From the AICGS Bookshelf: What Is Populism?

With the ripple effect of Donald Trump’s election still being felt not only in the U.S., but all over the world, many are scrambling to find explanations for how that happened. One widespread explanation is the rise of a populist surge—against parties, politics, and so-called powerful elites. But in order to understand how it happened, there is a need to describe what happened.

One of the explanations has to do with the concept of populism. Professor Jan-Werner Müller offers a short introduction to the dimensions of populist movements, with an eye on the U.S. and Europe, in his book What Is Populism?. It is a quick trip through the run-up to the U.S. election and delves into the more recent developments in Europe.

To start, Mueller sets out an assumption: that populism is a movement that is a danger to modern representative democracies. It represents an aspiration to represent the “real people” of a state, however the parameters are defined. But the danger is the demand that it is an exclusive right to define who the “people” are.

The founding fathers of the U.S. were aware of it—indeed they were keeping close watch on what was going on in France as the Jacobins ran wild. But they were also schooled in the notion of democracy being a complicated field that is vulnerable to those who want simple solutions. On the other side of the Atlantic, the horrors of the first half of the twentieth century had left Europeans well aware of the death and destruction dictators left behind after riding populist waves. They sought measures to protect themselves from it happening again after 1945. But what has recently happened on both sides of the Atlantic is shaking things up. Trump is only one of the illustrations.

In the past year we have seen a populist movement send Donald Trump to the White House on a wave in the U.S. few expected. We see similar trends sweeping across the European continent.

But what is this populist movement really? Is it made of nationalism, racism, anger, outrage, resentment? Is it left-wing, right-wing? Or is it all of those things combined? Müller says that populism has to do with a sense of conviction that there is a certain combined popular will among a defined group of people who see a common way forward to achieve a shared purpose. Leaders who know how to harness that energy are able to grab the mantle of the voice of the people and run with it. It is understood to be a movement.

Mueller looks at the strategic dimensions of populist movements and their leaders. He identifies common themes, such as efforts to “colonize” the government, inserting loyalists into nonpartisan bureaucratic roles, undermining the independence of the courts, and attacking the media.

Securing traction requires securing clientelism, buying loyalty for continued political support. Fighting conspiracies of enemies is built into the strategy, given the fact that it is a movement with antagonistic forces arrayed against it. If populist forces lose, it is because there is a conspiracy against it. “The problem is never the populist’s imperfect capacity to represent the people’s will; rather, it’s always the institutions that somehow produced the wrong outcome.”

So if those enemies defeat the movement, there must be something going on behind the scene that allows corrupt elites to continue to betray them. Once in government populist leaders unleash “discriminatory legalism,” applying the full force of law against enemies who still linger. The siege mentality permeates the movement.

Often the connection of populist movements across borders is an anti-capitalism, ethnic nationalist, anti-establishment, and indeed authoritarian emphasis in light of the need to protect itself from attacks. “Populism is strong in places with weak party systems, …. when identity politics predominates, populists succeed.”

Mueller identifies all these trends in the U.S. and European countries. He points squarely at the Trump campaign, which identified itself from the start as a movement. He looks closely at Hungary and Poland with governments which he says illustrate these characteristics. Even though the paths to the present are very different, the danger he points at is a temptation to narrow the definition of the word people behind the meaning of populism.

The book was completed in 2016. It is prescient in its tracking of the Trump phenomenon. But on either side of the Atlantic he sees the threat to democracy when the meaning of its representation is not open to expansion or contested between parties, but increasingly limited to a narrower group which proclaims themselves to be “we the people.”

In conclusion, Müller offers a few suggestions on how to confront these trends. While he mentions that populist movements have sometimes made it clear that parts of a population feel underrepresented, this does justify the populist claim that only their supporters are the “real people.” He suggests that supporters of liberal democracies need to focus on failures in the system of representation, to push harder at understanding how to set the boundaries of a polity and how to set the parameters of pluralism. Populist trends can act as a catalyst but not based solely on anger, resentment, and frustration but rather on a free and equal citizenry.


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.

Jackson Janes

President of AICGS

Jackson Janes is the President of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at the Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC, where he has been affiliated since 1989.

Dr. Janes has been engaged in German-American affairs in numerous capacities over many years. He has studied and taught in German universities in Freiburg, Giessen and Tübingen. He was the Director of the German-American Institute in Tübingen (1977-1980) and then directed the European office of The German Marshall Fund of the United States in Bonn (1980-1985). Before joining AICGS, he served as Director of Program Development at the University Center for International Studies at the University of Pittsburgh (1986-1988). He was also Chair of the German Speaking Areas in Europe Program at the Foreign Service Institute in Washington, DC, from 1999-2000 and President of the International Association for the Study of German Politics from 2005-2010.

Dr. Janes is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and the Atlantic Council of the United States. He serves on the advisory boards of the Berlin office of the American Jewish Committee , Beirat der Zeitschrift für Außen- und Sicherheitspolitik (ZfAS), the Robert Bosch Foundation Alumni Association, and the American Bundestag Intern Network (ABIN) in Washington, DC. He is a member of the Board of the German American Fulbright Commission and serves on the Selection Committee for the Bundeskanzler Fellowships for the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. He is a member of the Cosmos Club in Washington DC.

Dr. Janes has lectured throughout Europe and the United States and has published extensively on issues dealing with Germany, German-American relations, and transatlantic affairs. In addition to regular commentary given to European and American news radio, he has appeared on CBS, CNN, C-SPAN, PBS, CBC, and is a frequent commentator on German television. Dr. Janes is listed in Who’s Who in America and Who’s Who in Education.

In 2005, Dr. Janes was awarded the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, Germany’s highest civilian award.

Ph.D., International Relations, Claremont Graduate School, Claremont, California
M.A., Divinity School, University of Chicago
B.A., Sociology, Colgate University

Transatlantic relations, German-American relations, domestic German politics, German-EU relations, transatlantic affairs.