„Trump, a Populist? Stress Test of a Concept“ | Blog Series on Populism #3

– by Alex Holzienkemper

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German version of this article

Rarely has so much uncertainty and concern arisen from a US election as in its 2016 installment. American liberals and many European observers are still in somewhat of a state of shock, shaking their heads in light of the puzzling nature of both the victorious candidate himself and the US electorate which elevated him into the White House. The blend of extremely simplified narratives and visions provided by Donald Trump, disregarding any nuance in assessing complex global problems, a strong emotional resonance among his supporters, clear distinctions of insiders and outsiders, and rigid “we-they” thinking can indeed be quite perplexing.

Donald Trump 2016 (CC)

Donald Trump 2016 (CC)

In trying to make sense of such phenomena, one senses a renaissance of nationalism in the US, as well as in numerous EU countries, and in Russia. In trying to interpret these movements, the term populism quickly comes into play as a helpful crutch. But the question arises as to whether the classification of a politician or a political movement as populist provides much of an epistemological gain, or whether it might even obstruct new insights. For one, the term populism is itself a rather vague one, and it also frequently contains an accusatory and self-gratifying tone within it.
Currently, there is much discussion surrounding Jan-Werner Müller’s notion of populism. Müller highlights two phenomena in particular, which he deems characteristic of populism – the idea of representing a single, homogenous will of the people, and the sense that one is the only person or party that is capable of implementing that will. In the case of Trump, there have indeed been frightening statements in which he has cast himself as that sole enabler of the will, e.g. during his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, claiming that since nobody knows the system as well as him, he would be the only one capable of fixing its problems. Whether he claims to represent one, single, homogenous will of the people, however, remains somewhat unclear. Since his election, he has struck a slightly conciliatory tone, claiming to want to unify the country, but the rhetoric during the campaign hardly contained such appeasing overtures. In the following, I want to test and further articulate Müller’s notion of populism with an eye to three sociological aspects of American society (the urban-rural divide, education, and religion). These three aspects are often resorted to in interpreting election behavior and results, yet they often remain insufficiently illuminated both in their own right and in their complex interwovenness.

For starters, consider the alienation between urban and rural areas in the United States. Visually, it is stunning to see the degree of separation between (blue, Democratic) urban areas and (red, Republican) rural areas. For many Republican voters, this is taken as an indication of the disconnection from reality on the part of urbanites/Democrats/liberals. On such a reading, it reveals the abyss between what visually resembles a minority urban elite and the apparent majority of the people. Yet, this self-justifying view is often reversed by liberals who lament conservative politicians misleading purportedly backward, uneducated hillbillies or rednecks in order to gain votes for their own power-hungry ends. For many European observers, the main thrust that sticks is the visualization of an urban-rural divide, with individual fates overlooked in the metapicture. The charge of populism is then usually invoked by liberals, whose accusation is marked by a self-image of urban progress and an other-image of rural backwardness or lack of education. This condescending urban consensus, often perpetuated by a fair share of media outlets, does not remain without effect on the self-esteem of rural voters. With regards to Müller’s core characteristics of populism, the accusation thereof ironically only sticks from within a conservative understanding which views large rural areas as more representative of a “real America” that opposes urban elites. It does not hold water from within a liberal framework that concedes a plurality of American cultures or group identities.

Blue (democratic) urban areas vs. red (republican) countryside in the US election 2016

Blue (democratic) urban vs. red (republican) rural areas in the US election 2016

The discrepancy in education levels represents another contentious point for accusations of populism, often in connection with the urban-rural divide. The differing levels of quality in K-12 education indeed play a tremendous role in maintaining, or even deepening socioeconomic disparities. And in fact, data indicate that the level of education was one of the most telling factors for voting behavior in 2016. How often has one heard the outcry “How stupid can these people be?” in the past months! And soon enough, we find ourselves confronted with the (understandable) charge that Trump was offering undereducated masses (often also rural, but certainly not only!) oversimplified solutions, that they were naively buying what he was selling, and that led to his surprising victory. On this reading of the populism accusation, there is still an element of self-justification, seeing as the accusation itself relies on the observer necessarily seeing through this deceit and standing above it, thereby embodying a contrast of admirable intelligence. Two things should be kept in mind here. Even if education played a role in voting behavior, it was far from being a homogenous factor. There were also plenty of well-educated (and economically untroubled) people who cast their vote for Trump. What is disconcerting, however, is the degree to which both public and private education in the US do not exactly alleviate social inequality, but might even reinforce it. A populist politics might be able to publicly boast about representing average citizens, but continue to subvert democratic will formation by continuing current educational policy. Such politics could reject the charge of being antidemocratic at a theoretical level, while still pragmatically undermining democracy.

A third factor which is frequently resorted to in interpreting electoral patterns concerns religion, especially that of white Christians in the US. And in 2016, the trend of more recent elections has solidified itself – the overwhelming majority of white Christians voted for the Republican candidate. What is particularly curious is that even most white Catholics have come to vote for the Republican candidate, a development which has especially materialized since the second election campaign of George W. Bush. Strategically, this was a no-brainer for Trump – if voters are unsatisfied with the two given options, white Christians often content themselves with a single-issue vote. Thus, this year’s candidate simply had to solidify his previously ambiguous record on abortion and promise to nominate a conservative judge for the Supreme Court, and he could rest assured of a sizeable chunk of the vote. But even in this context, it is difficult to gauge whether this strategic behavior can be classified as straight-forward populism. Even though Trump made numerous comments during the campaign which led to the chagrin of many minorities, it is difficult to claim that he clearly claimed this majoritarian Christian identity for himself, or that he clearly identified himself as Christian. While the election results hardly indicate it, there has been a heated debate within Christian circles as to whether a vote for Trump could be reconciled with a Christian conscience. It remains unclear whether this strategic manipulation of a predictable voting tendency can be clearly marked as populist, or rather what would be gained by such classification. Orienting one’s political platform along the lines of majority opinion would seem like a rather democratic virtue at first sight. Here, we encounter the criticism expressed by Richard Gebhardt with regard to Müller’s notion of populism. Gebhardt claims that Müller’s notion underestimates the fluid borders between populism and what is commonly held to be democratically legitimate. Where does apparent democratically legitimate politics end and antidemocratic populism begin? Is Trump’s steering towards significant voter consensus democratic or populist and antidemocratic?

Müller’s concept of populism thus does not seem to fully fit with the case of Trump’s victory. But that does not necessarily mean that his conceptualization is misguided. Rather, the phenomenon of Trump 2016 might simply be underarticulated through its classification as populist. Presumably, Müller would concede that certain populist tendencies are at least partially responsible for Trump’s electoral victory, yet his two core characteristics – single, homogenous will of the people, and sole ability to implement it – are not clearly fulfilled. As foolhardy as his rhetoric has been, and as much as it has lent a sense of legitimacy to racist resentment, Trump has also been careful not to officially propagate anti-pluralism or control over a homogenous will of the people. After all, that would be bad for (his) business.
Boiling the 2016 election down to Müller’s term thus seems out of place. Without a clear invocation of a monolithic will of the people and its interpretive prerogative, the charge of populism loses its bite. Two other aspects seem nonetheless more fruitful and no less unsettling for insights into the recent election. First, public political discourse in the US seems to settle ever more on mere identity politics. As the realms of politics and entertainment become increasingly enmeshed, critiques of the culture industry in the vein of Adorno and recognition theoretical approaches seem to gain in relevance. Secondly and tightly connected to that, one recognizes a vulgarization and decomposition of political philosophy, especially with Trump and co. The philosophical incoherency of Trump is particularly difficult to digest.
Concerning identity politics, consider a recent column by Mark Lilla (which has caused a bit of a stir), who challenges the liberal guiding principal of identity inclusion. Lilla is certainly not invested in criticizing cultural diversity. To the contrary, he highlights the fact that diversity in the US is indeed on the rise. However, he does highlight the very obvious oversight of a voting block by the Clinton campaign – white voters who have come to feel more alienated from the political status quo. Inclusion of all cultural identities is, of course, a laudable principle, but, as Lilla states: “If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all of them.” In this regard, recognition theory might provide a more insightful departing point than notions of populism.

Regarding the philosophical incoherency of Trump’s politics, we are unfortunately reminded of a 1996 essay by Umberto Eco, in which he outlines characteristics of an Ur-fascism drawing on memories from his childhood under Italian fascist rule. Many of these characteristics could certainly be viewed as populist, e.g. the fear of otherness, the appeal to a frustrated middle class, prevailing convictions of conspiracy theories. Under point two, Eco explicates the notion of fascist irrationalism as part of a “blood and earth” ideology. Such irrationalism seeks to instrumentalize modern industry for its own ends, but resists the spirit of modernity. While Trump cannot be said to invoke the “blood” aspect of such an ideology, his fantasies of a wall between the US and Mexico certainly toys with a sense of the “earth” aspect.
And yet, these two aspects – overemphasis of mere identity politics and philosophical discombobulation – should not come as historical surprises. Rather, they seem to be part and parcel of the American case of privatization of religious faith and ethical systems. Whereas the United States’ prevailing embrace of religion might come across as an historical anomaly of modernization from a European perspective, it is precisely this primacy of religious faith that has come to contribute both to an emphasis on identity politics and politics’ philosophical discombobulation. Religious identification remains strong, but it divides more than it unites. The historical persecution of religious minorities in Europe has certainly had lasting effects in hardening denominational differentiations (in turn leading to their identitarian protection), and in so doing also neglecting the need for shared, discursive will formation among the democratic citizenry. The dictum “to each his own“ thus paradoxically becomes the sole common denominator of American citizenship.
The concept of populism does not seem fully applicable to the case of Trump, at least not according to the criteria highlighted by Müller. Nonetheless, our reflections along its lines point towards an immense philosophical void in American political consciousness; the actual legitimizing force – the political commonwealth – has been lost from sight. And this might indeed be yet more alarming than merely identifying Trump as a populist. After all, the notion of public legitimacy necessary for a democracy (and even for a populist!) appears to be degenerating to mere shouting matches in the idolized marketplace. Particularist identity politics turn into an entertainment-complex political zero-sum game – an ironic twist that brings about a struggle for recognition which fails to recognize the intersubjectivity inscribed in itself.

About the author:
Alex Holznienkemper, Ph.D., is a Lecturer of German at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. His research interests concern Critical Theory and the Philosophy of Language, Secularization theories and Contemporary Literature, as well as intellectual history in general.


Sarah Kaschuba

Sarah Kaschuba studierte Soziologie und Geschichte (B.A.). Zurzeit studiert sie Soziologie (M.A.) an der Universität Potsdam und der University of Mississippi. Sie beschäftigte sich thematisch insbesondere mit soziologischer Theorie, kollektiver Gewalt und Rechtsextremismus.

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