Over the past two weeks, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign has been rocked by numerous accusations of sexual assault and the release of a video in which he brags about grabbing women. And in last night’s debate, Trump refused to say whether he would accept the election results. As a result, Trump has faced widespread condemnation, with some senior Republicans publicly deserting him.
Trump’s behavior — the crude, coarse, uninhibited language, his claim that it’s just “locker-room talk” and his lack of respect for institutional political procedure — is in keeping with that of other populist politicians across the world. Its appeal rests on what one of us, Pierre Ostiguy, calls “the low” in politics.
Here’s what “the low” is, why it is central to populism, and why it is effective for Trump.
Our research finds that populism is a “low” performative style that appears across the entire ideological spectrum. In the same way that there is a left-right spectrum, there is also a high-low spectrum, which crosscuts the left-right axis.
Populism is the antagonistic flaunting of the low, for political purposes. In contrast, anti-populism is on the high.
If the left-right spectrum traditionally is associated with economic and moral policies, the high-low dimension has to do with “ways of being” and “ways of doing” in politics — that is, how a politician performs and relates to people and appeals to the electorate. This has both a sociocultural and a political dimension.
Socioculturally, the high-low spectrum is about social differentiation. This is most concretely seen in how politicians act and talk — their manners, choice of words, accents, gestures, even how they dress. Politicians on the low tend to be coarse in public, more uninhibited, demonstrating their “bad manners.” They “shoot from the hip” and “tell it like it is,” without ornament or technicalities. Politicians on the high show “proper” manners: well-behaved, composed and polished.
Politicians on the low claim to represent the true, “authentic” people “from here,” while those on the high display worldly cosmopolitanism. While we developed this typology years ago for cases outside the United States, Donald Trump ranks strongly on the low, while Hillary Clinton ranks on the moderate high.
Politically, the high-low dimension is about the exercise of political authority and decision-making. Politicians on the low are highly personalistic and favor concentrated personal authority; they laud strong, vitalist (“high energy,” “stamina”) leadership; and they reject procedural niceties to “get things done.” Think of Trump assuring audiences that he has no problems with the size of his hands “or anything else,” of his ability to “kick ass” and “wipe ISIS off the face of the earth,” or his recent ad that proclaims, “Donald Trump will protect you. He is the only one who can.” The high favors the authority of institutions more than people, and values rules and procedures, including bureaucratic ones.
Trump and Clinton fit more clearly into the high/low than the left/right spectrum
Together, the high-low axis and the left-right axis map a broad political landscape with four potential quadrants, as seen in the figure below.
Political scientists Pierre Ostiguy and Kenneth Roberts’ forthcoming article in the Brown Journal of World Affairs, “Putting Trump in Comparative Perspective: Populism and the Policitization of the Low,” argues that what is truly novel about Trump’s U.S. candidacy is that his position on the far low is more important than his left-right ideological position. This has had repercussions for both the social composition of the vote and on what the Republican and Democratic parties effectively “stand for.”
This flaunting of the low drives much of the unease about Trump not only in the expected quarters — essentially all segments of the left — but also among the “respectable center” and on the anti-populist high right, including a large section of the Republican establishment. It also helps explains why Trump’s candidacy has attracted more blue-collar whites than the GOP ticket usually does. In this way, the primacy of the low in Trump’s candidacy has driven a wedge between the Republican Party’s pro-market, free-trade right and its grass-roots, anti-establishment and nativist low.
Trump’s appeal to the low also explains his disdain not only for the Democratic Party establishment, but also his increasingly open contempt for his own party’s elites.
It has also helped him authenticate his claims to understand and connect to “the people” — to be “your voice,” in his words — despite his vast private wealth and flamboyant celebrity lifestyle. From reality TV to casinos, beauty pageants, NASCAR and WrestleMania, Trump has been able to position himself as the billionaire with everyday tastes.
Trump’s candidacy is much like that of other “low” candidates around the world
Although this populist flaunting of the “low” may seem shocking in a U.S. presidential race, it is common elsewhere. Populists on the left (Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez; Louisiana’s Huey Long), populists on the right (Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi; the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte) and ideologically unclassifiable populists (Ecuador’s Abdala Bucaram; Argentina’s Juan Perón) have shown that the politicization of the low can be highly effective, and in some cases can lead to a long period in power.
What constitutes the low has changed over time. Perón taking off his suit and speaking in public appearances in short sleeves was considered “low” back in the 1940s. We now have examples as extreme as ex-Ecuadorian President Bucaram nicknaming himself the “Crazy Lover,” releasing his own album while in office and accusing his presidential adversary of having “watery sperm;” Italy’s former prime minister Berlusconi bragging about his sexual prowess and joking that he wanted to rename his party “Go P—y;” or Chávez calling George W. Bush “the devil,” “a donkey” and “an drunkard.” There’s been a gradual deepening of the low. Trump is in this lineage.
Hillary Clinton summarized this division when she said in the second debate, “I am reminded of what my friend, Michelle Obama, advised us all: When they go low, you go high.”
We shall see how that division plays out at the ballot box.
Benjamin Moffitt is postdoctoral fellow in the department of political science at Stockholm University, and the author of “The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Political Style, and Representation” (Stanford University Press). Follow him at @bjmoffitt.
Pierre Ostiguy teaches in the Instituto de Ciencia Política of the Catholic University of Chile, and is co-editor of and contributor to the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Populism (Oxford University Press).