The Unchecked Power of Populism

The attack on The United States Capitol was the result of a dangerous idea called “populism,” one that our nation must start to address.


Gavin Zhang

Over the past few months, many Americans have pointed out the irony of a mob of self-described “patriots” storming the American Capitol. Rather than simply dismissing it as a nonsensical move by a nonsensical movement, however, we should consider how this strange contradiction highlights the populist foundations of Donald J. Trump’s political agenda and its inherent dangers.

The word populism describes any kind of ideology that claims to represent the interests of “the people” while opposing “the elite.” Populism can exist throughout the entire political spectrum, and different kinds of populism have different definitions of who exactly “the people” and “the elite” are. For instance, a left-leaning populist might focus on the economic elite’s role in perpetuating income inequality and poverty. On the other hand, a right-leaning populist might focus on the corruption and selfishness of the political elite and how their lack of transparency and action impacts their nation’s interest. Many American right-wing populists, specifically, consider the “American people” as the group of people who embody the things that make America exceptional.

This description of right-wing populism may seem familiar to many Americans: it describes a significant component of the political ideology of former president and Home-Alone-2-side-character Donald J. Trump. Trump has frequently described himself as a “man of the people” going up against the elite political establishment, going so far as to call the day of his inauguration “the day the people became the rulers of this nation again.” He implied that previous leaders have left the American people behind. According to him, these individuals have focused on issues that do not align with the interests of the American people––for instance, the interests of undocumented immigrants, foreign policy, or climate scientists allegedly fear-mongering about global warming. From his point of view, these political elites prioritize such issues over the American people.

Subsequently, Trump’s supporters claim that the former US president is unlike the political elite. They especially push the idea that he has the potential to create positive change due to his “outsider” status. One Trump supporter wrote in a 2016 Pew Research poll that “Trump is outside of the political corruption that has taken over the country” and therefore “the only chance to right this sinking ship.” Many believe that Trump’s career as a businessman (and his resulting inexperience in politics) means that he is above the petty political squabbles that have engulfed the political establishment. Another Trump supporter wrote in the same poll that “Trump is a business man, maybe a little bit of business and less politics is what this country needs.” In addition, his unpolished and brash style––his tendency to “speak his mind” or “tell it like it is”––makes him seem more approachable and familiar than our current sterile, stilted, atrophying political elite.

Because of his image as a representative of the American public, anything that stands in Trump’s way is seen by his supporters as an attempt to suppress the people’s will. This is why two-thirds of the Republican Party reject the 2020 election results—the populist Right has become so used to seeing Trump as a man of the American people that when he is rejected by voters, they are unable to accept it. Trump remarked in a rally he held a month after the election that “This is our country that they are…they’re trying to take it from us through rigging, fraud, deception, and deceit.” Trump’s movement takes for granted the idea that political control of the United States is its birthright—“our country.” Therefore, it interprets anything that vies for control as an unjust seizure of power from the people that are entitled to the country.

Because of his image as a representative of the American public, anything that stands in Trump’s way is seen by his supporters as an attempt to suppress the people’s will.”

The fact that any attempts at taking power away from Trump are seen as illegitimate by Trump’s supporters opens our political institutions up to harm once they inevitably try to limit his power. This is what happened during the Capitol insurrection––the supposedly illicit nature of the election was used as a justification for violent, coercive action against the political establishment as a last-ditch attempt to return power back to the people. Before the Capitol was stormed, Trump told the mob assembled outside to “fight like hell,” saying, “if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” Trump’s right-wing populist movement weaponizes its supporters against anybody who opposes the movement for any reason—including the limitations on the power of political institutions present in a healthy democracy—eroding the safeguards that keep a single movement from amassing an dangerously large amount of power.

It should be clear that the current Biden presidency, while certainly quelling right-wing populism, is still only a return to the conditions that gave birth to the movement in the first place. Many Americans will continue to feel alienated from the elite under this administration, and this feeling will likely be exploited under another demagogue—possibly one that is even more capable than Trump. Therefore, a return to what many might view as a “stable” presence in the White House is not enough.

 Ironically, the answer to addressing right-wing populism may lie in left-wing populist economic reforms. A survey conducted by the Washington Post found that many are populists because they believe that economic inequality in America is getting worse. Assuming that the survey results include both right-wing and left-wing populists (the article doesn’t differentiate between the two), measures aimed at reducing economic inequality could also help reduce the influence of populism.

Ultimately, we must remember that populism from any part of the political spectrum has the potential to pose a similar threat. The populist framework of political issues as a conflict between the people and the elite isn’t necessarily a bad thing by itself; however, we should be skeptical of any kind of political movement that uses populism to claim legitimate political control over the United States and justify the suppression of the limitations on power that we use to maintain our democracy.