,” Hawkins said. What makes Trump distinctive, he said, was that he was the first president in a long time who used populist language. Hawkins doesn’t see any presidents of the 20th or early 21st century as being true populists, although some candidates, including Ross Perot and George Wallace, were.
Frank, however, sees Franklin D. Roosevelt as a “populist flavor” who enacted genuinely populist policies with the New Deal; also possibly Harry Truman, the last president who didn’t go to college. But he reiterated, “It’s more about the movement than the leaders, because there’s always something wrong with the leaders.”
And, since the 1950s, there’s also something wrong with populism, at least in the public imagination, he said. “What you find is that people use the term, especially in Europe, for racist demagoguery.”
He cites the publication of the late historian Richard Hofstadter’s 1955 book “The Age of Reform” as a turning point, with its depictions of populists as dreamers clinging to a vanished past. “They were unwilling to acknowledge that the world was changing — that local markets were being swallowed up by global commerce, and that the early republic of small, yeoman farmers was a thing of the past,” he wrote.
“Millions of Americans gambled that they could take out loans, purchase or settle on cheap land, buy equipment and thrive as independent farmers, just as the global economy was rendering that way of life obsolete.”
The negative depiction of the early agrarian populists has since been widely criticized, Frank said, but the stereotypes have endured and he’s not hopeful that the populist label will ever been seen in a positive light again.
“This is not a winnable fight. But what is winnable is to build a real populist movement. That could happen,” he said, adding that Black Lives Matter has the potential to be a true populist movement if it switches or widens its focus to include economic issues. And he said that two-time presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., had some success in building a populist movement.
On the Republican side, the tea party appeared to have influence for a while, but never achieved the numbers of Black Lives Matter, Frank said. He believes Trump and some other Republicans, including Newt Gingrich and Ronald Reagan, “rhetorically embraced” populism while not promoting policies that benefit the working class. And he expects that to continue in the wake of the Trump presidency, whenever it ends.
Supporters of Sanders also stand to influence the Democratic Party going forward, as well, he said.
Now, more than ever?
As for the future of populism, Frank hopes to see a resurgence. “We need populism today more than ever. Look at what the populists in the 1890s complained about — the concentration of wealth, degradation of working people, monopolies everywhere you looked, and political corruption that went hand in hand with the concentration of wealth. All of those things are clearly happening again.”
Hawkins, at BYU, does not espouse a similarly rosy view, as much of the research of Team Populism is how to mitigate its effects.
But, he says, “Populism has some good consequences, especially when it’s still in opposition (to other leadership). It brings new issues to the public agenda that weren’t there, and it helps get some groups who have been sidelined heard again, and those are good things in a democracy. It improves participation, especially when populists get in power, because they raise the stakes of elections so high that everybody starts to turn out.”
It hasn’t been a problem in the U.S. because of the checks and balances built into state and federal governance, but some populist leaders in other countries have undermined core democratic institutions, said Hawkins, whose research has centered on the late Hugo Chávez, the populist leader of Venezuela from 1999 until 2013.
Like Chávez, who was elected democratically but changed laws to ensure his continued power, “They tend to restrict the civil liberties of their opposition because they see their opponents as an evil elite who’s out to destroy the will of the people,” Hawkins said.
Also, “They don’t think competition is important, so they’re willing to bend a lot of rules so they can let what they view as the will of the people to be expressed. In my view, the bad, especially in the long run, outweighs the good.”
As for the future, Hawkins said the proliferation of populism requires a void, or at least the perception of a void, in public policy caused by people with malign intentions. “If you really don’t have serious policy problems, (populist leaders) just sound kind of radical and crazy.”
And it’s important to realize that Trump is loved by his base, not just because of his rhetoric, but because of his positions on issues, many of which remain unresolved.
“Unlike in past populist moments, we haven’t really resolved the issues that populists are competing over,” Hawkins said. “The potential is there for conflict and continued polarization. I don’t see those things going away.”