Where their grievances came from and why a Manhattan real estate billionaire could successfully channel them has become an obsession among journalists and intellectuals, who have reached the Larger Meaning of Trump stage of their campaign ruminations. Amid the accusations of Trump the misogynist, the racist and the nativist, another label is sticking: Trump the populist. Foreign Affairs devotes a huge chunk of its latest issue to Trump and “The Power of Populism,” as its cover declares. The Washington Free Beacon’s Matthew Continetti worries that “the triumph of populism has left conservatism marooned, confused, uncertain, depressed, anxious” — ironically, many of the same emotions attributed to the populist unwashed. In the New Yorker, George Packer notes that Clinton may be ill-suited to taming this “populist revolt” and winning back the white working class that Democrats once claimed but that Trump now dominates.
It is in this context that two slim and incisive new books emerge to explain the rise of populist politics: “What Is Populism?” by Princeton University political scientist Jan-Werner Müller, and “The Populist Explosion,” by journalist John B. Judis. Not only do these volumes provide conceptual clarity — historian David Greenberg has lamented that the term is so overused, it risks losing all meaning — but they also point to the risks of dismissing populist outbreaks, suggesting that they could continue shaping American politics on Nov. 9 and beyond.
So, to Müller’s query: What is populism? While Judis is reluctant to specify a narrow meaning — “there is no set of features that exclusively defines movements, parties, and people that are called populist,” he writes — Müller identifies three salient characteristics. First, populists are anti-elitists, meaning they criticize the established political, cultural and economic leadership. Second, they must be anti-pluralist, claiming sole representation of the people. When Trump says that “I alone can fix” what ails us, or assures supporters that “I am your voice,” he is asserting uncontested, unmediated leadership. Finally, populism is exclusionary, in the sense that “the people” are an increasingly circumscribed set; though they might begin as the white working class or another loosely defined group, they are quickly reduced to supporters of the leader. Otherwise, you are traitorous, inauthentic. “This is the core claim of populism,” Müller writes. “Only some of the people are really the people.”
Judis points out that populism is “not an ideology, but a political logic — a way of thinking about politics.” So, we have left-wing populism, which pits the people against an economic and political elite; and right-wing populism, in which the people confront an establishment that they believe is coddling a third, illegitimate group, whether foreigners or ethnic minorities. The latter is the populism Trump has so ably deployed since announcing his candidacy, when he launched a diatribe against Mexican immigrants. (Judis considers Sen. Bernie Sanders a left-wing populist, though under Müller’s qualifications, it’s not clear he would merit the label.)
Trump worries that the United States is “getting killed” on trade, so he might be pleased to learn that populism is a successful U.S. export, “an American creation that spread later to Latin America and Europe,” Judis explains. Both authors dwell on the People’s Party, which flamed out in the late 1800s after some early gains in U.S. electoral politics but would still exert influence, in style and substance, for decades to come. That influence is evident in the rise of Huey Long in the 1930s, George Wallace in the 1960s, Ross Perot and Patrick Buchanan in the 1990s, and Trump today.
Indeed, Trump’s rhetoric borrows freely from Perot and Buchanan. Trump warns of jobs being “sucked out of our country,” just as Perot warned that NAFTA would produce a “giant sucking sound” as jobs relocated to Mexico. And Buchanan, who as a Republican presidential candidate declared that “a country that loses control of its border isn’t really a country anymore” — sounds a lot like Trump, who in his third debate against Clinton stated that “we have no country if we have no border.”
Anyone imagining a Trump presidency would do well to consult Müller’s text, which describes populism’s governing playbook. First, populist leaders “colonize” the state, putting loyalists in formerly nonpartisan bureaucratic roles, and undercutting the independence of judges and the news media. Second, they engage in “mass clientelism,” trading material favors for continued political support. And third, they unleash “discriminatory legalism,” applying the full force of law against foes but not friends. These tactics can be found in different kinds of political systems, Müller admits, “yet in populist regimes, they are practiced openly and, one might suspect, with a clean moral conscience.”
What about the border wall and the Muslim ban and all the other policies Trump has promised? Despite their apparent specificity, such proposals may have been little more than “deliberate attention-getting ploys,” Judis explains. “But they were also typical of a populist approach . . . dramatizing the difference between what the ‘silent majority’ wanted and what the ‘establishment’ would condone.”
Even Trump’s unwillingness to commit to respecting the result of the election — claiming that the vote is being rigged by some global cabal of bankers, journalists and liberal operatives — is a standard populist move. “The problem is never the populist’s imperfect capacity to represent the people’s will; rather, it’s always the institutions that somehow produced the wrong outcomes,” Müller writes. “So even if they look properly democratic, there must be something going on behind the scenes that allows corrupt elites to continue to betray the people. Conspiracy theories are thus not a curious addition to populist rhetoric; they are rooted in and emerge from the very logic of populism itself.”
If America has experienced recurring bouts of populism, why would it emerge in such an intense form now, to the point that one of the two major parties chooses a textbook populist leader as its presidential nominee? Müller emphasizes political and cultural forces to explain such populist moments. “Populism is strong in places with weak party systems,” he writes, because political parties exist precisely to form governments as well as legitimate oppositions. Also, Müller writes, “when identity politics predominates, populists will prosper.” Both factors seem all too relevant to America today.
Judis stresses economic circumstances. The Great Recession undermined the already fraying “neoliberal” consensus — including free-trade pacts, financial deregulation and anti-union legislation — that had surrounded economic policy in the United States during the 1980s and 1990s, he argues. With the tea party movement on the right and the short-lived but influential Occupy Wall Street on the left, the moment was ripe for populist leaders pushing a radical rethink within both parties. Indeed, Judis suggests that Sanders’s vision, with backing among younger liberals as well as Democratic Party stars such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), could prove the more lasting populism of the 2016 race.
But, of course, it is Trump’s version of populism that has produced an ugly presidential campaign, a cultural and political coarsening that is unlikely to end after Election Day. And though Müller cautions that “it’s a mistake to think that populism will always turn out to be a form of nationalism or ethnic chauvinism,” I imagine it is also a mistake to not recognize the ways in which legitimate economic grievance and ethnic prejudice can intertwine. After all, you can always find a scapegoat for a real problem.
Still, Müller is smart to warn critics away from the easy buzzwords surrounding Trump’s appeal. “One should be very careful indeed about using such loaded terms as ‘frustration,’ ‘anger,’ and especially ‘resentment’ to explain populism,” he writes. “One should at least face up to the political consequences of such psychologizing diagnoses — namely, that they end up confirming those people’s view of ‘liberal elites’ as being not just deeply condescending but also constitutively unable to live up to their own democratic ideals by failing to take ordinary people at their word.”
In other words, when you’re being patronizing, you can be self-defeating, too.