Presidential candidate Donald Trump, December,2015. Flickr/ Matt Johnson. Some rights reserved.He seems to have come out of nowhere; is immoderate and choleric, and he uses a rhetoric full of rage and a mystifying almost unfathomable message. His policy positions do not square with those of the party he claims to represent and, at the moment, he dominates public discourse and the political process. He is of course, Donald Trump. But what type of politician is he? And why should the answer to this question matter?
As for the first question, theories vary widely and confusion abounds. While some consider him an authoritarian, authoritarian populist, incipient fascist, and even a downright fascist leader, others, rather strangely, have seen in him the textbook example of an ideological moderate. When asked whether Trump may be a pure populist, Michael Kazin, an authority on American populism, is perplexed because he “[didn’t] really get much of a sense of who the people are” in Trump’s discourse. What is more certain is that Trump, unlike his other establishment rivals, is not a true conservative. What is he, then?
I suggest, pace Kazin and other baffled pundits, that Trump is a most authentic example of insurgent populist leadership, which belongs squarely within a long tradition of populism in the US – and, in fact, is breathing new life into it.
The beginning of wisdom about populism is the content we assign to this term. This must be sufficiently precise and, no less demanding a task, point clearly to some negative pole to indicate what populism is not. As suggested elsewhere, populism may be well defined minimally as democratic illiberalism, which also reveals its polar opposite, that is, political liberalism.
The chief implication of this view is that, while populism is democratic by definitional fiat, it bespeaks a conception of democracy that is openly hostile to liberal principles. Populism, in other words, is the idea of a certain democracy in which illiberalism trumps liberalism.
The next step must involve giving “liberalism” and “illiberalism” more substantive content. In a nutshell, a political liberal is someone (or some party) who abides by each and all of the following principles: first, the acknowledgement that modern society is divided by many, and most often crosscutting, cleavages; second, the need to strive to bridge those cleavages by promoting political moderation, consensus, and negotiated agreements; and, third, the commitment to the rule of law and the protection of minority rights as the best means to attain political liberalism.
In sharp contrast to the above, illiberal politicians, or parties, consider society to be divided by one single cleavage, ostensibly dividing the ordinary people from some ‘establishment’; hence, such leaders encourage polarization and political adversity while rejecting compromise; and, finally, based on the belief that they represent the greater and best part of ‘the people’, illiberal leaders dismiss minorities and disregard institutional legality, while favoring majoritarianism.
Now, enter Trump. He is angry against the “establishment” (which has become his term) and various other elites, who, he claims, have betrayed the American people. He talks to taxpaying white middle and working-class Americans who are getting left behind and feel they are neglected by conservative elites. But, being himself a billionaire, he is not an anti-elitist! He is in fact ready to form his own elite, and put it in his cabinet.
Trump thrives on adversity. In his campaign (and his campaign memoir entitled Crippled America), he is not the compassionate and caring champion of the people. Instead, he is the candidate who takes advantage of social and economic misfortune to produce polarization. He not only rallies against Wall Street (“Hedge fund managers are getting away with murder”), but also revels in such terms as “weakness,” “losing,” “pathetic.” In this way he generates strong emotions, bad feelings towards others in society, and strong moral dilemmas.
Finally, Trump rallies against ethnic and religious minorities in open disrespect for constitutional rights. Among his proposals are calls for a “total and complete ban” on Muslim immigration and the rounding up and deportation of 12 million undocumented immigrants, and the building of a “great beautiful wall” on the border with Mexico. He has openly embraced torture, treats the press with total contempt, and is intolerant regarding several civil liberties, including free speech.
Does Trump the populist matter? Yes, a lot, for at least three major reasons. For one thing, populism, however ubiquitous in American politics, was until now evident just in the cracks of both parties. But it has now blown up and wants to live its own independent life; nor is it an accident, presumably, that Trump’s populism has emerged at exactly the same time as Sanders’ leftist populism.
For another thing, Trump is radically transforming the Republican Party, also putting at risk that party’s unity over its identity and principles. He jettisons conservative liberal orthodoxy and challenges the GOP traditional platform on a number of key issues ranging from free trade, which Trump wants to stop, to entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security, which he vows to preserve.
Lastly, if Trump wins the next Republican presidential nomination, he is surely going to reshape the face of American politics and society from the most fundamentally liberal in the world to one that will be outright populist. For, as social choice theorist William H. Riker once argued, there are only two views of modern democracy, liberalism and populism – and those views, as Riker further affirmed, “exhaust all the possibilities for democratic theory.”
Get our weekly email