In recent years, populism has gained momentum. Not only in countries where the phenomenon has been known for decades, but also in established liberal democracies around the world. Even the United States of America, the self-proclaimed flagship of the liberal world, elected a president who pursued a populist campaign, embraces a disruptive form of governing, and threatens the transatlantic relationship as well as the global order.
For the purpose of understanding Trump’s electoral success and identifying opportunities to combat the rise of populism in general, one first needs to comprehend its meaning and the source of its appeal. Without a doubt, this is a rather difficult endeavor because the term itself is extremely difficult to elucidate and cannot be tied down to a single definition. The word populism is widely used and broadly contested within public discourse, as well as within the political science literature.
The Meaning of Populism
Some scholars, like Cas Mudde, argue that populism must be understood as a thin-centered ideology, establishing an ideological framework of the pure people versus the corrupt elite, and demanding that politics should be an expression of the volonté general (general will of the people). While the basic characteristics remain the same, other scholars, like Paul Taggart, hold the opinion that populism must rather be considered a strategic form of organization, through which a charismatic leader seeks or even exercises government power based on direct, unmediated, and un-institutionalized support from large numbers of mostly unorganized followers.
Most convincing, however, is the notion of the Argentinian political theorist Ernesto Laclau, who defines populism as a rhetorical strategy and an inherent part of the logic of politics. The point of departure for Laclau’s analysis is the accumulation of unfulfilled social demands. If public confidence in the problem-solving capacity of the political system is persistently shaken, a populist moment occurs and initiates the following mechanism: through a clear, discursive demarcation of a common enemy—for example, elites, foreigners, capitalism, or globalization—the disappointed people are captured and mobilized. The antagonistic opposite is held responsible for the non-fulfillment of the original claims, and thus the social division “we” against “them” is established. Trump, for instance, did not campaign with proposals on how to bring back the American dream, but he successfully accused the political establishment or the “Globalists” of stealing it in the first place.
By emphasizing the affective dimension of politics, populist rhetoric thereby helps to overcome feelings of (perceived) powerlessness and translates them into a positive sense of collective self-empowerment. The original frustration of non-fulfillment transforms into political energy, which in turn expresses itself as antagonism to the original causes of disappointment, in most cases directed against the political establishment. A novel identity thus does not determine populist discourse, but is constituted by it.
Good Reasons to be Disappointed
This described notion of populism offers promising ways to identify the sources of its appeal. Living in an interconnected world in which global capitalism is the measure of all things, first and foremost low skill workers are particularly vulnerable to the effects of globalization, meaning decisive relocation of production, ongoing modernization, and advancing automatization. Many have lost their jobs, have not received sufficient wage increases over the past few decades, or have felt forgotten and unprotected against “unfair” competition from abroad.
Yet, mainstream politicians have not found an answer to the demands for economic protection and security because they fear that such measures would lead to an uncompetitive market in the end. This dilemma, however, leaves an open space for populist actors to appeal to the emotions of those frustrated citizens and to pretend that they have magical solutions, while not providing any specific policy proposals (“Make America Great Again“). With arguments for economic inclusion combined with cultural exclusion, populists are pickpocketing different ideological agendas. Their strategies make it almost impossible for mainstream politicians to out-promise their populist counterparts in political campaigns.
Regaining Trust in Supranational Institutions
The most promising attempts to counteract the rise of populism are, therefore, efforts to regain trust in the political system and democratic institutions. Most people aspire for protection in a world of threats and pervasive disarray. Their romanticized memory of the nation-state, which once was capable of delivering that security, makes the electorate vulnerable to nationalist and nativist tendencies that are often inherent to populist movements (Trump’s “America First” and Brexit’s “Tack Back Control”). Yet, in in a globalized and interconnected world, the regulatory capacities of the nation-state are about to disappear. International capitalism, migration flows, and global terrorism are no longer bound by national borders and need to be addressed on the same plane. The retreat into the national idea exemplifies precisely the fallaciousness and will not lead to more security and protection.
But where there is risk, there is opportunity, too. Organizing global capitalism in a fair and just manner, uniting capabilities to tackle the roots of flight and migration, and joining forces to combat international terrorism might provide the very possibility to regain trust in the political system and its democratic institutions. The fruits of globalization must be distributed equally and the transatlantic partnership should be the shining pioneer of such an effort. The eradication of tax havens, the serious regulation of multi-national corporations, and a reasonable taxation for global companies can reinforce the idea of fairness, justice, and the promise of equal opportunities. Revenues that will be created by such measures should then be used for redistribution and reeducation efforts to lift up the current losers of globalization, to regain trust in the political system, and to combat the rise of populism successfully.
Unfortunately, current policies are just more of the same. Moreover, one might be willing to say that they are currently even worse on the American side of the Atlantic.
Julian Mueller-Kaler is a Fulbright-Schuman scholarship holder and graduate student at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, majoring in German and European Studies. He is a participant in AICGS’ project “A German-American Dialogue of the Next Generation: Global Responsibility, Joint Engagement,” sponsored by the Transatlantik-Programm der Bundesrepublik Deutschland aus Mitteln des European Recovery Program (ERP) des Bundesministeriums für Wirtschaft und Energie (BMWi).
The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.