Since this year’s election, we have all been trying to find the right word to describe President Donald Trump. Is he an oligarch? An authoritarian? A demagogue? An entitled white man seeking more power and money for his own personal gain? The answer, actually, may be simpler than any of those. Trump is a populist.
In the book “What is Populism?” Jan-Werner Müller explains what populism is and how it works. Described as a “permanent shadow of representative politics,” Müller argues that populism is a negative method of political representation. There is always a risk that a populist could rise up in a representative democracy. In order to be a populist, according to Müller, one must meet three separate traits: first, a populist must claim that they alone can represent a group of people properly; second, a populist is usually anti-elitists; and third, populists are almost always anti-pluralists. Throughout Trump’s presidential campaign, he exhibited these traits at seemingly every rally.
After Trump received the necessary amount of delegate votes to secure his nomination, he gave a speech at the Republican National Convention, outlining why he was running for president and how he and the Republican party were going to win on Election Day.
“I have joined the political arena so that the powerful can no longer beat up on people who cannot defend themselves,” Trump said. “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”
Trump had said similar things throughout his campaign, but this was the first time he exhibited, by Müller’s definitions, clearly populist traits. He showed to be anti-elitist — by referencing “the powerful” beating up the lower class — and representative by claiming he alone can fix the system.
What about being an anti-pluralist? Trump has shown, through his speeches and rhetoric, he is also exclusionary when it comes to the people he claims to represent. At a rally in May, Trump claimed that, “The only important thing is the unification of the people, because the other people don’t mean anything.” Does one group of people mean something more than another group? Trump’s actions as president also show his populist leanings, by signing executive orders on a U.S.-Mexico border wall and a ban of refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries.
Müller warned in his book that once populists are in power, “They will engage in occupying the state, mass clientelism and corruption, and the suppression of anything like a critical civil society.” Trump is no exception.
As reported by The New York Times, Trump’s administration has stopped government agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Parks Service from using Twitter and other forms of social media. This came after the National Parks Service tweeted images of Trump’s inauguration crowd.
Trump has also showed disdain for criticism by tweeting about The New York Times and CNN, calling them “fake news,” as he did this past Thursday, twice on Feb. 6, Feb. 4 and Jan. 29.
Lastly, Trump has shown to give way to clientelism by offering Betsy DeVos — a Michigan billionaire who, according to The New York Times, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone Magazine and others, contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Trump’s campaign — the position of Secretary of Education, even though DeVos has no experience with public schools in the U.S.
It is important that we remain watchful of Trump. We must stand up for our rights and come together to oppose him. At the end of the day, only the people can check his power. Know who your senators are. Know your representatives. Vote and engage in what is happening in this country. We the people of the U.S. got this man elected, and it will be we the people who reject him in the next election and check our politicians that are making his agendas possible.