Authoritarians, meanwhile, think 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 Orban, 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.