Read: Populism is undefeated
He campaigned like they did, too, railing against the particular form of globalization that dominates this era and brings benefit to many, but disproportionately to the wealthy, leaving behind large numbers of people, especially in wealthier countries. He relied on the traditional herrenvolk idea of ethnonationalist populism: supporting a kind of welfare state, but only for the “right” people rather than the undeserving others (the immigrants, the minorities) who allegedly usurp those benefits. He channeled and fueled the widespread mistrust of many centrist-liberal democratic institutions (the press, most notably) —just like the other populists. And so on.
But there’s one key difference between Trump and everyone else on that list. The others are all talented politicians who win elections again and again.
In contrast, Trump is a reality-TV star who stumbled his way into an ongoing realignment in American politics, aided by a series of events peculiar to 2016 that were fortunate for him: The Democrats chose a polarizing nominee who didn’t have the requisite political touch that can come from surviving tough elections; social media was, by that point, deeply entrenched in the country’s politics, but its corrosive effects were largely unchecked; multiple players—such as then–FBI Director James Comey—took consequential actions fueled by their misplaced confidence in Hillary Clinton’s win; and Trump’s rivals in the Republican primaries underestimated him. He drew a royal flush.
It’s not that he is completely without talent. His rallies effectively let him bond with his base, and test out various messages with the crowd that he would then amplify everywhere. He has an intuitive understanding of the power of attention, and he played the traditional media like a fiddle—they benefited from his antics, which they boosted. He also clearly sensed the political moment in 2016, and managed to navigate his way into the presidency, though that probably had more to do with instinct than with deep planning.
Luck aside, though, Trump is not good at his job. He doesn’t even seem to like it much. He is too undisciplined and thin-skinned to be effective at politics over a sustained period, which involves winning repeated elections. He seems to have been as surprised as anyone else that he won in 2016. While he hates the loser branding that will follow him now, he’s probably fine with the outcome—especially since he can blame it on fantastical conspiracies involving theft or ballot-stuffing or the courts—as long as he can figure out how to escape the criminal trials that are certainly coming his way. (A self-pardon? A negotiated pardon? He will try something.)
Trump ran like a populist, but he lacked the political talent or competence to govern like an effective one. Remember the Infrastructure Week he promised? It never happened. Remember the trade wars with China he said he’d win? Some tariffs were raised here and there, but the jobs that would bring relief to America’s decimated manufacturing sector never resurged. In Wisconsin in 2018, the president announced “the eighth wonder of the world”—a Foxconn factory that was supposed to employ 13,000 in return for $4.5 billion in government subsidies. However, going into this election, the building remained empty, and the president lost Wisconsin in the Electoral College. (Foxconn hired people in the final weeks of 2019 to fulfill quotas for the subsidies, and laid off many of them right after the new year.) Most populists globally deploy wide patronage networks: state spending that boosts their own supporters. Trump’s model remained attached more to personal graft: He encouraged people to stay in his hotels and have dinner at Mar-a-Lago in exchange for access, rather than develop a broad and participatory network that would remain loyal to him for years. And when the pandemic hit, instead of rising to the occasion and playing the strongman, rallying the country through a crisis that had originated in China—an opportunity perfect for the kind of populist he aspired to be—he floundered.