Liberals misunderstand the seductive appeal of populism

The author, a professor at Princeton University, is currently a fellow at the Berlin Institute of Advanced Study

Election results often resemble Rorschach tests more than X-rays: we read into them what we knew all along. Politicians and pundits see Donald Trump’s surprisingly strong showing as a confirmation of the power of right-wing populism. Instead of the expected blue wave, we got a deeply divided result. Strong rural and conservative support may not have been enough to return Mr Trump to the White House, but it seems set to remain a central force in 21st-century politics. Yet such interpretations illustrate how liberals misunderstand populism.

Liberals like to think that they comprehend complexity while populists seduce the masses with simplistic solutions. Yet liberals have also lapped up tweet-length explanations of supposedly uniform global trends, as it makes the world so much easier to describe. Mr Trump’s triumphs set them on a search for the most real of all real Americans in some Midwestern diner. Now they are likely to fall for his boast that the Republicans have become the party of the “American worker” — who is indeed being stiffed, but above all by Mr Trump and his party.

Liberals forget that successful movements are not based on a monolithic political identity. Trumpism has always been different things to different people. Hence one cannot just subtract Mr Trump from Trumpism. US conservatives might hail Trumpism as “socially conservative, multi-ethnic economic populism” minus a norm-breaking reality TV star. But they forget that Mr Trump’s antics appealed to folks with anti-establishment attitudes. A smooth demagogue like Tom Cotton, the Arkansas senator, will not necessarily have the same following.

Populists are not primarily characterised by anti-elitism. Rather they claim that they, and only they, represent what they call “the real people” or the “silent majority”. They condemn all political competitors as corrupt and, less obviously, insinuate that all those citizens who fail to support them do not properly belong to the polity at all. As Representative Jim Jordan, a Trump sycophant, tweeted a few weeks ago: “Americans love America. They don’t want their neighborhoods turning into San Francisco” — as if the Californian city were home to a foreign enemy within the country and its votes should not be counted.

Populism is not just a matter of style. How Mr Trump and figures like Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, tweet or dress is a secondary phenomenon. It is also not really a question of economic policy. Rather it is an exclusionary, anti-pluralist form of identity politics in which white Christians or Hindus are encouraged to believe only they are “the real people” — and that they are under relentless attack by enemies, be it folks from “shithole countries” or Muslims.

We know such leaders to be anti-pluralist because they tell us so in their speeches. The mistake is to infer that everyone who votes for them is also anti-pluralist, or even pays particular attention to what, after all, is only ever one part of a larger political package. It is not a mystery that even members of the minorities attacked by populist rhetoric might sometimes vote for populists — as apparently just happened, with more African-Americans and Latinos opting for Mr Trump. If what political scientists politely call “low-information voters” can be convinced that Mr Trump is a business genius who will revive the post-pandemic economy, or that Joe Biden has a soft spot for Cuba, it does not necessarily matter what Mr Trump said years ago about white supremacists in Charlottesville.

Populists are extremely clever at polarising societies, such that a significant number of citizens feel every election is an apocalyptic showdown between us and them. This is not enough to give majorities to rightwing populists. But their cause receives a crucial boost when they attract support from traditional financial and business elites who are willing to overlook authoritarian conduct in exchange for deregulation or lower taxes. After all, nowhere in western Europe or North America have rightwing populists come to power without the collaboration of established conservative elites.

Mr Trump was not the cause but the symptom of a larger trend in the GOP to adopt “plutocratic populism”. This consists of policies that mostly benefit the 1 per cent, in combination with relentless culture wars which distract from economic ideas that most Americans do not find particularly attractive. It is a truly troubling fact that plenty of voters are apparently willing to overlook authoritarian behaviour because they prioritise their partisan commitments, or economic interests, over democracy as such.

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