If 2016 was the “populist earthquake” in which Donald Trump demonstrated that an iconoclastic, antiestablishment style of politics was possible in the United States, 2020 presented an opportunity for an anti-populist correction, one in which voters would turn out en masse against Trumpism and in favor of a pluralist, more tolerant form of governance under Joe Biden.
That political reset never came to pass. Instead, Americans proved once again that theirs is a deeply divided country, where populism—for all of its failures and false promises—remains an attractive, durable force. Even if Biden manages to win the White House, American populism is here to stay.
In some ways, the 2020 presidential election isn’t just a referendum on Trumpism, but a stress test for the viability of populism worldwide. This contest, after all, takes place against the backdrop of a global public-health crisis—a populist nightmare that bolstered support for establishment leaders, reinforced the importance of expertise, and cast favored populist wedge issues such as immigration to the wayside.
Despite these challenges, Trump was largely able to wage a campaign similar to the one he fought in 2016: railing against the “deep state,” chastising experts, and threatening to undermine democratic norms as sacrosanct as the peaceful transition of power. The competitiveness of the race suggests that this strategy wasn’t a total failure and challenges the conventional wisdom that populism is a flash in the pan, easily overturned, and that populists, once in power, are necessarily exposed by their inability to govern. If anything, this election demonstrates the opposite: Populists can still pit themselves as political outsiders representing the “real people” against the elite, even if they are indisputably part of that elite.
Had Biden won in a landslide, as some polls suggested he might, that of course wouldn’t have meant an end to populism, in America or elsewhere. The modern phenomenon predates Trump in a number of countries, many of which feature populists at the head of government (Hungary, Brazil, and the Philippines) and in parts of the opposition (Germany, Italy, and France). Still, the U.S. contest was seen as something of a bellwether—one that would indicate whether the world’s most visible and powerful populist could eke out a victory running as an antiestablishment candidate despite having spent the past four years reshaping the establishment in his own image. A Trump victory would no doubt buoy like-minded world leaders who see his success as a harbinger of their own, just as it did in 2016. “It makes a big difference if the most powerful country in the world does this,” Ruth Wodak, a linguistics professor studying far-right rhetoric at Lancaster University and the University of Vienna and the author of The Politics of Fear: What Right-Wing Populist Discourses Mean, told me ahead of the election. Were Trump to lose by a wide margin, she added, “it would show that this kind of corruption and the undermining of liberal democracy … that only works for so long.”
By prematurely and baselessly declaring victory, the president not only undermined faith in the democratic process, but provided his supporters and fellow populists around the world with a narrative to hold on to: that the election was stolen from him. Implicit in his demands for an early and arbitrary end to ballot counting in some states was an inherently populist idea: Only my supporters, the “real people,” deserve to have their voice heard. Though this sentiment was later repudiated by a number of leading Republicans, the message nonetheless spread, even beyond the U.S.’s borders. Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša was the first to preemptively congratulate the president. Other right-wing populist and nationalist leaders, including Italy’s Matteo Salvini, Germany’s Tino Chrupalla, and France’s Marine Le Pen, also voiced their support, though they stopped short of declaring him the winner.
So far, Trump’s efforts have failed. Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, states are continuing to count ballots as normal. The system is working. But even without a Trump victory, Trumpism is all but certain to remain in one form or another. The question then for Biden and the anti-populists who supported him is this: What does the decisive defeat of populism in America look like?
If the initial results are anything to go by, it’s not by campaigning for a return to a normal, more sensible politics. Though Biden was able to reclaim some states that the former Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton lost to Trump in 2016, and although beating an incumbent president is a rare achievement in and of itself (the last time this happened was nearly three decades ago, when George H. W. Bush failed to win reelection against Bill Clinton in 1992), his victory might not be considered substantial enough to merit inclusion in the anti-populist playbook.
“Lining up behind a ‘sensible, nonideological’ candidate I don’t think is a winning formula,” Benjamin Moffitt, a senior lecturer at Australian Catholic University and the author of Populism, told me, noting that perhaps the best example for anti-populists to follow is French President Emmanuel Macron, whose unlikely ascent in 2017 was driven in large part by the fact that he billed himself as a political outsider running against unpopular mainstream parties. Macron was the antiestablishment figure of his race—albeit without any of the divisive and nativist-populist baggage of his rival, Le Pen.
Anti-populists also need to prepare for the next possible iteration of Trumpism. With the Republican Party now ideologically situated alongside Europe’s more extreme right-wing parties, it stands to reason that the GOP would, even in the event of a Trump loss, continue in his footsteps. “There are people who have gone to his side who will emulate him, and they may very well do a better job,” Moffitt said, noting that Trump could find himself overtaken by an ideologically aligned leader who is less brash and more polished than he is. Such was the fate of Geert Wilders, the far-right Dutch politician who last year lost about half of his supporters to a new populist figure, Thierry Baudet. Baudet and his Forum for Democracy Party, Moffitt said, “learned all of [Wilders’s] tricks and have done a better job of it.”
Biden appears to be aware of this challenge, reaffirming in an address yesterday that his presidency would represent all Americans, irrespective of whom they voted for. “We are not enemies,” Biden said. “What brings us together as Americans is so much stronger than anything that can tear us apart.”
It will take more than unifying rhetoric to sway the more than 68 million Americans who cast their ballots for Trump this year. For them, the populist promise was a convincing one. In four years, they could be swayed by it once again.