By | Updated May 8, 2017 8:13 AM UTC

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, Poland's Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Alexis Tsipras in Greece and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. Most tap into a backlash against immigration and a globalized economy that many people feel has left them behind. What will these leaders bring? And does the rise of populists presage the reboot or demise of democracy?  

The Situation

In the Netherlands, the party led by anti-Muslim firebrand Geert Wilders won the second-largest number of seats in parliament in March. In France, Marine Le Pen's hard right National Front party may have lost the presidential election May 7, but with its best-ever showing. The 2008 financial crisis opened the door for many populists, as rising inequality and the perception of an unjust — if not corrupt — response to the crash eroded trust in politicians and other powerful members of society. Unlike socialism, fascism, liberalism and pretty much every other “ism,” populism is not inherently left, right or other. Cas Mudde, a professor at the University of Georgia, has called it a “thin” ideology that pits a “pure” people against a corrupt elite. Indeed, the simplest way to think about it may be as a toolbox for conducting politics of any flavor. There is little of substance connecting populist Hugo Chavez, the late radical socialist leader of Venezuela, with Nigel Farage, whose U.K. Independence Party pressured the government into calling a referendum on leaving the European Union. His economic preferences lean toward the conservatism of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.  

How to Spot a Populist Politician

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

That last point helps explain why Trump’s inauguration speech characterized the state of the U.S. as “carnage.” Other notable populists include 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 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. In Trump’s first month in office, he declared the news media to be “the enemy of the American people.” He also bad-mouthed a federal judge who blocked his order to suspend entry to the U.S. by refugees and anyone from seven predominantly Muslim nations, dismissing him as a “so-called judge.”   

The Reference Shelf

  • A series on French populism includes a profile of Saint-Nazaire, a report from Perpignan and a look at the discontent of French truckers
  • QuickTake explainers on Poland’s turn to populism, the rise of the Five Star Movement in Italy and the Philippines’ populist leader.
  • A QuickTake Q&A on how to spot a populist. 
  • Bloomberg View’s Francis Wilkinson talks to Princeton professor Jan-Werner Mueller about why Trump really is a populist.
  • Benjamin Moffitt’s book, “The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Political Style and Representation.”
  • Cas Mudde explains why populism “tends to get ugly when it gets into power” in this article in The Guardian.
  • Scholars analyze why populism is rising on Oxford University’s politics blog.

First published April 21, 2017

To contact the writer 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