Update #2: Defining Populism

In retrospect, I’ve presented my research here a little bit backwards. Oops. Anyways, in the last couple weeks I’ve been going deeper into the definitions of populism in the context of American history.

Since the election of President Obama in 2009, populism has been one of the most popular political buzzwords in the media and among academics. Historically, populism has been defined with little specificity but applied to a broad number of individuals. At its core, populism is based on the idea of ordinary people in society going up against the elites (whose make up and look does change). Based on this criteria alone, it is easy to see how someone such as President Donald Trump can be labelled a populist. In fact, many politicians, both conservative and liberal, can be considered populist in regard to the rhetoric they push, especially when campaigning.

What made the media so easily label President Trump as a populist during the 2016 election was the fact that his rhetoric and campaign centered around historically populist notions. Frequently, populism is connected to economic grievance; for example, the idea that the working class has been left behind by the elites who continue to profit off their work. Additionally, history has seen populists push the rhetoric of fearing the federal government and favoring traditional norms of society over progress. This can be seen expressed by Trump through his claims to be the voice of the working class people, as well as his anti-immigration stance. Like the other politicians I am studying however, his populist sentiment seems to be more talk than anything. Huey Long had his Share Our Wealth Society and Father Coughlin had his National Union for Social Justice, but neither saw any substantial policy or societal change. This is probably due to the fact that the political parties and mainstream politicians were more successful at keeping these populist individuals out of mainstream politics despite their popularity. On the other hand, President Trump was not only elected to the highest office of the United States but has also since received almost unconditional support from the Republican Party’s leadership.

That being said, I am interested to see how deeply populist sentiment actually runs in Trump’s political actions in comparison to his campaign rhetoric and promises. I am also interested to read more into how his application of populism differs in any major ways from the most famous American populists of the 20th century.