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A Journal of Applied Research in Contemporary Politics

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Volume 14, Issue 3


Populism in American Politics

Mark D. Brewer
  • Corresponding author
  • Department of Political Science, University of Maine, 5754 North Stevens Hall, Orono, ME 04469, United States of America, Phone: +207-581-1863
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Published Online: 2016-11-01 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/for-2016-0021


Populism undoubtedly has a long history in the politics of the US, and there is no doubt that populism has significantly affected American politics in a variety of ways. However, what exactly is meant by “populism” is frequently ambiguous and ill-defined. Political commentators routinely label individuals or ideas as populist, without even attempting to explain how and why the person or idea in question relates to populism. Scholars are not immune to acting in a similar fashion. Populism’s presence is more often asserted than demonstrated in any convincing way. Here I engage in a thorough examination of the substance of populism in American politics. All elements of American populism – its championing of the common people, it rural roots, its anti-elitism, anti-intellectualism, and anti-government views, and its religious and cultural dimensions – will be explored. The paper closes with an attempt to suss out the place of populism in contemporary American politics.


As the 2016 presidential campaign rushes toward the finish line one of the most commonly heard refrains involves the supposedly highly populist nature of the race thus far, on both the Republican and Democratic sides of the contest. One cannot read or listen to media analysis of the entirely unexpected popularity and success of Donald Trump without being informed that this success and popularity are due at least in part to Trump’s populist messages and appeals. The same was true of accounts of Senator Bernie Sanders when he was still in the race. Indeed, one could make the case that populist/populism has been the most prominent buzzword in American politics as a whole since the Obama Administration first came into office in 2009. The concept has been used to define and explain developments as seemingly different from each other as the Tea Party movement and the rapid rise of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, the growth of Black Lives Matter and the racially motivated killings at an African American church in Charleston, SC (Balz 2015).

It would, however, be a mistake to conclude that the rise to prominence of populism in American politics is a recent phenomenon. George W. Bush was often described as adopting a somewhat populist persona, as were Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan. 1 Alabama Governor and presidential candidate George Wallace was labeled a populist demagogue in the 1960s, in many ways following in the footsteps of Father Charles Coughlin and Senator/Governor Huey Long in the 1930s. The capital “P” Populist movement of the late 19th century briefly had a relatively powerful impact on American politics, and the coming of Jacksonian Democracy in the 1820s and 1830s is often described as a populist wave. While Thomas Jefferson and James Madison are generally not identified as populists, many of those who supported them and put the Jeffersonian Republicans into political power certainly were. Indeed, many scholars see no small amount of populism in the Anti-Federalist movement formed in opposition to the Constitution as reported out of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. So rather than a recent phenomenon, American populism is as old, if not older, than the republic itself.

This all being said, populism in American politics is often ill-defined. Its make-up and substance are often presented as givens, its contents and contours as well established and known to all. Neither of these are true. This lack of clarity is not unique to American populism. The concept of populism is too often left fuzzy no matter where one finds it. Populism is rarely defined with any precision or specificity (Jansen 2011; Pied 2011). Its shape and content go unexamined in any systematic way. The term is used to describe a wide variety of things. This paper attempts to address these shortcomings, at least within the context of American politics. In the following pages I will present a substantive sketch of populism in the American context and close with an attempt to discern populism’s place in the tumultuous scene of contemporary American political conflict.

The Substance of American Populism

Ordinary People vs. the Elites

Kazin (1995, p. 1) argues that the most basic and fundamental definition of American populism entails a worldview where the average, ordinary people are pitted in political and social conflict against the elites. While such a characterization obviously suffers from the lack of specificity and detail lamented above, there is still much to like about Kazin’s definition and it provides a good starting point for the fleshing out of what populism entails in the American context. Populist rhetoric tends to lionize the so-called ordinary people (Jansen 2011), seeing them as simple yet noble defenders of a just and appropriate arrangement that some group of elites (whose make-up can and does change) is trying to upend, often through nefarious means (Hofstadter 1966; Berlet and Lyons 2000; Harris 2010; Pied 2011). This language often includes claims that these elites are trying to take something from the people that rightfully belongs to the people (Kazin 1995). As Harris (2010, p. 20) puts it, “All populist revolts in history…have seen themselves as engaged in justified rebellion against an arrogant ruling elite.” Anti-elite sentiment has a long history in the US (Cornell 1999), providing a firm and well established foundation for the people vs. the elites undergirding of American populism. It is not a stretch to claim that the perception of conflict between the people and the elites is the one element common to all American populist movements. One can easily discern this element in the most radical Anti-Federalist opposition to the ratification of the Constitution (Cornell 1999; Siemers 2003; Formisano 2008; Faber 2014), in the push to elect Andrew Jackson president in 1828 (Hofstadter 1962; Berlet and Lyons 2000; Harris 2010), in the agrarian Populist revolt of the late 19th century (Hofstadter 1955; McMath 1992; Kazin 1995), in the rise of Father Coughlin and Huey Long in the 1930s (Brinkley 1982; Kazin 1995) and George Wallace in the 1960s (Carter 1995; Kazin 1995), and in the Tea Party movement of today (Skocpol and Williamson 2013).

Visions of Unfair Economic Arrangements

Generally speaking the elites are found in the “have” rather than the “have-not” portion of American society, and as such it is not surprising that American populism tends to be critical of wealth. In particular, wealth viewed as unjustly obtained often finds itself the subject of populist wrath. American populist movements tend to make a stark distinction those who work for their supper – generally seen as producers – and those who earn their bread from the efforts of others (Kazin 1995). When workers suffer while those who too often sit idle benefit, populism is not far off in the US. This can manifest itself in populist anger toward wealthy individuals and big business interests who enrich themselves on the hard work of others by controlling and manipulating finance and markets, as it did with the Populist movement (Hofstadter 1955; McMath 1992; Kazin 1995) and the followers of Father Coughlin and Huey Long in the 1930s (Brinkley 1982; Kazin 1995). It can also present as populist resentment toward groups in society seen as receiving social welfare benefits of which they are not deserving (Gilens 1999), as it did with the populist supporters of George Wallace in the 1960s (Carter 1995; Kazin 1995) and in the current Tea Party movement (Skocpol and Williamson 2013). But either way, American populism holds that unfair economic arrangements are resulting in those who work hard suffering while those who do not grow fat off of the efforts of others.

Fear of Centralized Authority, Usually in Washington, DC

The anti-elite nature of American populism also often produces a profound fear of centralized authority among American populists. The most common target of this fear is the federal government itself. If the elites are the enemy and these elites control the levers of federal government power, it only makes sense to American populists that the national government is looking to harm them; it is simply a tool being used by the elites to disempower the people. American populism regularly champions local control and keeping the power of the state as close to the people as possible (Kenyon 1955; Storing 1981; Kazin 1995; Cornell 1999; Siemers 2003). The people, after all, are virtuous; this is not true of the elites. Keeping power local, in the hands and under the supervision of the people goes a long way toward preventing the corruption that inevitably creeps in when far away elites get their hands on power. Power moving away from the local level makes it far more likely that politics and government will escape the people’s control, another common fear/belief of American populist movements (Hofstadter 1966; McMath 1992; Formisano 2008).

Defending National Ideals from Conspiratorial Threat

In many instances this fear of centralized authority results in support for conspiracy theories among American populists (Hofstadter 1955; Hofstadter 1966; Kazin 1995; Berlet and Lyons 2000; Harris 2010). As Kazin (1998, p. 285) states, “Populist speakers have always had a particular weakness for stories about plots by the powerful.” Populism needs an enemy, and in many instances that enemy is engaged in a conspiracy to harm the people, to take from them what is rightfully theirs and destroy their way of life. Hofstadter (1962) and Oliver and Wood (2014) argue that American populism tends to adopt a Manichean worldview, a claim that has much to support it. American populism often sees the world in black and white; it does not admit shades of gray. Something is either right or it is wrong, and which of these categories something fits into is blatantly obvious to the virtuous people despite what the underhanded elites would have them believe. The presence of conspiracy combined with this Manichean outlook often causes American populists to see existential threats to their way of life. It is often argued that the basic, fundamental ideals of the nation are under threat (Hofstadter 1966; Kazin 1995; Harris 2010; Skocpol and Williamson 2013). These elements in combination mean that American populists often see themselves as central actors at a key and dire point in history; they can see dangers that others cannot or are actively trying to hide. They often see solutions as well, solutions that come from the wisdom of the common people (Hofstadter 1966).

American Populism as Anti-Intellectual

This faith in the wisdom of the common people sometimes creates a strong anti-intellectual strain in American populism (Hofstadter 1962; Shogun 2007). Intellectuals are seen as too removed from the world of the average people. They do not work, per se, but rather spend their days reading, studying, and thinking with the goal of developing expertise in some esoteric realm far detached from the day-to-day lives of the people. They are not producing anything of tangible value. Such negative views of intellectuals mesh nicely with conflictual relations with elites, fear of centralized authority, and the tendency to see conspiracies afoot. Elites, if not experts themselves, certainly have the means and opportunity to utilize experts to further their cause. Centralized governing authorities often turn to experts in formulating policies to control and disadvantage the people. Experts are also seen as clever, and cleverness is certainly helpful when one wants to engage in conspiracy. Furthermore, experts tend to be seen as exhibiting a certain degree of arrogance and are often perceived as telling the people what is good for them, as if the people can not possibly determine this for themselves. As Harris (2010, pp. 4–5) outlines, American populism tends to be highly resentful of being told by experts “we know best.” Because of these views, American populism tends to have a negative orientation toward intellectuals and the expertise they (often condescendingly) attempt to provide (Hofstadter 1962; Kazin 1995; Shogun 2007; Skocpol and Williamson 2013).

Defense of the Status Quo and Support for Traditional Arrangements

This disdain for experts points to another common thread found in American populism – defense of the status quo. In many instances when the government or some other collection of elites bring intellectuals into a situation, they are asking the intellectuals to use their expertise to solve a perceived problem. The experts are engaged to lead change. After all, who needs experts when things are fine the way they are? In some instances, the problem arises when populists fail to see the problem so clearly identified by the elite. In other cases, populists see the problem, but believe the problem in question would be best solved by reverting to past practices. Rather than change being the answer, populists see change as the cause of the problem. Things were fine before and then society (under the direction of the elites and experts) moved away from what worked; this created the problem in question. In harkening back to an earlier theme, the wisdom of the average people can easily solve this problem. No experts required.

This particular element of American populism manifests itself as the exalting of tradition and staunch resistance to change (unless of course the change in question is a reversion to past practice, real or perceived). It specifically presents itself in calls for society to hang on to traditional religious underpinnings and definitions of morality (Hofstadter 1966; Berlet and Lyons 2000; Harris 2010). It is present in the racist and nativist elements that one often sees in American populism (Hofstadter 1955; Brinkley 1982; Carter 1995; Berlet and Lyons 2000; Skocpol and Williamson 2013). Support for tradition and resistance to change can also explain why American populism has generally been associated with rural and agrarian communities, although economic grievance is important here as well (Hofstadter 1955; McMath 1992). Populist support for law and order can also be placed here (Carter 1995), as those who are breaking the law and/or violating societal norms are disrupting the status quo and transgressing what are seen as accepted and legitimate moral boundaries. On a broader scale, the worry about loss of status that Hofstadter (1955) sees as a hallmark of American populism can also be slotted into this category. Taken as a whole, all of these are elements can be seen as indicative of American populism’s tendency to resist modernity (Hofstadter 1962), a modernity that is generally seen as being created and defended by elites and intellectuals. These elements also point to the populist’s desire for order, particularly an order that is proper, proven, and legitimate.

American Populism in Sum

At this point we have a relatively thorough sketch of the substance of American populism. First, populism paints a picture of ordinary Americans in conflict with societal elites. Whether the ordinary people are truly ordinary or the elites are really elites matters little; perception is the crucial matter here. This element also does not hold that average Americans have to rally themselves into a populist fervor. Indeed one often finds that a member or members of the targeted elites are most successful at activating and generating populist sentiment. Economic grievance is also critical to American populism, although it seems that economic downturns in and of themselves are not enough to spark an outpouring of populism. The economic complaints that lead to populism have to be seen as having been purposely caused by a clearly identifiable group or groups. The economic harms in question are seen as intentional. American populism fears large, centralized authority, particularly (but not exclusively) the federal government. This element of American populism appears to have become much more pronounced in the 20th and early 21st centuries. Populism in the American context is often of a conspiratorial mind, tending to see nefarious intent and camouflaged threats around every corner. Populists see themselves as uniquely able to discern these threats and centrally (if not solely) positioned to defeat them. Intellectuals are often viewed negatively by American populists, as is change, especially change presented as “progress.” Tradition and the status quo are valued and honored, in the overall goal of maintaining a proper order of things.

If there is one thing that appears to connect all of the elements of American populism outlined above it is that populism requires an enemy. This is not to say that America’s populist movements have not been for anything. Indeed, populist efforts in the US have been marked by a diverse array of hopes and goals. But it is absolutely essential for American populism to have something and/or someone to be against, often viscerally against. Hatred may be too strong of a word to use here, but this question is certainly open to debate.

Whither Populism in Contemporary American Politics?

In light of this sketch, where do we stand in terms of the presence of populist sentiment in recent American political history? In an attempt to answer this I scoured the 1948–2012 ANES Cumulative Datafile and pulled out all variables that might be seen as indicative of American populism as outlined above. Simple frequencies were run to determine the level of possible populist indicators for each year that each question was asked. These results are presented below in Table 1 for the earliest year and the most recent year that ANES asked the question, grouped by element of populism that are thought to tap into. It is important to keep in mind that these indicators are often far from perfect for the task at hand, but they are the best to be had in the ANES Cumulative File.

Table 1:

Percentage of Americans Taking the Populist Position Various Issues, Earliest and Most Recent Year Question Asked, Grouped by Populist Theme.

What can we glean from Table 1? First, even the most cursory look at the far right column of the table indicates that there is a sizable reservoir of populist sentiment in the US to be tapped into. Views that might be seen as epitomizing the themes of ordinary people vs. the elites, fear of centralized authority, and to a lesser extent concern with unfair economic arrangements have increased substantially since the ANES first asked these questions and are now at high or very high levels within the American population. Views on items that could be tapping into populist themes of defending national ideals from threat and support for traditional arrangements have for the most part not changed too much but are also still present at relatively high levels. There are a few exceptions here. The percentage of respondents who say that government does not pay much attention to what people think has been at consistently low levels over time, and likely is not a great indicator of anti-intellectual views. The ANES Cumulative File does not provide much leverage on this particular populist element. Items on greater tolerance for different moral standards and cool thermometer ratings of African Americans have remained similarly steady and low although one does wonder how guarded respondents are in their answers to these questions, especially on the group thermometer for Blacks. Finally, the cool feeling thermometer readings on gays indicator has declined precipitously. This is likely indicative of real opinion change within the American public. This being said, one could make the case that the one third of respondents who rated gays coolly in 2012 might be more prone to populist activation than the more than two thirds who rated gays similarly in 1984 as their negative view of homosexuals is now a minority position, and thus under greater threat. Nonetheless, the bottom line in Table 1 is that there is clear evidence of populist perspectives available to be tapped, and also evidence that views of some populist elements have increased in recent years.

So populist building blocks are clearly present in contemporary American politics. But what about populism itself? Have these populist elements been tapped and activated into current political conflict in the US? As indicated at the outset of this piece, political commentary in the media answers this question with a resounding yes. This is particularly true for coverage and analysis of the 2016 presidential campaign. While early on in the campaign other candidates – primarily Bernie Sanders but to a lesser extent Ted Cruz and Ben Carson – were discussed in terms of populist appeals, the primary populist spotlight has always been focused on Donald Trump. Moreover, Trump has monopolized the label of populist candidate since securing the Republican nomination. Mara Liasson, NPR’s National Political Correspondent, placed Trump “in the classic tradition of American populism,” (Liasson 2015). Michael Lind, co-founder of the New America Foundation, entitled a piece that he wrote for Politico “Donald Trump, the Perfect Populist,” (Lind 2016). Cohn (2016) in the New York Times, Goldberg (2015) in the National Review, Lehmann (2015) in Newsweek, and Packer (2015) in The New Yorker have all written about how Trump is a populist candidate making populist appeals. The theme of Trump as populist has gotten so much play that an angry Barack Obama launched into a presidential “rant” as to why Trump was not a populist (Shabad 2016).

The question of whether or not Donald Trump is truly a populist is of course one that only Trump himself can answer. But we can assess the degree to which Trump’s campaign messages fit within the American populist tradition as outlined in this paper. In many ways Trump’s campaign appears to fit nicely within the universe of American populism. Indeed, Trump’s co-primary campaign issues – foreign trade and immigration – are both presented almost entirely as populist appeals. Trump routinely argues that America’s now decades long trend of negotiating in his view bad trade deals with other nations has weakened the American economy in general, and has decimated the American working class in particular. This is a quintessential example of the unfair economic arrangements element of the American populist tradition. Furthermore Trump presents America’s economic elites (a group to which he of course belongs) as using these trade deals to send American jobs overseas while further enriching themselves with increased profits. Throw in Trump’s attack on hedge fund managers as people who get rich by shuffling paper to hurt the average people and one can see without a doubt that Trump’s campaign is populist in the sense of railing against unfair economic arrangements. This particular populist theme is one (but not the only) reason commonly given for Trump’s success amongst White voters with less than a college education. He is seen as speaking to their sense of economic injustice (Balz and Clement 2016; Cohn 2016; Peters 2016; Rosenthal 2016).

Trump’s anti-immigrant message is a similarly good fit within American populism. Trump’s depiction of undocumented immigrants from Mexico as “criminals, drug dealers, rapists” and his call for a moratorium on Muslim immigration clearly tap into the racist and nativist elements often present in American populism. They can also be seen as representing both a longing for previous status quo of a more White America and a defense of traditional arrangements. During the course of his anti-immigrant rhetoric Trump also frequently argues that immigrants ignore and flaunt traditional American societal norms, which as Brewer and Stonecash (2015) document has become a consistent source of political conflict in the US. Vavreck (2016) argues that Trump has virtually single-handedly “reinvigorated explicit appeals to ethnocentrism” and that these appeals are a large part of why working class White voters who “believe that Whites are a supreme race and who long for the Confederacy” are heavily supporting Trump’s candidacy. If one combines economic injustice with anti-immigration we can see them joining together to speak to the White male working class who increasingly sees itself as losing out in American society. This fits Hofstadter’s (1955) loss of status populist theme perfectly.

There is still more to lend support to the idea of the Trump campaign as populist insurgency. It is hard to imagine a better fit for the populist theme of conspiratorial threat than Donald Trump. While his association with the so-called “Birther” conspiracy receives the most attention, Trump’s habit of using conspiracy theories to appeal for voter support does not stop there. To identify but a few of the others, Trump famously linked Ted Cruz’s father to the assassination of President Kennedy, raised questions about the deaths of Vince Foster and Antonin Scalia, and argued that President Obama did not really attend Columbia University (DelReal 2016; Sarlin 2016). The liberal digital media organization AlterNet has kept a running tally of the conspiracy theories that Trump has at least somewhat supported. The total as of September 17, 2016 was 58.

Trump’s appeals based on economic unfairness, anti-immigration, loss of status, and conspiracy theories certainly point to his 2016 presidential campaign being populist in nature. Such an evaluation gains further support when one realizes that all four of these appeals identify an enemy for Trump supporters to be against. Whether it is ineffectual American leaders or the smarter foreign leaders who are duping them, Mexican immigrant criminals, Muslim terrorists, or shadowy conspirators, Trump is offering up enemies to those whose support he is hoping to attract. This is a classic populist trope in American politics.

But before we get too far down the Trump as populist road we need to consider where his campaign does not fit the classic American populist model. The largest failed connection is undoubtedly Trump’s virtual total failure to lionize and identify himself with the “ordinary” people (Postel 2016). This is not to claim that Americans fail to see Trump as a “regular guy.” Indeed, many of his supporters do. But this has absolutely nothing to do with efforts on Trump’s part. In Trump’s mind and language he is anything but ordinary. He is the smartest, the richest, is the best and has the best no matter what is being discussed. Moreover, the idea of Trump espousing the wisdom of the common people as the solution to a problem – any problem – is absurd. Trump is against some elites, but only because they are not his elites. Trump as president would solve problems by surrounding himself with similarly smart people and making others bend to his will. This most certainly does not fit within the American populist tradition. Trump is also not opposed to centralized authority. He rails against the current centralized authorities in Washington, but only because of what he sees as their incompetence. Trump sees no problem with power, so long as it is properly used. One can see this clearly in his numerous positive comments regarding Russian President Vladimir Putin. If anything, Trump seems to promise his supporters that he will further centralize power to the White House and personally use it to make their lives infinitely better almost overnight. This is clearly demonstrated in Trump’s Republican presidential nomination speech in Cleveland where he thundered “I’m your voice” to the working people of the US and capped his account of an America in dire circumstances by stating “I alone can fix it” (Appelbaum 2016). This is another glaring disconnect with the American populist tradition. The complete failure of the Trump campaign to check the populist boxes on valorizing the common people and railing against centralized power makes one wonder if something else beyond populism is at play in the phenomenon that is Donald Trump.

Thomas Edsall in a January 2016 New York Times op-ed points us in the direction of where to look for this missing element (Edsall, 2016). After consulting with a number of academics on the subject of Trump’s success, Edsall argues that the key to understanding the rise of Trump in the 2016 presidential campaign is authoritarianism. Summarizing what he heard in his conversations, Edsall outlines Trump’s appeal as a promise to restore order and provide protection in the face of dire internal and external threats to the nation. He will reward the good and punish the wicked, restore the purity of American society. In the eyes of those Edsall spoke with, Trump as authoritarian savior was the secret to his success.

Authoritarianism has a long and somewhat checkered history in social science research. The concept was famously first introduced by Theodor Adorno and his colleagues in their 1950 study The Authoritarian Personality. Although widely discredited in the decades following its publication due to methodological issues, Adorno et al.’s take on what made up the authoritarian personality is still worth thinking about. According to them (1950, p. 228), authoritarianism was marked by (paraphrasing in spots): “rigid adherence to conventional…values,” submission to proper authorities, aggression against those who go against these values, anti-subjectivity, superstition and stereotypes, power, hostility, a belief that “dangerous things go on in the world,” and an “exaggerated concern” with sex (particularly sex that was viewed as abnormal). For Adorno and his colleagues, those who scored high on these characteristics were ripe for authoritarian appeals from potential leaders.

Although among those highly critical of the methodology employed by Adorno et al., Bob Altemeyer’s two books on authoritarianism (1981; 1996) established a portrait of right wing authoritarianism that borrowed three of Adorno et al.’s traits: submission to legitimate authorities, aggression toward outgroups so long as it was approved of by the established authorities, and strict adherence to established societal conventions. Altemeyer’s right wing authoritarians respected and trusted the proper authorities, were willing to harshly punish transgressions of societal norms, were prone to racism and ethnic prejudice, and tended to see themselves and those like them as good and others as bad, enemies (Altemeyer 1981).

Two additional works in the last decade have done a great deal to bring authoritarianism back into the minds of scholars who study American politics. The first is Karen Stenner’s The Authoritarian Dynamic (2005). Stenner’s authoritarianism is marked by the traits of “obedience to authority, moral absolutism and conformity, intolerance and punitiveness toward dissidents and deviants, [and] animosity and aggression toward racial and ethnic out-groups,” (3). The second book to thrust authoritarianism back to center stage was Marc Hetherington’s and Jonathan Weiler’s Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics (2009). For Hetherington and Weiler, a “need for order” is the key to understanding authoritarianism. Authoritarians are rigid conformists who struggle with ambiguity and nuance. They crave order, and look to legitimate authorities to provide this order. To quote Hetherington and Weiler at length:

In sum, authoritarianism is fundamentally motivated by a desire for order and a support for authorities seen as best able to secure that order against a variety of threats to social cohesion. For authoritarians, proper authorities are necessary to stave off the chaos that appears to be just around the corner. Furthermore, authoritarians often imbue authorities with transcendent qualities, not subject to questioning and doubt. Emanating from such a conception is a suspicion of ideas that appear to pose a threat to such authorities and of groups that may, by their very nature, unravel the social fabric. A tendency to rigid thinking and an unwillingness or inability to process new information that might challenge such thinking also appears to be characteristic of authoritarians’ mode of political understanding (41).

Here we might just have found the non-populist parts of Donald Trump’s appeal. Authoritarianism has no requirement to lionize or empower the ordinary people. The authoritarian leader only has to demonstrate to the people that she or he knows what is best for them and promise to provide it. Authoritarianism also sees power as a virtue, and virtually begs its leaders to use it to the fullest. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign fits on both counts. Trump also promises order and security, and his rhetoric and tone are about as aggressive as it gets in American politics outside of the fringes.

So is Donald Trump a populist authoritarian (or authoritarian populist, take your pick)? Norris (2016) says yes, rooting his rise in “a cultural backlash in Western societies against long-term, ongoing social change.” Rahn and Oliver (2016) say no, arguing that Trump is a straight-up populist in the American tradition. At this point I tend to side with Norris. Separately, neither populism nor authoritarianism can fully explain the appeal and success of Donald Trump. Together, the two concepts seem to cover all it is that has led Trump to the steps of the White House. What this development says about the state of American politics is a discussion that is just getting started. But what we do know at this point is that populism is front and center in contemporary American politics. So is authoritarianism. We need to understand this, and we also need to be careful not to conflate the two concepts.


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    It is interesting to note that one of the most common criticisms of Bush’s father, George H. W. Bush, was his inability to speak the language of populism. 

About the article

Mark D. Brewer

Mark D. Brewer is Professor of Political Science and member of the Honors College faculty at the University of Maine. His research interests focus generally on political behavior, with specific research areas including partisanship and electoral behavior at both the mass and elite levels, the linkages between public opinion and public policy, and the interactions that exist between religion and politics in the United States. Brewer is the author or editor of a number of books and articles in academic journals, with the most recent being Parties and Elections in America, 7th edition (with L. Sandy Maisel, Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), Polarization and the Politics of Personal Responsibility (with Jeffrey M. Stonecash, Oxford University Press, 2015), The Parties Respond, 5th edition (with L. Sandy Maisel, Westview Press, 2013), Party Images in the American Electorate (Routledge, 2009), and Dynamics of American Political Parties (with Jeffrey M. Stonecash, Cambridge University Press, 2009). He is also the editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Political Science.

Published Online: 2016-11-01

Published in Print: 2016-10-01

Citation Information: The Forum, Volume 14, Issue 3, Pages 249–264, ISSN (Online) 1540-8884, ISSN (Print) 2194-6183, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/for-2016-0021.

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