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In the second segment of her blog post on American politics, Megan Maruschke argues that “populism”, used as an analytical category, provides a framework to understand the Trump presidency as well as “the social dynamics that enabled his rise and support”. To this end, she looks at different uses of the term in media, politics, and academia.

On 23 November 2020, I participated in a panel about comparative populism featuring research of the Research Institute Social Cohesion (RISC) at the Erasmus Mundus Global Studies alumni conference. Populism is an interesting starting point into the topic of understanding Donald Trump’s rise, his politics, and his supporters, but not one that is self-evident to Americans. In German and British press (the European press I most often read), he is frequently linked to European right-wing populism from Brexiteers to AfD and now to QAnon support in Germany. He is occasionally compared with or connected to leaders in Turkey, Hungary, and Poland. Sometimes the US media also uses the term populist – most often when situating him in relation to his European support base – but very rarely on its own terms. Hungary and Poland feature strongly in American media portrayals of Trump’s European ties especially due to the anti-democratic and anti-liberal stances of their politicians while other European politicians, like Matteo Salvini and Geert Wilders, tend to fall off the radar. That is, in the spectrum of European populism, only one form tends to get highlighted in connection to Trump’s politics “at home”.

Trump is instead often portrayed as an authoritarian-style leader who cosies up to dictators in China, Russia, North Korea, and this is the point that Americans tend to underscore in their terminology and comparisons. This is also the case for historians who make frequent media appearances. For example, the new book from Ruth Ben-Ghiat, Strongmen: From Mussolini to the Present, puts Trump into a historical context of how authoritarian leaders’ playbook has shifted over time, where corruption, violence, propaganda, and machismo take centre stage. Timothy Snyder, the author of On Tyranny and The Road to Unfreedom, also makes the media rounds. I have not seen Salvatore Babones on any book tours or more recently for post-6 January analysis for The New Authoritarianism: Trump, Populism, and the Tyranny of Experts in any media I consume, which hardly seems surprising due to his core argument: that populist movements may reinvigorate democracy, as much control has been given over to experts at the expense of the people. In a post-Covid and post-Trump America, I can see how such a thesis may be less appealing.

As with everything about Trump, the media spins almost entirely for him and analyses his actions as president. We are only ever able to focus on his personal penchant for authoritarian-style leadership, but we seem unable to zoom out and focus on the populist elements that form the basis for his overwhelming support among mainstream Republicans, conspiracy theorists, white nationalists, and white nationalist evangelicals. While the term authoritarian leader focuses almost exclusively on Trump, I think populism is a useful framework for analysing not only Trump but also the social dynamics that enabled his rise and support, both inside and outside of government. Populism can help to put the movements and organizations that support him into a comparative and connected framework along with other scholarship at the RISC. Returning to Babones’ argument, we might juxtapose and contextualize Trump’s and his supporters’ dangerous anti-democratic rhetoric (and attempts to overthrow the election) with the fact that the 2020 election was characterized by the largest number of voters ever in an American election with the largest percentage of the eligible electorate voting in 120 years.

In American media, I am not sure the public perceives populism the way we currently associate the label with right-wing populism in Europe. Populism is not historically associated with the political right in the US. The populist “people’s party” was founded in the 1890s to resist the corporate power of the Gilded Age by organizing and bringing together farmers and workers. Many of their ideas were taken up by the 1930s Depression-era New Deal politics, which helped realign the platforms of the Democratic and Republican political parties. Its history in the US does not mirror the right-wing populism that helped usher in fascism in Europe. Moreover, the white nationalism present at the 6 January capitol insurrection does not need to include “populism” to trace the history of racist ideology in American politics and religion.

When we open up the term populism, as well as some of the claims that initially got Donald Trump to the White House, we see that populism is not exclusive to the political right today, either. Neither mainstream Republicans nor Democrats have been supportive of working-class Americans in the last few decades. However, Bernie Sanders in 2016 brought what had been the momentum of the Occupy Wall Street movement into the mainstream politics of the Democratic party, and they seem to be returning to some working-class origins. Around the same time as the Occupy Wall Street movement started during the financial crisis, the Tea Party movement on the right also gained momentum, also as a reaction to the presidency of Barack Obama. The right-wing populist movement existed before Trump’s rise to power and he latched on to them just as much as the other way around. They focused their attention often on the deficit and obstruction of any new spending, which went out the window with Trump. Will they always be consumed by Trumpism? It is too soon to say, but by focusing on Trump, we miss the broader story of how we got to this moment.

Are there elements of cross-party support that could be found on the basis of left-wing and right-wing “populism”? Bernie Sanders as well as other “progressive” (considering the Christian Democratic Union’s aim to maintain access to universal health coverage in Germany, it is hard to make comparisons about what is “progressive”) leaders, like Elizabeth Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have used language quite similar to some of Trump’s rhetoric: that “the system is rigged”. I know personally several Trump voters from 2016 who said that they also liked what Sanders had to say, and polling at the time suggested that was the case. In the first year or so of Trump’s presidency, Democrats tried to get bipartisan support for new infrastructure projects and repairs, and it was indeed an issue that Trump ran on in 2016. Trump himself blocked several measures that he campaigned on as a populist, but the early period of his presidency for many Democratic voters was characterized by two-thirds dread and one-third curiosity about whether his populist politics could break through the gridlock.

Just a few weeks ago, I thought that this looked again, with him leaving office, like an opportunity to work across the aisle, not from the political centre, but from the margins for working-class Americans.[1] The violent attack at the Capitol on 6 January changed these dynamics as we are seeing for the first time in several years a small but more vocal and confident centre of the Republican party emerging while its right-wing element becomes even more mired in conspiracy theories and white nationalism.[2] That is, the dynamics in 2016 have shifted by 2020/2021 and indeed where populism may face its limits as a concept is to distinguish it from ideological radicalization. Still, populism helps to reframe the stalemate of America’s reckoning with the Trump presidency and ask about commonalities that led to the perceived need for anti-establishment political movements, whether or not these movements were democratic or anti-democratic at their core. In short, Trump is not the only problem.


[1] An example includes legislation supported by Ocasio-Cortez and Ted Cruz:

[2] This is hard to establish – reporting suggests that republican lawmakers face personalized and specific threats of violence if they do not follow or support Donald Trump. Not every vote appears to be ideological; some have given in for their own safety, which does significant harm to democracy.