Liberals have descended into a simplistic sensationalism. To many Stanford students, Trump’s rise meant no less than the apocalypse and even created a whole new vocabulary of post-truth, PC culture and fake-news. But, to make matters worse, this was far from an American apocalypse. In fact, Trump’s election caused a wave of Western democracies to fall to the disastrous forces of populism like dominos. This ‘apocalypse’ stretched across the European continent with far right-wing parties and movements espousing nationalistic, anti-immigration rhetoric making great progress in France, Britain, Finland, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Switzerland and even Austria just a couple of weeks ago. Slightly more sophisticated and level-headed accounts do not hold Trump himself responsible for the trend, but implicate greater forces of discontent associated with globalization. From this perspective, Trump was one of the first figures to vocalize the piling grievances of ‘globalization’s losers.’
However, contrary to the prevailing attitude that the 2016 election was a uniquely malevolent populism, Trump is actually a commonplace and predictable populist. His rhetoric is entirely consistent with the classic formula of populist rhetoric: anti-elitism (anti-establishment), mistrust of the current electoral system, and a charismatic savior figure who promises to overturn elite control and honor the will of the “people.” According to Trump, the elites have withheld political power from the people – the rightful owners of political power – by rigging the political system. The mainstream media, he claims, also reinforces the unlawful elite control of the government. And, characteristic of populist leaders, Trump invokes apocalyptic language to amplify the perceived injustice and to insinuate that only he is the true defender and representative of the people’s will.
Not only is Trump a commonplace populist, but he in fact can’t even be considered a pioneer of populism within America itself. The beginning of the populist tradition in the U.S. can be traced back to the Jacksonian revolution. A frontiersman from Tennessee, Andrew Jackson won both the popular and electoral college in the presidential race of 1824, but was denied presidency due to the House of Representatives’ preference for candidates from more traditionally elite backgrounds. This election only confirmed populist suspicions that the elites were manipulating the electoral system in their favor. In 1828, Jackson ran again against John Quincy Adams, a Boston elite and a Harvard alum. The contrast between Adams’ elitist and Jackson’s more modest background easily earned Jackson the support of newly enfranchised voters who saw him as the man who can upset aristocrat control.
Also notable in the history of populism in the U.S. is the People’s Party. An agrarian-populist party that existed from 1891 until the early 20th century, the People’s Party believed that industrialization was a threat to the peasantry’s values and economic interest. Accordingly, its enemies were beneficiaries and patrons of industrialization, and the rural peasantry who stayed true to traditional agrarian practices were deemed the authentic people whose voices must be heard. Populism therefore has an extended American past.
However, we must also guard against American exceptionalism; populism and its three dominant characteristics are far from exclusive to the U.S. For instance, a wave of left-wing populism emerged in Latin America in the mid-20th century centred around Juan Domingo Perón of Argentina. Juan Perón mobilized “the people” – working class and trade unions – against “the elite” – corrupt politicians, foreign-oriented economic elites, and privately owned media.
Nevertheless, even if Trump fits these three predominant characteristics of populism, he is far from simply being yet another speck of dust in the grand scheme of populism. Therefore, while we must guard against the typical characterization that Trump is a populist anomaly, we must also recognize that Trump’s populism is to some extent unique. This, in fact, hits at the heart of one of the defining elements of populism: its extreme malleability.
Populism can manifest itself in various forms depending on the societal and ideological conditions it responds to or assimilates into. Therefore, while some populist movements centre on agrarian issues, others are predominantly socioeconomic. It is then unsurprising that populism can take both left and right wing forms.
This inherent flexibility allows populist movements to produce varying notions of the elite and people based on context. Jacksonian populism, for instance, was a response to the expansion of voting rights and long-standing governmental elitism. Accordingly, Jacksonian populism saw its enemies as New England aristocrats and the people as ordinary American men. The People’s Party saw the elite-people divide very differently given its anti-industrialization ethos.
Looking to the modern day, Trump’s populism can be seen as a complex reaction to immigration, globalization and multiculturalism. This has placed a certain nativism at the heart of Trump’s appeal and has defined the people as ‘native Americans.’ Trump’s populism tells the story of elites favoring alien interests (those of immigrants and foreign deals) over the needs of the people, thereby violating the general will. This is a very different elite-people divide to that of Jackson or the People’s Party.
This xenophobia at the heart of Trump’s populism has led many liberals to believe that Trump’s populism is particularly pernicious or abnormal. They suggest that even if Trump follows the typical populist script in some ways, his populist movement represents the onset of a new strain of populism marked by xenophobia. Even this more complex liberal perspective, however, is incorrect.
Firstly, however, Trump did not invent xenophobic populism. Xenophobic populist campaigns in Europe have been around for more than 30 years. Starting in the 1980s, right-wing populist parties like the French National Front, Italian Northern League and Austrian Freedom party have steadily gained public support riding off of people’s frustration with mass immigration. Therefore, far from being one of the forerunners of xenophobic populism, Trump’s America is in fact one of the latecomers.
Secondly, even this supposed bizarreness and individuality is in line with the populism’s universal flexibility. Part of the flexibility populism enjoys is that the distinction it draws between the elite and the people need not be situational, but moral. As long as people share the same values and the same narrative of America’s crisis, they can be exempt from being grouped with the elite villains in spite of their undoubtedly elite background. This accounts for a number of the Trump populism’s unusual traits; the studies that show that Trump supporters cannot be reduced to a single socioeconomics demographics, the astounding fact that the movement has chosen a billionaire to lead the fight against the elite, and the exceptions Trump makes for certain mainstream media outlet provided that they share his values.
Those at Stanford and in the United States at large are therefore being very rash in characterizing Trump’s populism as an anomaly that has sparked an unorthodox wave of nativist populism around the world. An American-centric perspective of populism that ignores the long international history of this dangerous doctrine and its traditional characteristics is responsible for this erroneous perspective. Thus, although we are right to be deeply disturbed by the Trump phenomenon, he is in fact little more than a commonplace populist.
Sun Woo Lee
Photograph: Donald Trump signing pledge of loyalty to Republican Party, 3rd September 2015. Credit: Michael Vadon