An often heard criticism of the Trump campaign’s highly attended and emotionally charged rallies was that Trump was “a populist candidate.” This label is often linked to warnings of dire consequences and extremist views because “that is what populism leads to.” Critics cite history’s Nazi and Fascist regimes as examples of populism, warning that America would be headed down that road if Donald Trump were elected.
Now that we are past the election, and the inauguration of Mr. Trump as America’s forty-fifth President is at hand, stories of frantic citizens and undocumented aliens afraid to leave their homes for fear of being rounded up and sent to camps are becoming more frequent.
First of all, let’s establish the fact that populist movements can be extreme, and should be avoided if at all possible. There are examples of populist movements that have resulted in positive changes. Women’s suffrage and Civil rights are two movements that became law after populist uprisings forced America to examine its own Constitutional duty to all citizens.
The definition of a populist movement in political terms generally centers on large numbers of people (majority rule) demanding changes to established laws. It is the size and force of the crowds that take hold and by sheer numbers overwhelm the existing power structure. The overwhelming of established authority and the rule of law can result from such a movement because these crowds have a basic distrust of authority, and a strong revulsion of governmental power. Populist movements tend to arise where the people have been victimized by ruling elites until their patience wears thin, and a strong charismatic leader arises to lead them to storm the castles of power and take back their liberties.
While some of these characteristics sound familiar to what happened in the recent Presidential election, there is one powerful distinction that precludes a populist movement in America from jolting the nation off its foundational principles. A populist movement to the far right is not possible for the same reason past populist attempts to the far left have also failed.
The reason America is not likely to lurch heavily in one direction or another is the one thing most criticized by the losing party this year. The Electoral College system for Presidential elections provides a stability in turbulent times. If this election had been by popular vote alone, the nation might have sloped seriously left. But since it is not the people, but the States who elect the President, the result is one tempered by widespread endorsement by states, but a really close election by actual voting numbers. This result gives the new President a strong mandate to govern the “united states” but serves to reserve any extreme policies by a close plurality of the population.
Donald Trump is very popular with a lot of people; but just because he is popular, does not make him a populist.