Jan-Werner Müller is a professor of politics and the founding director of the History of Political Thought Project at the University Center for Human Values. His book What is Populism? was published last year. This article draws on that book and on an essay published Oct. 26, 2016, in the Boston Review.
President Trump constantly invokes “the people.” In his inauguration address, he claimed that his assumption of the office was equivalent to transferring power back to “you, the people.” He also explained that it did not matter which party controls the government, but that the people control the government — and that, with his inauguration, the people ruled again. Does this demonstrate conclusively that Trump is a populist? Or is he by definition not a populist because he is so obviously himself part of a particular elite? Just what is it that defines populism?
Everywhere, or so much news coverage suggests, “the people” are rising up against “the establishment.” According to Nigel Farage, former leader of the U.K. Independence Party, Brexit and the election of Trump are part of a populist “tsunami” rolling across the West. But this picture is misleading. It distorts our understanding of today’s political reality in two ways: First, it equates legitimate protest against elites and specific policies with populism. After all, any civics textbook would instruct us that we, as citizens, should be critical and vigilant when it comes to the powerful — it cannot be that all of a sudden such a stance is automatically dismissed as “populism.” At the same time, the tsunami image propounded by Farage leads us to underestimate the dangers posed by actual populists. The latter do not just criticize elites; they posit that there is one true, fully unified people and that they are its only legitimate representatives, or as Trump implied in his inauguration speech: When he rules, the people rule. In a diverse democracy containing many interests and identities, this idea opens the path to excluding entire groups — and possibly to authoritarianism.
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 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 kind of populist talk is never just a matter of disagreeing about policy — which is completely normal in a democracy, of course. Rather, populists always make it personal: Their competitors are bad, crooked characters who betray the people’s interests (think of how Trump’s inauguration speech opposed a self-serving establishment, enriching itself in Washington, to a hard-working people). Second, citizens who do not share the populists’ conception of the “real people” — and hence do not support the populists politically — will have their status as properly belonging to the people put into doubt. Every populist operates with a symbolic and ultimately moral distinction between the “real people” and those who don’t belong (think back to how Farage celebrated Brexit as a “victory for real people” — with the implication that the 48 percent of Britons who sought to stay in the EU weren’t quite real). All U.S. populists — think of George C. Wallace in the 1960s — have deployed the pregnant phrase “real Americans.”
Trump has said so many deeply offensive and demonstrably false things that a sentence that revealed him as a proper populist went virtually unnoticed. In May Trump declared at a rally: “The only important thing is the unification of the people — because the other people don’t mean anything.” Trump’s politics are about exclusion. The specifics of who exactly gets excluded and how can vary from day to day: Sometimes he sounds nicer about Mexicans, Muslims, or African Americans; the next day he doesn’t. But the logic is always the same: There is a real America, as identified by Trump, and whoever does not agree cannot be a real American (and is also implicitly opposed to “making America great again”). Hence Trump’s seemingly conciliatory speeches and tweets after the election (“We will unite, and we will win, win, win!”) are not really liberal democratic promises of accepting pluralism; rather, everyone has to unite on the populist’s terms.
Trump’s infamous leadership of the birther movement was not just a historical footnote. President Obama literally embodied two groups who in the eyes of right-wing populists don’t belong to the real America: liberal elites and African Americans. It was consistent that Trump was so prominent in trying to prove that Obama was not just symbolically an illegitimate president but plainly an illegal one — an “un-American” figure who had usurped the nation’s highest office.
It should be clear, then, that the lazy equation of Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders — “a populist of the right and a populist of the left,” as they are often portrayed — is deeply mistaken, even if it seems plausible in light of the historical understanding of the word “populism” in the United States (as in: the People’s Party representing the downtrodden against Wall Street in the late 19th century). One might think of Sanders’ policy ideas as naïve or in some other form undesirable — but clearly Sanders never claimed that he is the only representative of the real America. Only Trump is a genuine anti-pluralist. What matters is not whether the populist himself could be said to be part of an elite — his promise is not that he is like any ordinary citizen. Rather, the claim is that he and he alone will execute the people’s real will (as discerned by him).
This kind of anti-pluralism has adverse consequences for any democracy, even when populists do not succeed in winning office. Since “the real people” is a myth conjured up by populists, actual election outcomes or opinion polls always can be questioned in its name. If the populist does not win, it is not because he is not as popular as he thought — it is because the “silent majority,” shorthand for “real people,” has not yet spoken, or, even worse, has been prevented from expressing itself. In other words, the populist delegitimizes existing democratic systems as somehow “rigged.” Now, there is nothing wrong with citizens criticizing election rules or other aspects of a particular democracy — any civics textbook would encourage such an engaged stance. What one cannot do is to say, as populists do: “Because we don’t win, it’s not really democracy.”
Why have populists become so prominent? Their rise has to do with a fundamental political conflict that has increased in importance in many Western democracies. This conflict is not meaningfully described as one of “ordinary people versus the establishment.” In Britain, Boris Johnson, one of the main faces of the Brexit campaign, is about as establishment as one can get there; Trump is hardly the authentic representative of Main Street. Rather, on one side of the conflict are those who advocate more openness: This means engaging with the world on the outside (both economically and culturally), but it is also about openness toward their own nations’ sexual, ethnic, and religious minorities. So yes, the rise of populism has something to do with “globalization” in the widest sense, but it is not just an expression of the discontent of the supposed “losers of globalization.” When the likes of Farage, Trump, and French populist leader Marine Le Pen call for “the people” to rule, they want to close their nations off by shutting borders and thereby, or so they promise, take back control; but they also want to preserve the traditional hierarchies that have come under threat on the inside.
How should other politicians address this form of identity politics? Those fighting populists should not pretend that their opponents are politicians like all others, just with more fiery rhetoric or bad manners. But they end up contradicting themselves if they demonize the demonizers or effectively end up saying: “Because you exclude, we exclude you.” It’s the trap that Hillary Clinton fell into when she criticized Trump voters as “deplorables.” In Europe it has been a common strategy to shut populists out of TV discussions or to refuse to engage with them in parliaments. This is a mistake. Talking with populists is not the same as talking like populists. One can take the policy issues they bring up seriously without accepting the way they frame them. In the 1980s, the French National Front propounded the slogan “1 million unemployed, 1 million immigrants.” It was perfectly possible to admit that people being jobless was a serious challenge, without accepting the all-too-simplistic equation offered — just as it is perfectly possible now to have a hard-nosed discussion about who really benefits from trade agreements without demonizing some shadowy establishment of “globalists.”
Yet it is also naïve to think that populists can be defeated just by setting facts straight or lecturing citizens that their economic interests are ill-served by following demagogic promises. Hardly any facts speak for themselves; they are always part of a larger political narrative. In the case of populists, we are dealing with a narrative about the “real people” and their proper identity. Simply saying that whoever finds that narrative attractive is deplorable or full of resentment is bound to backfire. For one thing, this dismissive attitude confirms populists in what they have been telling their supporters all along about what elites are really like: uncaring and ultimately alien, or at least alienated from citizens’ daily problems. So what to do instead? Rather than comment on their supporters, one should call out populist politicians directly and precisely on their pernicious exclusions and their habitual conspiracy theories. There is no guarantee that this will have an effect on populists’ supporters. But if such counterattacks are part of a narrative about nationally shared democratic ideals, they just might work. One might do well to remember how the question “Have you no decency left?” started the undoing of Sen. Joe McCarthy, a figure comparable to Trump in his divisiveness and bullying.