The Forgotten Non-Populism of Donald Trump
In studies of populism published in the last six years, be they book length or short articles, you are almost definitely going to come across a mention of President Donald Trump. Seen as the archetypal populist, Trump’s behaviours in and out of office have become so influential on the studies of populism that you simply can’t escape him when discussing it.
Yet, those of us who study populism are confronted with something of a conundrum regarding Donald Trump. It seems as though, in contrast with typical received wisdom, two things about Trump buck the populist trend: first, his personal unpopularity; and second, the persistence of the MAGA movement.
The figure of “the leader” is a mainstay in studies of populism, though the role he plays has often been contested: for some critical thinkers, such as Ernesto Laclau, the truth that all populist regimes take the name of their leader is an attempt to impose a heterogeneity on an otherwise disparate movement, whilst more mainstream thinkers, such as Benjamin Moffitt, argue that the leader is merely the “head” of the body politic. Regardless of the hair-splitting, there is an agreed-upon prominence given to the populist leader; the archetypal leader in this regard is Hugo Chavez, from whom Chavismo emerges into the political world as a specific style of politics derived from the former Venezuelan president.
But whilst Chavez is the archetypal left wing populist, Trump is hailed as the right’s answer. Corey Robin, for instance, claims in The Reactionary Mind that “Trump’s ascendancy suggests that the lower orders are no longer satisfied with the racial and imperial privileges the movement has offered them”. Seeking a leader with whom they - the “lower orders” - can directly communicate, the average Trump voter sought someone who was prepared to work on their behalf, put them first, and, importantly, speak like them. There’s no surprise, then, that Trump is thought of as the primary example of a right wing populist, and as his political popularity rocketed,
We are confronted with an immediate problem though: how do we explain Trump’s personal unpopularity? As Sarah Longwell wrote in the run up to the previous election:
[White] women generally loathe Trump. When I ask why they rate him as doing a bad job, they rarely pull their punches. He’s a “narcissist,” “bully,” and “racist”; he’s “unprofessional” and “embarrassing” as well. They are dismayed by the chaos, the tweeting, his general nastiness and divisiveness. They thought that the bombastic showman they saw on the campaign trail in 2016 was an act and that Trump would rise to the dignity of the presidency. They agree—with a mixture of horror and bemusement—that such a transformation never took place.
Yet many of them were prepared to vote for Trump - and 55 percent of white women did. Why? Longwell’s answer is that the “political enemies” were perceived to pose more of a threat to America than Trump: “their real contempt was reserved for Democrats and “the media,” whom they viewed as unnecessarily adversarial to Trump”.
You can agree with Longwell, or you can disagree, but the point remains: Trump’s personal popularity waned as his political popularity rose. Usually, the two rise and fall in tandem. If we return to Chavez, the man was both personally and politically popular all the way through his life: “the people around him might be corrupt thieves, they told me, but not Señor Chavez. Never Señor Chavez.”
It is here, I think, that we can understand Trump’s appeal through Make America Great Again, a phrase that began life as a campaign slogan but has since become a movement in itself. Typically, populist movements live and die with their leaders, so the fact that MAGA has outlived the presidency of the man who popularised the term is of particular importance. An article from the New York Times put it well: the hat was unusual because it was “promoting a slogan rather than a logo or a name, and frequently worn by the candidate himself”.
Going even further, what was once MAGA has now spread around the world - here in Britain, we see (very rarely, it must be said) “Make Britain Great Again” hats, but it is telling that our erstwhile Prime Minister Boris Johnson echoed the phrase. Likewise, France and Germany have each seen their variations of the phrase employed. How do we explain this? Is this populist?
The question becomes, “how can it be?” Donald Trump is no longer in the White House and, by all accounts, is unlikely to be again. Of course, nothing is ever set in stone - he may well return. Yet, his popularity is declining outside of office, as we are likely to expect, and polls suggest this is probably the end of his political career. Never take polls as gospel, of course, but it is telling.
So why does MAGA persist? And why does it haunt the Democrats so? Why did Joe Biden feel the need to say:
Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic… there is no question that the Republican Party today is dominated, driven, and intimidated by Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans, and that is a threat to this country… MAGA forces are determined to take this country backwards — backwards to an America where there is no right to choose, no right to privacy, no right to contraception, no right to marry who you love.
It’s because, at a certain level, Biden is right, though whether he is cognizant of that fact is a different matter. MAGA does pose a persistent threat to the Democrats because, even though the movement’s head has been guillotined, the movement lives on. MAGA is likely here to stay, and shape American politics long after Trump has gone.
But what does this mean for our understanding populism? Does it mean Trump is not a populist? Not really: Trump’s politics evinced too many hallmarks of populism to not be considered as such, for instance the (at least) sceptical approach to institutional politics, the targeting of elites, and a desire to see the national prioritised over the international.
Yet, this does pose some more interesting questions, such as: what comes after populism? Molly McCann was absolutely right when she pointed that there was no going “back to normal” after Trump. I have argued elsewhere that populism is not a specific package of policies, but simply a manner of doing politics, but once that style has had its way, once it has torn down its targets, what then? Is it a case of “the great realignment” that Matthew Goodwin believes the Republicans are seizing on, or is it more that populism is an ephemeral, passing phenomenon? Britain and America offer two really interesting case studies of post-populist politics, but that is the matter for a different article.
The most interesting question, however, is what this means for the role of the leader in populism. As I say above, populism is usually imagined to live and die by the popularity of its leader and, by and large, it has, with figures like Chavez, Evo Morales, Juan Peron, and so on proving this as their countries struggled to govern properly once they had left. But if populism can morph and take on a life after the leader, does this mean we need to reimagine populism?
So much of Trump’s presidency has affected the study of populism, but it seems as though, now he is out of office, that interest has faded. In reality, his populism is still with us, and should be understood properly.