During the 2016 presidential election campaign, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump were both described as populist candidates in the media. It is difficult to imagine two more different individuals with two more different outlooks. If they are both populists, then what does populism mean? Understanding populism—and populists—has become more critical because Trump is now the president of the United States and it is necessary that we understand what populists do when they come to power.
Jan-Werner Müller is a German academic who is currently Professor of Politics at Princeton University. His background provides him with intimate knowledge of the relevant developments in both Europe and the United States. He provides us with insight into populism and its practitioners in his book What is Populism? He bases his conclusions partly on academic studies and partly on the observation of recent populists who have strived for or gained power. The book came out in August, 2016; consequently, Müller is well aware of the campaigns of the candidates for the presidency.
Müller recognizes that populism can from the left as well as from the right, but decides that Bernie Sanders does not qualify as a populist. The hallmark of populist candidates is that they are against “elites” who are thought to be misusing their influence. A true populist candidate will also practice a form of “exclusionary identity politics.”
“In addition to being antielitist, populists are always antipluralist. Populists claim that they, and they alone, represent the people….The claim to exclusive representation is not an empirical one; it is always distinctly moral. When running for office, populists portray their political competitors as part of the immoral, corrupt elite; when ruling, they refuse to recognize any opposition as legitimate. The populist logic also implies that whoever does not support populist parties might not be a proper part of the people—always defined as righteous and morally pure. Put simply, populists do not claim ‘We are the 99 percent.’ What they imply instead is ‘We are the 100 percent’.”
Populists from the right will generally be against “the elites,” but they also tend to be against minorities, immigrants and others at the bottom of the economic ladder—people deemed to be non-contributors. As such, they are not necessarily to be provided the same benefits as “real people.”
“Populists pit the pure, innocent, always hardworking people against a corrupt elite who do not really work (other than to further their self-interest) and, in right-wing populism, also against the very bottom of society (those who also do not really work and live like parasites off the work of others).
“….populism is always a form of identity politics (though not all versions of identity politics are populist). What follows from this understanding of populism as an exclusionary form of identity politics is that populism tends to pose a danger to democracy. For democracy requires pluralism and the recognition that we need to find fair terms of living together as free, equal, but also as irreducibly diverse citizens. The idea of the single, homogeneous, authentic people is a fantasy….”
Does Trump, who spent much of his campaign making derogatory remarks about various minorities, meet this antipluralist criterion? Müller provides this comment.
“At a campaign rally in May, Trump announced that ‘The only important thing is the unification of the people—because the other people don’t mean anything’.”
What Trump seems to mean here is that his potential supporters are “the people” and everyone else is irrelevant.
Populist leaders also manage to form a more direct connection to followers, reaching them as individuals. Müller refers to this interaction as being symbolic rather than specific with respect to policies.
“Apart from determining who really belongs to the people, populists therefore need to say something about the content of what the authentic people actually want. What they usually suggest is that there is a singular common good, that the people can discern it and will it, and that a politician or a party….can unambiguously implement it as policy.”
Think “Make America Great Again.”
“Populists always want to cut out the middleman, so to speak, and to rely as little as possible on complex party organizations as intermediaries between citizens and politicians. The same is true of wanting to be done with journalists: the media is routinely accused by populists of ‘mediating,’ which, as the very word indicates, is what they are actually supposed to do, but which is seen by populists as somehow distorting political reality.”
Trump has used Twitter to great advantage in talking directly to the people he wishes to reach.
“….’real Americans’ can be done with the media and have direct access (or, rather, the illusion of direct contact with) a man who is not just a celebrity; the self-declared ‘Hemingway of 140 characters’ uniquely tells it like it is.”
An insidious characteristic of populism is that it creates a ready and will-reinforcing explanation for failure that is capable of launching any number of conspiracy theories.
“….the problem is never the populist’s imperfect capacity to represent the people’s will; rather it’s always the institutions that somehow produce the wrong outcomes. So even if they look properly democratic, there must be something going on behind the scenes that allows corrupt elites to continue to betray the people. Conspiracy theories are thus not a curious addition to populist rhetoric; they are rooted in and emerge from the very logic of populism itself.”
Trump campaigned as if there was a handbook for populist politicians and he followed it item by item. It is not too early in his administration to see that he continues to follow this populist script.
“Populist governance exhibits three features: attempts to hijack the state apparatus, corruption and ‘mass clientelism’ (trading material benefits or bureaucratic favors for political support by citizens who become the populists’ ‘clients’), and efforts systematically to suppress civil society. Of course, many authoritarians will do similar things. The difference is that populists justify their conduct by claiming that they alone represent the will of the people; this allows populists to avow their practices quite openly. It also explains why revelations of corruption rarely seem to hurt populist leaders (think of Erdogan in Turkey or the far-right populist Jorg Haider in Austria). In the eyes of their followers, ‘they’re doing it for us, ‘the one authentic people’.”
Think of Trump in the United States.
Trump is beginning his term in office heading in the same direction as other populist leaders. An article in Bloomberg Businessweek by Marc Champion with Marek Strzelecki provides a look at Poland’s experience in the context of what we might expect from a Trump presidency. In the print edition it was titled In Poland, the Stench of Swamp Clearing. Online, the title was changed to What Happens If You #DrainTheSwamp? Poland May Have the Answer.
“Swept to power on a similar wave of anger against urban and political elites as President-elect Donald Trump in the U.S., Poland’s Law & Justice party has been purging the state of what, in their view, is the self-serving elite that misruled Poland for most of the last 27 years.”
“In the process, the government in Warsaw has run roughshod over the constitution and weakened its democracy, according to critics such as the European Union. After a year marked by shocks at the ballot box, Poland offers a cautionary tale for other countries with populist revolts.”
And here is the justification for their actions based on representing the “authentic people.”
“Law & Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski and his loyalists fiercely deny accusations they are dismantling Poland’s democracy. They say that they are building a strong state and returning the country to its true historical path and Catholic values on behalf of ordinary Poles the old liberal elites ignored.”
And then we come to hijacking the state apparatus and suppressing civil society.
“Within months of winning power in October 2015, the government replaced more than 300 executives at state-run companies, records gathered by the Nowoczesna opposition party show. About 1,600 officials at state institutions were also uprooted, while the new candidates for the civil service no longer have to face the usual competitive hiring process.”
“About 130 journalists were fired from or left Poland’s public broadcasters, which were placed under direct government control. So was the prosecutor’s office.”
“In January, Standard & Poor’s downgraded Poland’s credit rating, citing concern that ‘Poland’s system of institutional checks and balances has been eroded significantly,’’ specifically the constitutional court, media and civil service.”
An article on the Voice of America website, Corruption Report: Turning to Populist Leaders May Make Things Worse, points out the tendency towards corruption inherent in governments led by populists.
“In countries with populist or autocratic leaders, we often see democracies in decline and a disturbing pattern of attempts to crack down on civil society, limit press freedom, and weaken the independence of the judiciary,” said Jose Ugaz, chair of Transparency International, as the group released its report Wednesday. ‘Instead of tackling crony capitalism, those leaders usually install even worse forms of corrupt systems’.”
This gives the reader some idea of where Trump seems to want to lead us.