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.