When Donald Trump entered the White House as the 45th U.S. president, the leadership of the free world was placed into the hands of a populist. Few ideas have had as sudden a resurgence in recent years as populism, with upstart parties and often charismatic leaders upsetting the established order to win power in what appeared to be stable democracies. Trump joined other populist leaders such as Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. Most have tapped into a backlash against immigration and a globalized economy that many people feel has left them behind. Does the rise of populists presage the reboot or demise of democracy?  

The Situation

Two years after Trump took office, populism has reached more countries. An anti-establishment coalition took power in Italy in 2018, and its allies across the continent are eyeing gains in 2019 elections for the European Union’s Parliament. Emmanuel Macron prevailed over hard-right leader Marine Le Pen in France’s 2017 presidential election, but has faced violent street protests from disgruntled citizens known as the gilets jaunes. The common thread dates back to the 2008 financial crisis, which opened the door for many populists. Rising inequality and the perception of an unjust — if not corrupt — response to the crash eroded trust in the ability of established leaders to address shifts in the global economy, including technological change and the rise of China. Unlike socialism, fascism, liberalism and pretty much every other “ism,” populism is not inherently left or right. Brazil’s new populist president, Jair Bolsonaro, is a conservative former military officer, while Mexico’s new President, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, presents himself as a radical socialist. Cas Mudde, a professor at the University of Georgia, has called populism a “thin” ideology that pits a “pure” people against a corrupt ruling class. Indeed, the simplest way to think about the label may be as a toolbox that politicians of any stripe can use to tap into simmering discontent.

The Background

Modern populism is generally thought to have emerged in the U.S. in the second half of the 19th century, when the People’s Party galvanized angry farmers opposed to the raw capitalism of the day. Europe’s fascist leaders also used populist tools, but fascism is distinct, requiring not just opposition to liberalism but to democracy itself, as well as a cult of violence and a powerful ideology based on racial superiority. Latin America has had waves of populists that began in the 1930s and parts of Asia had their turn in the 1990s. There’s no single definition of what makes a populist, indeed the term is often thrown around as an insult. However, Benjamin Moffitt, a fellow at Sweden’s Uppsala University, identified three core requirements:

• An appeal to “the people” against a despised elite

• Deliberate use of “bad manners” to shock the establishment and prove the politician’s credentials as one of “the people”

• The use — or manufacture — of a crisis to justify the call to revolt

The last point helps explain Trump’s willingness to shut down the U.S. government for a record period in 2018-2019, over what he described as a “crisis” of immigration across the border with Mexico — a characterization fiercely disputed by critics. Other notable populists in history have included Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Argentine leader Juan Peron and Thaksin Shinawatra of Thailand.

The Argument

Some political scientists describe populism as a pathology or malfunction of democracy. Populists say they are rescuing democracies that have been hijacked by elites. Mudde argues that the truth is somewhere in between, with populists pushing back against liberal forms of democracy with a majoritarian, winner-takes-all interpretation that sets back pluralism and minority rights. What’s certain is that populists stand out by insisting they alone represent the will of the people, dismissing any criticism of themselves as an attack on the people, and therefore illegitimate. That helps explain why populists, once in power, quickly bump up against democratic checks and balances — in particular the courts and media — that were designed to limit what governments can do. Trump routinely makes that connection on his Twitter account, when he declares the “fake news media” to be the “enemy of the American people.” He has also repeatedly bad-mouthed judges and courts that rule against his policies.

To contact the author of this QuickTake: Marc Champion in London at mchampion7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake: Leah Harrison at lharrison@bloomberg.net, Andy Reinhardt

First published April 21, 2017

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