What Is a Populist?

And is Donald Trump one?

A silhouette of Donald Trump at a microphone, with one hand raised and his index finger up, as if making a point.
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Why does Donald Trump exaggerate the size of his inauguration crowd, brag about his election win in conversations with world leaders, and claim without evidence that voter fraud may have cost him the popular vote? Why does he dismiss protesters who oppose him as “paid professionals” and polls that reflect poorly on him as “fake news”? Why does he call much of the media the “enemy of the people”?

There are explanations for these things that focus on the individual, characterizing Trump as a self-centered reality-TV star obsessed with approval and allergic to criticism.

But there is also an ideological explanation, and it involves a concept that gets mentioned a lot these days without much context or elaboration: populism.

What is a populist?

No definition of populism will fully describe all populists. That’s because populism is a “thin ideology” in that it “only speaks to a very small part of a political agenda,” according to Cas Mudde, a professor at the University of Georgia and a co-author of Populism: A Very Short Introduction. An ideology like fascism involves a holistic view of how politics, the economy, and society as a whole should be ordered. Populism doesn’t; it calls for kicking out the political establishment, but it doesn’t specify what should replace it. So it’s usually paired with “thicker” left- or right-wing ideologies like socialism or nationalism.

Populists are dividers, not uniters, Mudde told me. They split society into “two homogenous and antagonistic groups: the pure people on the one end and the corrupt elite on the other,” and say they’re guided by the “will of the people.” The United States is what political scientists call a “liberal democracy,” a system “based on pluralism—on the idea that you have different groups with different interests and values, which are all legitimate,” Mudde explained. Populists, in contrast, are not pluralist. They consider just one group—whatever they mean by “the people”—legitimate.

This conception of legitimacy stems from the fact that populists view their mission as “essentially moral,” Mudde noted. The “distinction between the elite and the people is not based on how much money you have or even what kind of position you have. It’s based on your values.”

Given their moral framing, populists conclude that they alone represent “the people.” They may not win 100 percent of the vote, but they lay claim to 100 percent of the support of good, hardworking folks who have been exploited by the establishment. They don’t assert that the neglected people who back them should be kept in mind by political leaders just like all other citizens; they claim that these neglected people are the only people that matter.

“Populists only lose if ‘the silent majority’—shorthand for ‘the real people’—has not had a chance to speak, or worse, has been prevented from expressing itself,” explains Jan-Werner Müller, a professor at Princeton University and the author of What Is Populism? “Hence the frequent invocation of conspiracy theories by populists: something going on behind the scenes has to account for the fact that corrupt elites are still keeping the people down. … If the people’s politician doesn’t win, there must be something wrong with the system.”

One might expect this argument to fail once populists enter government and become the establishment. But no: Populists—ranging from the revolutionary socialist Hugo Chavez in Venezuela to the religious conservative Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey—have managed to portray themselves as victims even at the height of their power, blaming their shortcomings on sabotage by shadowy domestic or foreign elites.

The notion of one virtuous people and one vile elite is a fiction, even if it does reflect real divisions and power dynamics in a given society. “There is no single political will, let alone a single political opinion, in a modern, complex, pluralist—in short, enormously messy—democracy,” writes Müller. It’s not that populists have some special mind meld with the masses. Rather, “populists put words into the mouth of what is after all their own creation.” As an example, Müller cites Nigel Farage, the former leader of the populist U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), who called Britain’s vote to leave the European Union a “victory for real people,” as if the 48 percent of British people who voted to remain in the EU were “somehow less than real—or, rather, questioning their status as members of the political community.”

Populists “tend to define the people as those that are with them,” Mudde said. The mark of a populist isn’t which specific groups of people he or she includes in “the people” or “the establishment.” It’s the fact that he or she is separating the world into those warring camps in the first place.

Stylistically, populists often use short, simple slogans and direct language, and engage in “boorish behavior, which makes [them] appear like the real people,” said Pippa Norris, a professor at Harvard University who is working on a book on the rise of “populist-authoritarian” politicians around the world, especially in Europe. They are typically “transgressive on all the rules of the game.”

Is Donald Trump a populist?

Something fundamental in Trump’s approach to politics changed around the time that Steve Bannon, now the president’s chief strategist in the White House, joined the businessman’s campaign, according to Mudde. Trump had been condemning America’s allegedly incompetent political leaders for decades. But when Trump launched his presidential bid, he was not, in Mudde’s mind, a populist. Over time, however, he’s come to style himself as one, in ways that help illuminate why Trump does what he does and says what he says.

Trump’s initial political vocabulary included the corrupt elite but not the pure people. Instead, in rambling speeches, he focused on just one person: himself. “Our country needs a truly great leader ... that wrote The Art of the Deal,” Trump declared in announcing his candidacy. Gradually, however, his speeches grew more coherent and populist. His remarks at the Republican National Convention—which were written by his aide Stephen Miller, who developed a taste for “nation-state populism” while working for Senator Jeff Sessions—marked a transitional moment. “I alone can fix” the broken system in Washington, Trump said, promising to serve as the “voice” of the “forgotten men and women of our country.” By Inauguration Day, the transformation was complete: Trump’s rhetoric was thoroughly populist. “January 20th, 2017, will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again,” he proclaimed. That speech was written by Miller and Bannon, who envisions Trump leading a new “economic nationalist movement” modeled on the “populism” of the 19th-century U.S. President Andrew Jackson.

In his presidential-announcement speech, Trump used versions of the word “I” 256 times. In his inaugural address, he used those words three times.

Trump shifted from exclusively “selling himself” to presenting “himself as a vehicle of the people,” Mudde observed, and this allowed his supporters to feel part of something bigger than Trump. “You couldn’t be part of Trump, and that was what he sold before,” Mudde said. “That was where the genius came in. Before it was just one man standing against everyone. Now it was a movement that had him as its leader. That energized [people] much more.” (Norris pointed out that Trump usually portrays himself as a “paternalistic leader who will do things for the people” rather than seeking to directly empower them.)

The moral dimension of populism “explains why someone like Donald Trump, who clearly is not a commoner, can nevertheless pretend to be the voice of the people,” Mudde told me. “He doesn’t argue, ‘I am as rich as you.’ What he argues is, ‘I have the same values as you. I’m also part of the pure people.’”

And here’s where the ideological explanation for Trump’s seeming vanity comes in. If Trump is the only authentic emissary of the people, then how does he reconcile that role with unspectacular crowd sizes, weak poll numbers, the loss of the popular vote, mass protests by people claiming he doesn’t represent them, and critical media coverage of the policies the people allegedly want?

What, moreover, do these realities do to the mandate he claims from the people to take extraordinary measures like banning refugees and immigrants from whole countries, or pressuring Mexico into paying for a border wall?

As Trump told ABC’s David Muir regarding his fixation on the size of the Inauguration Day crowd, the media tries to “demean me unfairly ‘cause we had a massive crowd of people. ... Part of my whole victory was that the men and women of this country who have been forgotten will never be forgotten again.”

“The legitimacy of populists comes from mass opinion,” said Norris. Trump “doesn’t have legitimacy through the popular vote. He doesn’t have legitimacy through experience. He doesn’t have legitimacy through the [Republican] Party,” which institutionally has had a rocky relationship with Trump. “So he claims this mythical link to the people.”

Mudde remains skeptical that Trump is, in his heart of hearts, a populist. The chances he becomes more “elitist” in office are greater than for someone like the presidential candidate Marine Le Pen in France, who has been consistently populist for years, Mudde said. But “Donald Trump the politician today is a populist radical-right politician.”

While Trump has been inconsistently populist, Mudde noted, he has consistently opposed elites, demonstrated a nativist attitude toward immigrants, and exhibited “authoritarian streaks.” These could be described as his thicker ideologies.

According to Norris, who labels Trump a “populist-authoritarian,” nativist nationalism dwells on threats posed by outsiders, and revolves around “the idea that the country should come first, and that there are certain groups that are part of the people and they’re the ones who should get the benefits and rewards of that society.” (One recent study of European Union countries found that as the percentage of immigrants in a nation increases, so does support for right-wing populist parties; the journalist John Judis has observed that while left-wing populists typically defend the lower and middle classes against the upper class, right-wing populists defend the people against elites who they accuse of being insufficiently tough on a third group: outsiders like immigrants or radical Islamists.)

Authoritarians, meanwhile, think that the primary role of the state is to enforce law and order, fear chaos more than anything else, and instinctively respond to problems by “cracking down” on the perceived source of the issue, Mudde said. Some authoritarians disdain democracy even if they maintain its trappings, but Trump doesn’t appear to be one of them, Mudde added. Trump “has never really attacked the democratic narrative that the majority of the people should elect their leaders,” he noted. The president seems to believe that “I have been elected by the majority of the people—which of course he wasn’t, but that’s his frame—and so now everyone else should just accept what I do because I have the mandate of the people.” He seeks to underscore his “democratic legitimacy” by publicizing “shows of support.”

“To understand the current administration, populism is as important as nativism and authoritarianism, because [Trump] fires on all three cylinders,” Mudde said.

So what if Trump is a populist?

There’s been little comparative study of whether populists deliver better or worse results for their people than other types of politicians, according to Norris. Not much can be said definitively, for example, about the effect of populist governance on a country’s GDP growth, though a number of prominent populists, particularly in Latin America, have pursued disastrous economic policies.

But what does often happen is that populists, when they come to power and “actually have to deal with things on a daily basis, they often become more moderate as they gradually learn that bomb throwing doesn’t work when they’re trying to get things done,” Norris said. “And then they often lose their popularity over time as a result because they no longer have that appeal” of political outsiders.

Just because many of Trump’s policies—tax cuts that benefit the wealthy, for instance—may not actually help non-elites doesn’t mean he can’t be described as a populist, Norris added, noting that populists are “all over the place” on economic policy. Nor is Trump necessarily a fake populist just because he’s a billionaire who’s appointed a bunch of millionaires and billionaires to his cabinet. Populism as many scholars understand it is, in Judis’s words, more a “political logic” than a policy program or sincerely held belief system.

Sometimes, however, populists don’t moderate in office. And either way, empowered populists often pose challenges to the key components of Western-style liberal democracy: civil liberties, minority rights, the rule of law, and checks and balances on government power.

This occurs even as the popularity of populists exposes widespread dissatisfaction with the existing state of representative democracy. Populists are problematic for free societies, but they’re also responding to profound problems in those societies; they succeed when they tap into people’s genuine grievances about the policies pursued by their leaders. As Douglas Carswell, a member of UKIP in Britain, once told the BBC, “I think populism is a popular idea with which the elites tend to disagree.” Viktor Orbán, the populist leader of Hungary, an EU member, recently put it more vividly:

In Western Europe, the center Right ... and the center Left have taken turns at the helm of Europe for the past 50 to 60 years. But increasingly, they have offered the same programs and thus a diminishing arena of political choice. The leaders of Europe always seem to emerge from the same elite, the same general frame of mind, the same schools, and the same institutions that rear generation after generation of politicians to this day. They take turns implementing the same policies. Now that their assurance has been called into question by [Europe’s] economic meltdown, however, an economic crisis has quickly turned into the crisis of the elite.

But in being anti-establishment, populists typically aren’t just “anti–the other party or anti–particular interests or particular policies, which is normal politics,” Norris said. “It’s really being anti–all the powers that be in a particular society,” from political parties and the media to business interests and experts such as academics and scientists.

And that’s why populists can endanger democracy. “You can’t compromise in a moral struggle,” Mudde explained. “If the pure compromises with the corrupt, the pure is corrupted. … You’re not dealing with an opponent. An opponent has legitimacy. Often in the populist mind and rhetoric, it is an enemy. And you don’t make deals with enemies and you don’t bend to illegitimate pressure.”

As a result, “populists in power tend to undermine countervailing powers, which are courts, which are media, which are other parties,” Mudde said. “And they tend to do that through a variety of mostly legal means, but not classic repression.” In Hungary, for instance, Orbán hasn’t banned opposition newspapers; rather, his government has directed advertising by state-run organizations away from critical media outlets and toward friendly ones. Orbán’s government also lowered the retirement age for judges in an effort to fill those positions with loyalists.

Individually, these actions don’t seem so remarkable. But collectively, they “create an un-level playing field in which it becomes increasingly difficult for the populist leader to lose elections,” Mudde said. Such leaders “by and large wear out the opposition,” he added, noting that mass anti-government demonstrations in Hungary have withered in the years since Orbán took office. “After a while, it starts to become normal, you start to worry more about speaking out, and everything kind of falls in place.”

“Democracy in the sense of popular sovereignty and majority rule, where the people elect their leaders, even [Russian President Vladimir] Putin upholds this,” he said. “Even Erdoğan upholds this. But they do that in a situation where it’s virtually impossible for real opposition to mobilize.”

“Populism knocks over some of the liberal-democratic safeguards,” Norris said. “What flows in when the door is open depends on the ideology that that particular party is putting forward.”

Populists are certainly not alone in seeking to consolidate political power. But unlike other power-hungry politicians, they can do so openly, Müller notes: “Why, populists can ask indignantly, should the people not take possession of their state through their only rightful representatives? Why should those who obstruct the genuine popular will in the name of civil service neutrality not be purged?”

While marginalizing opponents, populists also tend to openly dole out favors to their supporters. “In a sense,” Müller writes, “they try to make the unified people in whose name they had been speaking all along a reality on the ground. … Populism becomes something like a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Mudde struggled to cite a populist elsewhere in the world who reminds him of Trump. Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines has a similarly authoritarian vision of leadership, Mudde noted, but he doesn’t embrace Trump’s narrative of democratic legitimacy. Silvio Berlusconi in Italy was also a brash, billionaire populist, but he was more ideologically moderate than Trump. Geert Wilders in the Netherlands is outspoken on radical Islam and active on Twitter, but he’s a skilled, professional politician. “The amateurism of Trump is absolutely unique,” Mudde said. “I honestly have never seen anything like that in an established democracy.”

Mudde said it was difficult to predict the impact Trump’s populist presidency could have on American democracy because the populists he’s studied in advanced democracies have ruled in parliamentary coalitions, meaning they haven’t held as much power as a president in the U.S. system does. The populists who’ve led presidential systems are largely in Latin America, which has weaker political institutions than the United States does.

“Trump is so unique in so many different ways that it’s very hard to [draw lessons] from other countries,” Mudde said. Still, he argued that the threat Trump represents for liberal democracy is an incremental one that could grow over the course of four or eight years, especially if Trump’s fellow Republicans, who at the moment have “more than enough power to stop Trump whenever he would push beyond what liberal democracy allows,” decide not to stand up to the president. Alternatively, the threat could expand in the event of a crisis. Consider what happened with President George W. Bush after 9/11, “when we were rallying around the flag of a liberal democrat in [2001], with the Patriot Act,” Mudde observed. Now imagine what might happen after a major terrorist attack in a country led by an “illiberal democrat.”

“All of these measures are small measures,” Mudde said. “And they have a cumulative effect over years. It is some oppositional newspapers that disappear; others start to self-censor. It is various forms of disenfranchisement, all the time a little bit extra, which drops off parts of the electorate. It is the appointment of more and more judges at all kinds of levels who don’t challenge the administration. … This is chipping away at protections.”

Noting the low levels of public trust in the press and political institutions, and Trump’s sustained campaign to further undermine that trust, Norris foresaw not “an overnight revolution,” but a “drip, drip, drip” deterioration in America’s already troubled democracy. “Faith and confidence in your institutions,” she said, is the “cultural basis for democracy.”

The irony, Müller writes, is that populists, after coming to power, tend to commit the same sins they ascribe to elites: “excluding citizens and usurping the state. What the establishment supposedly has always done, populists will also end up doing. Only with a clear justification and, perhaps, even a clear conscience.”