The media cannot get enough of Donald Trump. Although we know on the basis of virtually every previous (GOP) primary that the front-runner a year before the elections is nowhere to be seen around election time, media from the left to the right are arguing that Trump, or at least the newly invented “Trumpism,” is here to stay.
At the same time, journalists and pundits are having a hard time getting a grip on the slippery billionaire. They have even looked across the U.S. borders to understand Trump. The more ideological have claimed that Trump is a fascist, the more sensationalist have merely stated the same as a rhetorical question: “Is Donald Trump a fascist?” This claim is so preposterous that it doesn’t deserve a serious response.
Of more interest is the comparison with Europe’s contemporary far right parties, which has been made in various pieces, but was developed in most detail by Matthew Yglesias in Vox. In fact, around the world media are asking the question: Is Donald Trump America’s Le Pen? While the question is in itself not uninteresting, the answers often obscure the complexity of the Trump phenomenon and the typical American characteristics of Trump, Trumpism, and the Trumpista.
Not surprisingly, Trump the persona has received much attention. From the New York Times to the Washington Post, Trump is likened to another billionaire who went from entrepreneur to politician: Silvio Berlusconi, one of the richest men in Italy who dominated Italian politics for more than two decades. However, Berlusconi is an exception among European populists. As money doesn’t play a similarly important role in European politics, most politicians, populist or not, are not particularly rich.
Contrary to Europe, the U.S. doesn’t lack for examples of very rich people who use their business acumen and wealth to launch a political career – think of Mitt Romney, Steve Forbes, or Carly Fiorina. Several commentators have linked Trump to Ross Perot, another billionaire with an anti-establishment appeal. This discussion is particularly focused on Trump’s chances as a third party candidate, a possibility that he has not explicitly ruled out. Perot won almost 19 percent of the vote in the 1992 presidential elections, making him the most successful third party candidate since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. Although some disagree with the received wisdom that Perot cost the GOP the presidency in 1992, there is growing fear of Trump doing the same in 2016. However, while Trump has some similarity to Perot as a person, mostly in being a fellow-billionaire, Trumpism is more like the ‘paleo-conservativism’ of Pat Buchanan than the right-wing populism of Perot.
“Trumpism” is far too big a term for the incoherent and ever-shifting views of Trump. It is impossible to discern an ideology that Trump adheres to. He never developed a real ideological platform and has been inconsistent on core issues – from pro-choice to anti-abortion, from pro-universal health care to anti-Obamacare, etc. However, his current popularity does seem to be based on a combination of features that defines Europe’s contemporary populist radical right: nativism, authoritarianism, and populism. Just like politicians like Geert Wilders in the Netherlands – whose main campaign poster reads: “More Security. Less Immigration” – Trump links immigration and crime in his speeches. He thereby plays on widespread beliefs that illegal immigration is causing an increase in serious crime.
However, his general views on immigration and integration are much more in line with U.S. conservatives than with European far right. For instance, Trump singles out illegal immigration and does not attack the status of the U.S. as a multicultural immigration country. And while he has been speaking about “the Muslim problem” at least since 2011, he is much more nuanced in his views of Islam and Muslims than people like Marine Le Pen and, certainly, Geert Wilders. In fact, his views on Muslims really don’t stand out much from many other prominent Republicans – a majority of the main candidates in the 2012 GOP primary made Islamophobic statements.
Paradoxically, the term most often used to describe Trump, both in the U.S. and abroad, is possibly the most problematic: populism. There is no doubt that Trump is an anti-establishment candidate. He has called all (other) politicians incompetent and corrupt, including virtually all of his competitors in the GOP primary. But populism entails not just an anti-elite position, which is common to most political challengers, but also a pro-people position and a call for ‘common sense’ politics. A real populist is the vox populi (voice of the people) because he or she is one of the people. Think of Sarah Palin, who referred to herself as an “average hockey mom.”
There is nothing average about Donald Trump, according to Donald Trump. His speeches are replete with self-complimentary anecdotes and references to himself in the third person. The message is not a humble “I am like you,” but rather a grandiose “become another Trump.” He doesn’t even really need “the people” to “Make America Great Again” (his campaign slogan). The Donald will make America great again, because, as his campaign Web site says, “Donald J. Trump is the very definition of the American success story, continually setting the standards of excellence.”
Contrary to the man (Trump) and the ideology (Trumpism), the supporter of Trump (the Trumpista) is almost identical to the populist radical right voter in (Western) Europe. First studies show that Trump is particularly popular among young, lower educated, white males. This is exactly the same group that constitutes the core of the electorate of populist radical right parties in Western Europe. The gender gap is particularly striking. Just as European populist radical right parties have a much larger gender gap than mainstream right-wing parties, attracting roughly two men for every one woman, Trump has the largest gender gap among the GOP candidates, particularly among likely Republican primary voters. And while Trump has claimed that he is the only Republicans who can win the Hispanic vote, surveys show that he is by far the least liked GOP candidate among Hispanics.
In conclusion, to understand the Trump phenomenon in all its complexity we need to look at both U.S. history and contemporary Europe. Trumpismo can be seen as a functional equivalent of the European populist radical right, but it is a very American equivalent. Trump himself doesn’t hold a populist radical right ideology, but his political campaign clearly caters to populist radical right attitudes, and his supporter base is almost identical to the core electorate of populist radical right parties in (Western) Europe. However, Trump also stands in a long tradition of American nativism, going back to the Know Nothings of the mid 19th century, of American anti-establishment politicians, and of conservatives who claim to be the right “CEO” to make America great again. But, in contrast to the rich history of U.S. populism, Trump is an anti-establishment elitist. He is better than everyone, i.e. both the elite and the people!
Cas Mudde is Associate Professor in the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) at the University of Georgia. He is the author of “Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe“ (Cambridge University Press, 2007), which won the Stein Rokkan Prize for Comparative Social Science Research in 2008. Together with Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser he edited “Populism in Europe and the Americas: Threat or Corrective for Democracy?” (Cambridge University Press, 2012) and they are currently writing “Populism: A Very Short Introduction” for Oxford University Press.