Democracy Dies in Darkness

WorldViews | Analysis

Trump's populism is about creating division, not unity

By Ishaan Tharoor

February 6, 2017 at 1:00 AM

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President Trump begins his third week in office with the worst approval ratings of any new American president since polls began tracking such results. His close advisers are circling the wagons, snarling at an "opposition media" they claim has unfairly covered the new administration — even while privately admitting the president's itchy Twitter finger is making their job harder.

Yet a theme is emerging from the tumult of the White House: For a president who promised "unity," division remains Trump's signature tactic. And what troubles critics is that Trump's behavior seems utterly familiar in authoritarian contexts elsewhere in the world.

Case in point: Trump's reaction to the widespread protests against his immigration ban, as well as his fury at the federal judge who shot it down in court. Rather than recognizing these voices of dissent for what they are — normal features of a healthy democracy — Trump sought to attack the very legitimacy of his opponents, deeming protesters "thugs" and "paid" activists while questioning the judge's authority to disagree with him.

This has been the modus operandi of the Trump administration. When faced with the reality of having lost the popular vote by a massive margin, it propagated evidence-free conspiracy theories that millions of "illegals" voted for Hillary Clinton. When posed critical questions about the travel ban this week, White House press secretary Sean Spicer chastised the Washington press for being disconnected from real Americans outside the Beltway — as if disquiet over the executive order is restricted to a few elites in coastal cities.

The "people," when invoked by Trump and his camp, does not signify everyone in the United States. It means his supporters, the minority of Americans who voted him into office and see themselves uplifted by his brand of populist ultra-nationalism. Trump brilliantly (and probably unintentionally) summed up this tension on the campaign trail last year: "The only important thing is the unification of the people, because the other people don't mean anything," he said in May.

We're getting a clearer sense of who those meaningless "other people" may be in Trump's mind. It includes the tens of thousands of people adversely affected by the immigration ban, which in one fell swoop disrupted lives, separated families and shattered dreams. Some of these people are legal permanent residents of the United States. Others are American citizens with relatives and friends stuck in airports and caught in bureaucratic limbo.

But to Trump, their very real concerns matter less than his visions of a phantom threat. In a stunning series of tweets over the weekend, Trump conjured up a world where "bad people" were now "pouring in" into the United States — no matter that most counter-terrorism experts believe his ban barring refugees and restricting immigration from seven Muslim-majority nations will not make the country safer.

Philip Gourevitch, a journalist who once chronicled the genocidal massacres in Rwanda — the hideous endpoint of what happens when a society engages in the demonization of those in its midst — reacted in horror at the game Trump seems to be playing:

"By now, it ought to be evident that enemies are important to this administration, whether they are foreigners, refugees, international bankers or the press," wrote conservative commentator Charles Sykes.

Trump's brand of populism thrives in this climate of hysteria and fear. It is allergic to talk of pluralism or multiculturalism, notes Jan-Werner Müller, a Princeton political scientist and author of a widely-acclaimed recent book on populism. "It is actually in Trump's interest to see clashes on America's streets," he warns.

Populists, in Müller's view, "claim that they and they alone represent the people. All other political competitors are essentially illegitimate, and anyone who does not support them is not properly part of the people … The people are a moral, homogeneous entity whose will cannot err."

Trump's rhetoric so far fits perfectly with this formula. It's also one we've seen all too often in other parts of the world: Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling party style themselves as the voice of a silent majority long suppressed by the nation's secular elites; Venezuela's late Hugo Chávez cast opposition to his rule as the work of unpatriotic, spoiled cosmopolitans; Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban exploited nativist sentiment to consolidate power and drift his country toward autocracy.

The bottom line result in each of these cases elsewhere has been the same: The erosion of democracy and the advance of a heated, "majoritarian" politics that only leads to further polarization.

Want smart analysis of the most important news in your inbox every weekday along with other global reads, interesting ideas and opinions to know? Sign up for the Today's WorldView newsletter.


Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.

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