The vote for Donald Trump may well have been what Michael Moore called the ‘biggest fuck-you ever recorded in human history’, delivered by the white working class to spite ‘the establishment’. But it isn’t just the size of the fuck-you that matters; it’s also who delivers it. A fuck-you can be sent via satirical parties (Iceland’s Best Party won the election for mayor of Reykjavik; Hungary’s Two-Tailed Dog Party had a hand in sabotaging Viktor Orbán’s recent anti-refugee referendum), or subversive parties (the Pirates), or grassroots movements turned parties (Podemos). Or it can be delivered by populists.
What defines a populist? Not everyone who criticises elites is a populist. Those who draw a lazy equivalence between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump fail to recognise that populists don’t stop at protesting against Wall Street or ‘globalism’. Rather, populists claim that they and they alone speak in the name of what they tend to call the ‘real people’ or the ‘silent majority’. This claim to a moral monopoly of representation has two consequences that are immediately deleterious for democracy. Populists accuse all other political contenders of being illegitimate. They do not talk in terms of disagreement over policy, which in a democracy is the very point of politics – presenting citizens with options, not just competing on competence and qualifications. Instead, they make it personal: their opponents must be crooked and corrupt. Trump is extreme in this regard, but not exceptional. The unusual thing is the degree to which his followers took his assaults on Hillary Clinton’s character literally. Not just the hateful chants of ‘Lock her up,’ but the fact that, according to one poll, 40 per cent of his supporters in Florida agreed with the statement that Clinton was literally a demon. It says something about the 2016 campaign that such a question could ever make it into a respectable survey. It did so after the right-wing talk radio host Alex Jones put out a new piece of ‘information’ on his website, InfoWars: both Clinton and Obama, he said, had actually emerged from hell; get close enough to them, and you could smell sulphur.
The second consequence of what could be called the populists’ principled antipluralism is less obvious. Populists hold that those who don’t support them – or who don’t share their sense of what constitutes the ‘real people’ – may not themselves properly belong to the people. In his speech the morning after the EU referendum, Nigel Farage claimed it as a ‘victory for real people’. Evidently the 48 per cent who wanted to stay in the EU were not quite real: they might not be part of the authentic British (or, more likely so far as Farage is concerned, English) people at all. Trump has espoused similar views. ‘The only important thing,’ he declared at a rally in May, ‘is the unification of the people, because the other people don’t mean anything.’ Trump defines who belongs to the people; no one else counts, even if they happen to be American citizens (and of course the rest of the world doesn’t count either).
Liberals misread Trump’s talk of unity and unification since winning the election ( ‘We will unite and we will win, win, win!’ he tweeted on 12 November) if they imagine it as conciliatory. Unity is possible only on the populist’s own terms; since nobody else can truly speak for the people, dissent and opposition are by definition suspect, even outright illegitimate. Trump’s announcement (again, on Twitter) that ‘We will all come together as never before’ is more of a threat than a promise. Democracy is only for real people.
Yet populism alone cannot explain what the president-elect himself now calls ‘the Trump phenomena’. Other populists have come to power in recent years – Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey or Viktor Orbán in Hungary – but none had succeeded in a long-established Western democracy. While the US election was extraordinary in many ways, in others it has been business as usual. As the American scholar Larry Bartels pointed out, 90 per cent of self-identified Republicans voted for Trump; 89 per cent of citizens who think of themselves as Democrats voted for Clinton. It isn’t surprising either that after two presidential terms for one party, there was plenty of anti-incumbent sentiment (Clinton was effectively perceived as an incumbent); or that some late-deciding voters prioritised ‘change’ – even if they considered the candidate who stood for ‘change’ problematic in all sorts of ways. This is all textbook American political science, and makes one thing clear: Trump would not be in the White House without his enablers – or, to put it less neutrally, collaborators – in the Republican Party. He could not have succeeded as a third-party candidate. Figures like Newt Gingrich and Chris Christie – characters with chequered pasts, but heavyweights nonetheless – were crucial in reassuring Republicans and right-leaning ‘independents’ that voting for Trump was OK. According to exit polls, only 37 per cent of voters considered Trump qualified to be president, so as the constitutional lawyer Jack Balkin put it, somebody had to tell Republicans that ‘although Trump is an unqualified son of a bitch, at least he is their unqualified son of a bitch. He may be a sinner, but he is not the Antichrist.’ Just as Farage needed Johnson and Gove, Trump crucially relied on men who were willing to gamble with the polity as a whole. The fact that Mitt Romney – a cartoon plutocrat – became the main face of opposition to Trump within the party probably helped him further.
But some elements of the conventional wisdom about American politics have been upended. Clinton raised almost twice as much money as Trump. Trump had no real organisation on the ground and failed to win any of the debates. What’s more, he had virtually no support in the mainstream media (though he did get seemingly unlimited free time on TV owing to his magic ability to drive up ratings). Future Trumpologists will have to tell us how much of a difference social media, as well as the parallel universe of right-wing websites and talk radio, really made. There are reasons to believe that Twitter and Facebook work especially well for populists. Twitter in particular can encourage a sense of what the Italian political theorist Nadia Urbinati has called ‘direct representation’. Contrary to what they would have their supporters believe, populists have no interest in moving from representative to direct democracy; they just think we have the wrong representatives, unless they themselves are in power. They do not seek an open-ended process of citizens deliberating among themselves; when they call a referendum, it is only so that the people can confirm what they have already identified as the single authentic will of the people – which is itself a function of the populists’ symbolic construction of the real people. However, they demand that all intermediary powers are cut out, whether complicated party apparatuses or the professional media – mediation, in the eyes of populists and their followers, is distortion.
Trump has called himself the Hemingway of the 140 characters. He has ‘the best words’. He loves Twitter, he says, because it’s like having one’s own newspaper, but without the losses. Twitter shares something of the echo-chamber effect of Facebook, but it also makes possible a form of direct identification between the individual citizen and the supposedly sole authentic representative of the people. It is hard to see how this might have been possible before, at least as a matter of daily experience: perhaps going to a party rally and feeling a direct connection with the leader while surrounded by others who feel exactly the same thing. Now, that sense of a direct link is just a click away, day and night: ‘Hey, I’m up at 3 a.m., and so is he, and he’s thinking exactly what I was just thinking!’
This is an illusion, but it is a powerful one. Media-savvy politicians can exploit it in unprecedented ways. For instance, in Italy the anti-establishment Five Star movement emerged from Beppe Grillo’s blog. ‘Hey folks, it works like this: you tell me what’s going on and I will play the amplifier,’ he’d written to his followers. Grillo had been a well-known comedian before entering politics. He has never merely amplified the concerns of ordinary people; the way il popolo speaks is decisively shaped by his leadership even though he has no official position of authority. Trump of course had also been a TV star, someone partly famous for being famous. But the peculiarity of Trump is that he seems the equivalent of Grillo and Silvio Berlusconi merged into one person. Whenever he was accused during the campaign of being just an entertainer, he could point to his competence as a businessman; whenever it was pointed out that his ventures mostly went bankrupt, he could respond that he was primarily a media star.
More important still, like Berlusconi he could present himself as a point of identification precisely because of his open contempt for the state, expressed in his unceasing effort to cut corners on taxes. Berlusconi sought complicity with Italians by winking at them: ‘I know you try to cheat, and so do I’; Trump did the same. His apparent lack of self-control probably came across as a mark of authenticity, and it was hugely entertaining: you never knew what might happen next. It’s an open question whether the taboo-breaking was spontaneous or not, but as with reality TV, what mattered was that it was dramatic and looked like a true expression of character. Trump’s revelation that as a businessman he gave money to every candidate and then called them to ask for favours isn’t so far from Yanis Varoufakis’s accounts of what really happens inside Eurogroup meetings. Who knows whether things really work like this? What matters is that the self-styled outsider confirms all our suspicions about what is wrong with the system. And even if we don’t like his ideas, we trust someone who lets us in on a secret.
Liberals have been wringing their hands at their seeming inability to reach citizens with ‘fact-checks’ and incontrovertible demonstrations of Trump’s continual self-contradictions. It’s curious that in their despair they have resurrected some of the clichés of 19th-century mass psychology. While disputing virtually every claim made by populists – especially their supposedly simplistic policy solutions – they buy without question the story that populists sell about their own successes. When Arron Banks proclaims that ‘Facts don’t work … You’ve got to connect with people emotionally,’ they just nod. But it isn’t true that ‘the masses’ are emotional basket-cases ready to be seduced by a charismatic demagogue. For a start, the neat distinction between reason and emotion is misleading. People are angry for a reason, and usually they can articulate that reason, as part of a larger story about what went wrong in their lives. Trump gained some trust as an outsider and, even more, as a credible exemplar of what it means to be unprofessional in politics. Some trusted him because he told it like it is; but in other cases the trust came first, and led them to believe that he was telling them the real story. That story may have been a tissue of lies, but it was coherent, just as, in its own way, Farage’s narrative about English freedom and EU dictatorship was coherent. Once you’d accepted that story, the Treasury-approved ‘fact’ that British families were going to be £4000 a year worse off outside the EU took on a different meaning: who wouldn’t pay £4000 for freedom and democracy? ‘What convinces masses are not facts,’ Hannah Arendt said, not without the cultural pessimism about ordinary people characteristic of her time, ‘and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part.’
There is only so much one can do to establish political identification on the basis of being a tax-dodger, let alone a sexual predator. Trump’s success depended on making many of his followers see themselves as part of what can only be called a white identity movement. Those chants of ‘U-S-A, U-S-A’ during his victory speech had been heard before, at rallies for Sarah Palin, in what she called ‘the pro-America areas of this great nation’. They effectively meant: ‘We had been robbed of our country; now it’s ours again’ (the words that feature most often in Trump’s rhetoric are ‘back’ and ‘again’). This isn’t the first time in US history that gains for African Americans have been followed by racist counter-revolutions (a ‘whitelash’, as Van Jones, Obama’s former advisor, calls it).
Yet it would be a mistake to think that Trump somehow revealed the truth that American society is essentially bigoted. Political representation is a dynamic two-way process, not a matter of reproducing some social and cultural reality that is always already out there. Contrary to what has been said in much of the commentary on the election result, there is no deep mystery as to the reason Obama won among white voters who this year went for Trump. Obama, whose own racial identity made it possible for him to put multicultural identity politics to one side, emphasised change and competence (against the old, out of touch and, in the face of the financial crisis, bumbling McCain in 2008) and inequality (against the cardboard plutocrat Romney in 2012).
Trump managed to make many white people – still the vast majority in the US – see themselves as part of something like an oppressed minority. This success went way beyond a working class who, in Moore’s phrase, might have used the ballot as an ‘anger management tool’ (in any case, the received wisdom about ‘the racist working class’ needs to be treated with extreme caution: the majority of the worst-off, those with incomes of less than $50,000 a year, went for Clinton, as did union households). Trump brought the ‘alt-right’ into the heart of his campaign: promoters of white supremacy were in charge of amplifying what, according to them, is really going on – the dangers of ‘white genocide’ and the global dominance of Jews like George Soros and Janet Yellen. Trump has now made Steve Bannon, the editor of Breitbart News, his chief strategist in the White House. Here too the Republicans have abetted or feigned ignorance. Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, who is slated to be Trump’s chief of staff, has said that Bannon can’t possibly be a racist because he attended the LSE and Harvard Business School. A charitable interpretation of Priebus’s claim is that he meant that really smart people know racist pseudo-science and conspiracy theories are rubbish; but since they’re smart, they also know how to make money out of them.
The crucial thing to understand is that populists can govern as populists. It is naive to think that a protest movement is bound to fail in power since the protest cannot continue once the movement is in government. And it’s not necessarily the case that all populists, on account of their unworkable policy ideas, will be seen as failures. The wall might not get built – but that can be made to mean something other than the breaking of a campaign promise. Trump would merely need to convince enough people that it was the enemies of the nation – globalists, Democrats, former beauty queens, whatever – who prevented the practical realisation of the imperative of white self-protection. The supply of enemies is inexhaustible.
There is one important difference between Trump and populists such as Erdoğan and Orbán. Those two leaders tightly control their own parties. Trump cannot simply impose his will on the Republican Party, which, in any case, has long been riven by infighting between the Tea Party, neoconservatives and business technocrats such as Romney. That said, there is little reason to think the Republicans will prevent Trump from taking the country in an authoritarian direction. After all, why stop Trump governing as a populist when they didn’t stop him campaigning as a populist? The party establishment and conservative intellectuals railed against him mainly on grounds of competence, not because he incited hatred against Muslims and Mexican immigrants. Only when he seemed a threat to their wives and daughters – evidently to be regarded as the property of powerful white men – were some willing to disavow the candidate. But they drifted back on board soon enough, even though by October, when Trump’s campaign appeared certain to sink, it would have seemed the rational thing to jump ship. Priebus set the example when he said he would always just ‘go with the flow’.
Even though Trump cannot be thought of as having a genuine popular mandate – as Reagan, for instance, did – opportunism may well make Republicans fall in line. Many will be happy to see taxes for the rich cut and the banks deregulated, and will give Trump a pass on everything else (trade may be the only really difficult point of contention). Trump can say that during the campaign he broke plenty of rules that grandees decreed couldn’t be broken; and nothing succeeds like success. If individual Republicans resist, Trump can always threaten to mobilise the ‘alt-right’ – and, more important, the ‘real people’ who voted for him.
In any case, Republicans are not the most credible defenders of the rules, constitutional and unwritten, about how far a partisan can go in American politics. It was Newt Gingrich who tested the limits when in 1995 he shut down the federal government during his epic confrontation with Bill Clinton. This game of brinkmanship has been repeated multiple times, most recently when Ted Cruz and his colleagues, in the fight with Obama over the budget, willingly took the risk of the US defaulting. The American constitution makes room for partisan conflict, but its premise is the desirability of co-operation within and between government branches. Add to this some recent history – Bush v. Gore in 2000, the lies in the lead-up to the Iraq War, and the bizarre shenanigans of the FBI – and it’s possible to understand why plenty of citizens continue to revere the constitution while also feeling that the political system is ‘broken’. According to some surveys, 40 per cent of Americans have lost trust in their democratic institutions.
But here is another peculiarity of populist politicians. They don’t respect procedures; all they care about, or so they say, is directly executing what they take to be the will of the real people. It is no accident that Trump refused to announce in advance whether he would recognise the election result if Clinton won (70 per cent of Republicans agreed that if she won, the election must have been rigged). Of course, all politicians think they are right and that their opponents are wrong; one of the things that distinguishes populists is the idea that a loss at the ballot box can’t be their fault, but must be caused by the elites scheming behind the scenes. If the silent majority could actually express itself, the logic goes, populists would win every time; they only lose when the elites somehow keep the majority silent. The perverse thing is of course that in the US there really is voter suppression. But it is Republicans who are responsible; they have effectively disenfranchised minorities by, for instance, increasing voter ID requirements.
A recent extreme, though not exceptional, instance clearly illustrates the populists’ lack of respect for procedure. On 2 October Viktor Orbán held a referendum on whether Brussels could settle migrants in Hungary without first consulting the Hungarian parliament. Constitutional lawyers have correctly pointed out that settling the issue in this way wasn’t possible under Hungarian law; the fact that the referendum received the blessing of the election commission only demonstrated the extent to which checks and balances have been weakened in Orbán’s regime. The referendum turned out to be invalid anyway: 98 per cent supported the government, but the quorum of 50 per cent participation wasn’t met. Even though Orbán had been completely in charge of the process (and had spent about $40 million on a media campaign against Muslims to frighten citizens into turning up at the polls), and couldn’t claim that it was rigged by hostile elites, afterwards he simply announced that, for the first time, ‘the people’ in Europe had had a true opportunity to pronounce on the migrant issue. He effectively declared the 3.3 million citizens who had voted against the legitimate claims of asylum seekers to be the real people, assumed that the ‘silent majority’ who had stayed at home agreed with him, and renewed his crusade against a Brussels supposedly dominated by ‘liberal nihilists’ who want to force multiculturalism onto European nations.
Within the EU, Orbán is the pioneer of populism in power. Like Trump, he has needed mainstream supporters; Angela Merkel and other Christian Democrats have been covering for him for years. Orbán was the only head of government in Europe to endorse Trump. On a recent visit to London, he gloated that Trump’s election means a return to ‘real democracy’, as opposed to the ‘liberal non-democracy’ the West has experienced in the past twenty years (never mind that more citizens voted for Clinton than Trump: real democracy is what the populist says it is). Celebrating what he called a moment of great intellectual transformation, Orbán announced that at last we could now ‘return to reality’ and engage in ‘liberating straight talk’ as opposed to ‘political correctness’.
Populists aren’t just fantasy politicians; what they say and do can be in response to real grievances, and can have very real consequences. But it is important to appreciate that they aren’t just like other politicians, with a bit more rabble-rousing rhetoric thrown in. They define an alternative political reality in which their monopoly on the representation of the ‘real people’ is all that matters: in Trump’s case, an alt-reality under the auspices of the alt-right. At best, populists will waste years for their countries, as Berlusconi did in Italy. In the US, this will probably mean a free hand for K Street lobbyists and all-out crony capitalism (or, in the case of Trump, maybe capitalism in one family); continual attempts to undermine checks and balances (including assaults on judges as enemies of the people when they rule against what real citizens want; and life being made extremely difficult for the media); and government as a kind of reality TV show with plenty of bread and circuses. And the worst case? Regime change in the United States of America.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.