A Definition of Popularism

Source: Uri Friedman in The Atlantic, February 27


An ideology like fascism involves a comprehensive view of how politics, the economy, and society as a whole should be ordered. Populism doesn’t. It calls for kicking out the political establishment. It doesn’t specify what should replace it.

Populists are dividers, not uniters, They split society into two homogenous and antagonistic groups: the pure people on the one end and the corrupt elite on the other. They say they’re guided by the “will of the people.”

The United States is what political scientists call a “liberal democracy,” a system “based on pluralism – on the idea that you have different groups with different interests and values, which are all legitimate. Populists, in contrast, are not pluralist. They consider just one group – whatever they mean by “the people” – legitimate.

This conception of legitimacy stems from the fact that populists view their mission as essentially moral. The distinction between the elite and the people is not based on how much money you have or even what kind of position you have. It’s based on your values.

The mark of a populist isn’t which specific groups of people he or she includes in “the people” or “the establishment.”

Trump’s initial political vocabulary included the corrupt elite but not the pure people. Instead, in rambling speeches, he focused on just one person: himself. Gradually, however, his speeches grew more coherent and populist. By Inauguration Day, the transformation was complete: Trump’s rhetoric was thoroughly populist. “January 20, 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again,” he proclaimed.

The moral dimension of populism explains why someone like Donald Trump, who clearly is not a commoner, can nevertheless pretend to be the voice of the people. He doesn’t argue, “I am as rich as you.” What he argues is, “I have the same values as you. I’m also part of the pure people.”

And here’s where the ideological explanation for Trump’s seeming vanity comes in. If Trump is the only authentic emissary of the people, then how does he reconcile that role with unspectacular crowd sizes, weak poll numbers, the loss of the popular vote, mass protests by people claiming he doesn’t represent them, and critical media coverage of the policies the people allegedly want?

Trump doesn’t have legitimacy through the popular vote. He doesn’t have legitimacy through experience. He doesn’t have legitimacy through the Republican Party, which institutionally has had a rocky relationship with him.

So he claims a mythical link to the people.


2 responses to “A Definition of Popularism

  1. Horace Krever

    What is the difference between the “people” and the “Volk”? Do the Trump rallies bring to anyone else’s mind the Nuremberg rallies?