As if a wealthy scion and reality TV show star leading a white-collar populist movement wasn’t ironic enough. President Donald Trump fits every definition of a populist, yet he is thoroughly and fundamentally unpopular. The government shutdown debacle over the wall is a perfect example. The fact that Trump’s populism is so unpopular should be a source of relief, but could also be something to worry about.
Many political scientists define populism as a political strategy, applicable on the left or right, that claims to represent the “pure people” against a class of enemies. On the right, these enemies are usually minorities and, on the left, these enemies are typically the wealthy. The leaders of populist movements claim to represent the direct interests of the people. Historian Federico Finchelstein argues that modern populism is a historical product of World War II-era fascism.
He writes that modern populism grew out of fascism after fascism was defeated ideologically and militarily by liberal democracies and communism during World War II.
Federico writes the main differences between modern populism and fascism are that modern populism has shed the violence and authoritarianism of fascism. Most populist leaders after World War II, he writes, sell themselves as wholly democratic, often framing the problem they want to solve as anti-democratic. Trump, for example, talked about the “swamp” or establishment politicians as being corrupt or “crooked,” implying he was somehow the democratic solution to the crooked elites whereas World War II era fascists, like Mussolini or Hitler, were authoritarian dictators. The other main difference is that central to fascism is violence and the elimination of its enemies. Hitler terminated racial enemies and Mussolini terminated political enemies. Populists are rarely as violent.
The connection between fascism and populism is important. Populism is so similar to fascism that the wall separating the two could collapse under enough pressure. As Sheri Berman, a professor of political science at Barnard College, suggested a large enough crisis could lead a society dealing with populist politics (like ours) into one plagued by legitimate fascist political movements. This is important to remember in a world where populism is rising and Donald Trump is our president.
Populism of all sorts tends to be bad. Populism is usually unpredictable, irrational and anti-empirical. It is often driven by emotions and resentment for a particular group of people, and it conflates the interests of the people with those of the populist leader. Trump’s populism is concerning for these reasons, but also because it is so unpopular.
Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post wrote an informative piece about the unpopularity of Trump’s central political objectives. Sixty-eight percent of Americans don’t support a trade war with China. Nearly 60 percent of Americans don’t support building a wall. Seventy-one percent of Americans don’t believe undocumented immigrants are more likely to commit crimes, and 59 percent of Americans don’t agree that undocumented immigrants are taking jobs from native-born Americans. These issues — economic protectionism and nativist nationalism — are central to Trump’s populist vision.
Trump’s unpopularity is glaringly evident in the recent debacle over the funding of his “artistic” wall on the Mexican border. Forty-eight percent of Americans blame Trump for the longest shutdown ever. The fact that most Americans blame Trump for the shutdown indicates that his overall populist vision is unpopular. The wall is as strong of a symbol as any of Trump's nativist, “spurious” nationalism, to quote the late Sen. John McCain. Populists, to use the German sociologist Max Weber’s terminology, need to routinize their authority. Trump came to office riding an oppositional wave. He defeated former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a moderate, establishment Democrat, and much of the establishment of the Republican Party — the self-identified “Never Trumpers.” His election was an act of cultural and political rebellion against the commonly accepted arbiters of normalcy in the media and politics. But you can’t lead a country solely with the rebellious ethos Trump ran on. Rebellions and revolutions of all types, to be successful, usually need to stabilize into a new status quo and sense of normalcy. But Trump’s presidency has been everything but stable, despite his claim that he is a “stable genius."
Trump’s administration has seen an unprecedented rate of senior aide turnover and a shockingly frequent change of senior cabinet members. He has left hundreds of key positions in government agencies empty. He has picked up the habit of not reading his intelligence briefings and continues to flippantly tweet about serious political matters. On policy issues, he is continuing a trade war with China and pursuing an immigration policy and a Middle East foreign policy that are widely seen as unwise. In essence, to govern effectively, Trump needs to become less of a populist. He needs to be more stable and poised. He needs to be more rational and empirical. He needs to stop acting like a child. But after two years in office, Trump shows few signs he will mature in his role as president.
The fact that Trump won’t govern effectively is concerning given the unpopularity of his core ideas. What his critics know, and more of his supporters may have learned from the shutdown, is that Trump is not effective nor responsible. His legitimacy needs to thus be charismatic. He needs to convince people that he is worth supporting despite his inability to govern well. This means he will need to double down on the oppositional populist wave that he rode to office. He will need to ramp up hatred of the enemies of “real Americans,” be they immigrants, Muslims or China. He will, as he has done with the wall, create problems where they do not exist in a twisted attempt to portray himself as the populist savior against the corrupt elite and “criminal” immigrants. If he refuses to govern and give up his populist act, then conflicts of political, cultural and even military sorts is the likeliest way to achieve legitimacy.
With prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation, the trade war, the impasse over the wall and the next presidential election coming up, Trump will have plenty of opportunities to create and exploit conflict to boost his populist charisma. Should any of these conflicts spiral out of control, plus if our economy hits a recession, it isn’t inconceivable that Trump’s populist movement veers closer to a fascist one, or that new fascist movements rise to the occasion as serious political forces. To prevent this from happening, we should continue to challenge Trump’s populism: meeting his incivility with civility, false claims with empirically-based claims, partisanship with bipartisanship and centrism. Populism is often said to pop up when there are real issues left unaddressed in a liberal democracy. But populists are rarely fit to fix those problems. In 2020, let's elect someone who is actually stable and competent. They don’t even need to be a genius.
Aaron Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.