A populist, by definition, is “a member or adherent of a political party seeking to represent the interests of ordinary people.” But in today’s context, with regard to President Trump and his ‘populist’ agenda, this definition does not suffice. When you think of “ordinary people” do you envision a man worth of 3.7 billion USD; a man who disrespects those who are different than he, using sexists or racially charged stereotypes as his weapon of choice? Do you envision a liar, a discriminator, a divider who seeks to “Make America Great Again” by separating its people and heightening borders while threatening border relations? Has this become our new idea of “ordinary” or are we missing something?
This list of characteristics that establish who I’ve come to know as President Trump separates him from the general commonwealth of the United States. Why then, is he portrayed as a man of the people—a populist? Uri Friedman, a journalist for The Atlantic, attempts to explicate Trump’s populism by first identifying that “[p]opulists are dividers, not uniters, Mudde* told me. They split society into ‘two homogenous and antagonists groups: the pure people on one end and the corrupt elite on the other,’ and say they’re guided by the ‘will of the people.’” In this respect, Trump may very well be a populist because he has divided the American people into two categories: his supporters—the pure people who he seeks to represent—and the corrupt elite.
Trump’s attack on the corrupt elite has labeled him an anti-establishment representative, and on account of such, he has captured the attention of Americans who felt they were not represented in previous elections. These select Americans admire Trump because Trump’s voice resonates with his supporter, unlike previous candidates in the past. We could address that whereas previous candidates are averaged at an upper-grade reading level, Trump’s rhetoric is at an elementary reading level, which complements the mass of uneducated citizens that voted him into office, or we could analyze how his rhetoric manipulates his supporters into believing he is a man of the people.
Friedman suggests that Trump was not always set on marketing himself as a populist, which is evident in his presidential-announcement speech where he focused on the self, using “versions of the word ‘I’ 256 times. In his Inaugural address, he used those words three times.” This transition in rhetoric, as well as Trump’s fixation on the size of his inauguration crowd and his accusations against the media, are the coalition of tactics Trump carries out in order to represent himself as a man of the people in light of populism. Mudde determines that Trump “who clearly is not a commoner, can nevertheless pretend to be the voice of the people” because “[h]e doesn’t argue, ‘I am as rich as you.’ What he argues is, ‘I have the same values as you. I’m also part of the pure people.’”
With that being said, we must identify a) what values does Trump represent, b) what people share these values, and c) do these values and the people who support them truly represent the general interest of ordinary people? The answers might surprise you. Or not. Only time can tell whether Trump’s intentions are truly in line with us, the people of the United States.
* Cas Mudde is a professor at the University of Georgia and the co-author of Populism: A Very Short Introduction.