The author, a professor at Princeton University, is currently a fellow at the Berlin Institute of Advanced Study
Election results are often more like Rorschach tests than X-rays: we read into them what we knew all along. Politicians and experts see Donald Trump’s surprisingly strong demeanor as 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 bring Mr Trump back to the White House, but it appears to remain a central force in 21st century politics. However, such interpretations illustrate how liberals misunderstand populism.
Liberals like to think they understand complexity, while populists seduce the masses with simple solutions. However, the Liberals have also tweeted statements on supposedly uniform global trends, as this makes it much easier to describe the world. Mr Trump’s triumphs led her to find the most real of all real Americans in a Midwestern diner. Now they are likely to fall for his bragging rights that the Republicans have become the party of the “American worker” – who is stiffened, but mostly Mr Trump and his party.
Liberals forget that successful movements are not based on a monolithic political identity. Trumpism has always been different for different people. So you can’t just pull Mr. Trump away from Trumpism. US Conservatives could describe Trumpism as “socially conservative, multi-ethnic economic populism” minus a non-standard reality TV star. But they forget that Mr. Trump’s antics targeted people with anti-establishment attitudes. A smooth demagogue like Tom Cotton, the Arkansas Senator, will not necessarily have the same following.
Populists are not primarily shaped 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 assume, less obviously, that all citizens who do not support them do not belong to the community at all. Jim Jordan, a Trump sycophant, tweeted a few weeks ago: “Americans love America. They don’t want their neighborhoods to become San Francisco “- as if the California city was home to a foreign enemy in the country and its votes shouldn’t be counted.
Populism isn’t just a matter of style. How Mr Trump and personalities like Narendra Modi, India’s Prime Minister, tweet or dress is a secondary phenomenon. It’s not really a question of economic policy either. Rather, it is an exclusive, anti-pluralist form of identity politics in which white Christians or Hindus are encouraged only to believe that they are “the real people” – and that they are relentlessly attacked by enemies, be they human beings “Fucking countries”. or Muslims.
We know such leaders are anti-pluralist because they tell us in their speeches. The mistake is to conclude that whoever votes for them is also anti-pluralist or even pays special attention to what is, after all, only part of a larger political package. It is no wonder that even members of the minorities who are attacked by populist rhetoric sometimes vote for populists – as it seems to have just happened when more African Americans and Latinos vote for Mr Trump. If what political scientists politely refer to as “poorly informed 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 doesn’t matter What is Mr Trump said years ago about white supremacists in Charlottesville.
Populists are extremely adept at polarizing societies, so that a significant number of citizens see any election as an apocalyptic showdown between us and them. This is not enough to give right-wing populists a majority. However, their cause gets a huge boost when they get support from traditional financial and business elites willing to overlook authoritarian behavior in exchange for deregulation or lower taxes. Nowhere in Western Europe or North America have right-wing populists come to power without the cooperation of established conservative elites.
Mr. Trump was not the cause, but the symptom of a larger trend in the GOP to embrace “plutocratic populism”. This consists of measures that primarily benefit the 1 percent, combined with relentless culture wars that distract from economic ideas that most Americans don’t find particularly appealing. It is a really disturbing fact that many voters seem willing to overlook authoritarian behavior because they prioritize their party political commitments or economic interests over democracy as such.