Why Donald Trump Really Is a Populist

Billionaire appointees. Tax cuts for the rich. None of that matters.

Power to the people.

Photographer: Mark Wilson

The word “populist” is regularly applied to President Donald Trump. Is it because his politics, and policy, tend to be crude and crowd-pleasing? Because he built a political base on division and resentment? Because he strikes poses reminiscent of previous populists, from Alabama Governor George Wallace to billionaire Ross Perot, with a dash of Juan Peron and Andrew Jackson?

“What is Populism?” is the title of a 2016 book by Jan-Werner Mueller, a politics professor at Princeton University and a visiting fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, Austria. I interviewed Mueller, via e-mail, to get his views on Trump, populism and what’s in store. What follows is a lightly edited transcript.

WILKINSON: I want to start by asking you to answer the question raised by the title of your book: “What is Populism?” In the U.S., we’ve often had a somewhat benign view of the term, recalling William Jennings Bryan and other figures who appealed to the little guy, but never managed to gain sufficient power to show us what they would do. How do you define populism, which has the sound of something oh so pleasantly popular?

MUELLER: Not everyone who criticizes elites is automatically a populist. Rather, populists always claim that they -- and they alone -- properly represent the people, or what they frequently call “the real people” or “the silent majority.” This perhaps initially innocuous-sounding rhetoric has two consequences that are detrimental for democracy. 

First, all other political contenders are condemned by populists as part of a self-serving, corrupt elite. This is never just a matter of disagreeing about policy -- which is completely normal in a democracy. Rather, populists make it personal: Their competitors are crooked characters who betray the people. Consider how Trump’s inauguration speech opposed a self-serving establishment, enriching itself in Washington, D.C., to a hard-working people. 

Second, every populist operates with a symbolic and ultimately moral distinction between the “real people” and those who don’t belong. Think back to how Nigel Farage celebrated Brexit as a “victory for real people” -- with the obvious implication that the 48 percent of Brits who sought to stay in the EU weren’t quite real. Thus, citizens who don't share the populist’s conception of the “real people” -- and hence do not support the populist politically -- have their status cast into doubt.

WILKINSON: I’ve heard people say, in essence, “Hey, Trump’s supposed to be a populist but he’s putting all these super-rich guys in his Cabinet.” How should we interpret a “populist” who staffs up with billionaires and intends, as far as we know, to cut taxes significantly for the wealthy? Is little-guy economics central to the populist claim, or does it suffice to identify enemies, condemn elites and impose authoritarian rule? Which of these ingredients are essential and which are garnishes?

MUELLER: Traditionally, the meaning of the word “populism” in the U.S. has indeed been associated with a grassroots revolt against Wall Street. But if you find anything worthwhile in my more general, not historically specific theory of populism, then it should be clear that it’s not about particular policy content. If you tell me what you think about taxes, or immigration, or global governance, I will not necessarily be able to say whether you’re a populist or not. But if a politician says, in effect, as Trump did in his inaugural address, “If I rule, the people rule,” the case is clear. 

Note, then, that the populist’s promise is not that he is just like any ordinary person; rather, it is that he alone will do what the people want. (In that sense, populists also abjure political responsibility; it’s not they who decide, but the morally pure and uncorrupted people.)

So it’s naïve to think that all it takes to discredit them is to point out that Trump belongs to a particular elite, or to reveal that an “outsider” politician like Geert Wilders in the Netherlands has in fact spent his entire life in the Dutch parliament. 

Of course, Trump also plays the card of being a consummate deal-maker -- the business leader as savior, who will run the entire country like an enterprise. We have seen this phenomenon in other nations; what we haven’t seen is a combination of the businessman-as-savior with the reality TV star/comedian in one person. It’s as if Silvio Berlusconi and Beppe Grillo were merged into one. All of this is important to understand Trump, but it’s not essential to populism, as I define it.

WILKINSON: What is it about American democracy -- or Western democracy more broadly -- that created an opening right now for a populist to win the White House?

MUELLER: I don’t believe that there is something about the structures of American democracy as such that make it more vulnerable to populism. But polarization and, in particular, the extreme partisanship of the Republicans in the last quarter century or so played an important role in making Trump possible. After all, Trump did not win as the candidate of a third party committed to anti-establishment politics; rather, he became the leader of a very established party -- with the blessing of very established figures such as Rudy Giuliani, Chris Christie and, especially, Newt Gingrich. (As Tory Brexit supporter Michael Gove showed in Britain, the support of anti-intellectual intellectuals can be especially useful for populists.)

The most important factor explaining the outcome of the election is partisanship -- around 90 percent of self-identified Republicans voted for Trump. As a third-party populist candidate, Trump may have at most received 20 percent to 25 percent of the vote -- what many far-right populist parties in Europe get. This also shows that the story of an unstoppable wave of populist triumphs -- Brexit, Trump and now supposedly Wilders in the Netherlands and Marine Le Pen in France -- is misleading. The outcomes depend much on whether conservative elites decide to collaborate with far-right populists or not.

WILKINSON: The U.S. having commenced this uncertain journey, do you have any insights on how Trump’s populist train might be derailed? Or are we condemned to see this through, knowing that in so many other places, from Italy to Venezuela, a populist regime ended in wreckage?

MUELLER: There has been a tendency to think that almost by definition populists cannot really govern. Their policy ideas are supposedly so simplistic that they’ll soon be exposed as unworkable; moreover, populists are said to have succeeded as leaders of protest movements and are bound to discover that, logically, you cannot really protest against yourself once you are in government.

These are comforting thoughts for liberal democrats in these very dark days, but they are also somewhat naïve. We have plenty of examples of populists being successful (at least on their own terms). They can govern as anti-pluralists, refusing to recognize the legitimacy of any opposition and attacking institutions -- from the courts to news media and civil society -- that stand in their way. 

Think of Viktor Orban in Hungary or Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey. I am not saying these regimes will last forever. But these figures have been taking their countries in a clearly authoritarian direction (all in the name of democracy), and neither domestic nor international actors have been able to exert any real moderating influence.

It’s much more difficult to attack, let alone disable, the judiciary in the U.S. But other checks on presidential power have proven remarkably ineffective so far. The congressional GOP keeps falling in line, and self-identified Republican voters seem to find White House actions attractive enough. Some of the news media have been extremely alert and critical. But audiences are highly segmented (and include those catered to by court sycophants such as Fox News host Sean Hannity). It’s not obvious, under those conditions, that news media can make that much of a difference.

Plus, populists positively want confrontation and conflict. They want to keep a Kulturkampf going, as long as they think they can prove that their supporters are indeed the “real people,” the authentic majority, opposed only by a minority that betrays the homeland.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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