Populism is difficult to define because those who cloak themselves in its meaning and those who oppose it often invent their own definitions that suit their own causes. William Jennings Bryan, a Democratic nominee for President several times at the turn of the 20th century, claimed to be a populist because he wanted the US Government to peg the dollar to silver as well as gold, since most people owned silver as opposed to gold.
Strom Thurmond and Barry Goldwater claimed to be populists because their views aligned with “real Americans”, even though much of their platform stemmed from either segregationist and isolationist ideals. More recently, Ralph Nader claimed to be the populist candidate in 2000 by focusing on electoral reform, term limits, and environmental issues.
So, what makes a populist, a populist? Is Donald Trump a populist? Is Geert Wilders, or Marine le Pen, or Nigel Farage?
Political scientists have grappled with this question for centuries in an attempt to define an ideology known as populism; that is, sentiment expressed by ordinary people reflected in politicians who support such concerns. Using this definition, there is no one policy issue that lends credibility to a “populist” politician. In 2016/17, the main issues seem to be immigration and globalisation, not mutually exclusive concerns.
But if we are to define a populist politician, is it important that he or she be one of the “ordinary people” whose concerns have not been addressed by the “governing elites”? Last night, the White House released a statement describing that Mr Trump paid $38 million in taxes on a $150 million income. Surely, it cannot be argued he is an ordinary person. Populist movements have been hijacked by the rich and powerful to advance their own interests in the past. A perfect example is Vladimir Putin. In 2000, Russians were concerned about their economy, their shrinking role in the world, and the humiliation imposed on them by the West after the Cold War. Enter, Mr Putin. An “ordinary” KGB agent turned politician who wanted to restore Russia to its glory and prominence, he campaigned on a platform that spoke to the needs and wants of his people, and won. Everything he has done since has been implemented based on whether the action would help his poll numbers among the people, i.e., whether it’s what they want.
Some have argued that the invasion of Crimea was in response to his people voicing their concerns about the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine following the toppling of the Yanukovych regime in 2013. Putin has never been more popular.
So, is Donald Trump a populist then? At this point, it’s hard to say. For sure, he is tapping into the anger and frustration felt by many Americans that Washington is out of touch, particularly on issues of immigration, jobs, and trade. Whether these concerns are valid is not for to say- everyone is entitled to their own beliefs, so long as those beliefs do not harm others. And that is where the story becomes interesting. When people vented anger at the Obama Administration for enacting a programme for Syrian refugees, Donald Trump listened. He called for an immediate end to the programme and “extreme vetting” of anyone coming in to the country. As President, he put a temporary hold on all immigration from seven countries his Administration claimed had been “compromised by terrorism”. Interestingly, countries like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Mali were not on the list. His supporters loved it. His detractors went into apoplexy. His ego expanded.
Knowing full well he was successfully tapping into the “people’s” sentiments (the people being his base), he plowed ahead, calling for a $1 trillion infrastructure project, the wall with Mexico, and a renegotiation of NAFTA and all multilateral trade deals. Pause.
Is this really what the people want? Support for free trade deals is high in the United States and NAFTA has supported millions of jobs in this country, both directly and indirectly. How is he paying for the infrastructure programme? Massive tax cuts for the rich and more spending. More debt. Isn’t this what the Republican Party campaigned against for the past eight years? Speaker of the House Paul Ryan admitted Congress would have to pay for the wall and “bill” Mexico later. Translation: the American taxpayer is paying for the wall (which is really a fence, sort of). In other words, is this a direct mirror image of the people’s will, or is Mr Trump taking advantage of the support he has and selling them short?
Honestly, it’s too soon to tell but one thing is certain- no matter how hard one might try, once you get into elected office, the will of the people grows farther and farther away and political (and legal) reality sets in and you realise not all promises can be kept. And that’s when the counter-reaction begins. 2020 promises to be yuge for a clash of political ideals.