Perhaps more interesting than the subject of exactly where Donald Trump came from to seize the ultimate prize of the American political system is to wonder where were all the people who came out of obscurity to vote for him. The same way that nobody really gave Trump a chance early in U.S. election cycle, the same forces failed almost completely to spot the millions who would emerge to eventually put him into the Oval Office. It’s called populism, and in its own way it’s kind of crazy.
A few years ago, the term “populism” was rarely heard, let alone capable of overthrowing entire governments. But now that it’s here, everyone is jumping on board and talking about how it could realign politics and democracy to work with the average citizen. That’s merely wishful thinking and deserves more consideration.
As Trump surged towards the White House, a CBS News piece talked of a huge wave of populism propelling the billionaire to victory. It also sounded kind of heroic in a way – the people rising up to overthrow the elites and take their country back. It seemed sentimentally revolutionary. But then an exit poll on Election Day by the same CBS News discovered that in South Carolina, 75% of Republican voters wanted to ban Muslims entirely from the United States. A few hours later, a Public Policy Polling (PPP) press release reported that a full one-third of Trump voters supported banning gays and lesbians from the country. More shockingly, 20% said Abraham Lincoln was wrong in his efforts and shouldn’t have freed the slaves. If this was populism, it was hardly what people were expecting. It must be acknowledged that millions of Trump supporters are neither racist or bigots; they are merely looking for change and a better chance at life.
It’s assumed that this new emergence of populism is based on the desire to get rid of the elites in charge of democratic regimes around the world. That’s too simplistic, as two American researchers – Jonathan Weiler and Marc Heatherington – unearthed to their surprise. Following a number of experiments, tests and data analysis, they discovered that most of the great disruption in American politics was not merely the byproduct of partisanship, money, or outright political manipulation, but the presence and emergence of one electoral group that nobody had really counted on – authoritarians.
In other words, much of populism is looking for leaders to take charge, and right now it tends to be more the neo-liberal elites they are after. They want the strong man, or woman, who will just seize the reigns of government and begin casting off the effects of all those Left and Centre-Left political experiments that have been going on in this past half-century. And neither is it merely an American phenomenon.
Back in 1880 to 1900, when the word “populism” rose to ascendancy, it was significant enough that it threw the traditional political system into disarray. Citizens rebelled, insisting on economic equality. That sounds pretty good, but as Conservative author Peter Viereck wrote of that time, underneath all the economic desire for fairness, “seethed a mania of xenophobia, Jew-baiting, and thought-controlling lynch-spirit.” And then when famed “populist” George Wallace ran for office he used the slogan “Trust the People.” The problem was that he was a white supremacist and avowed racist at the time, yet he received a huge following, not regardless, but because of his stance.
This brings us back to the study of Weiler and Heatherington. They looked hard into their data and concluded that the Republicans, initially campaigning on the traditional planks of law and order and family values, unwittingly drew, through Trump’s candidacy, a huge group of voters who were both Democrat and Republican, or neither, and who had a hankering for authoritative values. Where traditional Republican candidates brought out the usual Republican followers, Donald Trump drew from disenchanted voters that just hadn’t appeared on the radar of partisans or pollsters. The two co-authors reasoned that, “Donald Trump could be just the first of many Trumps in American politics.” As the report concluded:
“This trend had been accelerated in recent years by demographic and economic changes such as immigration, which ‘activate’ authoritarian tendencies, leading many Americans to seek out a strongman leader who would preserve a status quo they feel is under threat and impose order on a world they perceive as increasingly alien.”
So when we’re talking about “populism,” we are talking of a phenomenon that has no real definition or identity, other than average citizens scrambling for change – the very thing that makes the term so acceptable for activists who believe in democracy. It is only over time that societies in places like America, Germany, Denmark, or even Canada, discover grassroots populism might also bring on grassroots bigotry, prejudice, and deep division within the citizenry itself. This is the shadow side of populism that every nation must guard itself against, as Holland proved in its remarkable election this week.