Jérôme, you worked for a long time on the populist tradition in the United States. Can you tell us its main defining characteristics on the Republican spectrum?
There is a deeply rooted populist tradition in the United States that appeared very early compared to its European counterpart. In many ways, populism can even be linked to the Founding Fathers’ debates on the future shape of the federal state at the end of the eighteenth century. Populism—and I will come back to this point—is not only a glorification of the people with a good dose of demagogy; it is also and above all a rejection of the elites, who are understood not in the noble sense suggested by the sociological category (i.e., the most qualified individuals, who govern and exercise influence), but as a “clique of impostors and usurpers” who have appropriated wealth and put themselves in positions of power. The Founding Fathers’ debates on the role, place, and prerogatives of the future federal government already heralded the emergence of a political discourse on behalf of the people against the federal government elite—a discourse that we continue to see today.
There is no reliable consensus on the meaning of populism, but without going into detail, I would suggest two possible readings. The first sees populism as a “thin” ideology that can be found mostly but not exclusively on the right, with often inconsistent doctrinal content. The second sees populism as a simple rhetoric—a way of speaking and of producing language effects—that is grafted onto ideologies. In this latter case, it consists of a binary rhetoric that opposes a people to an elite and mobilizes different ideological contents that vary with the leader, period, and crisis.
I follow this latter view because it allows us to understand why people who are so ideologically different (Jesse Jackson and Donald Trump, for example, as discussed below) can nonetheless both be categorized as populist without falling into any contradiction. By contrast, if we study populism as an ideology in its own right, we are quickly led to classify very different people and ideas under the same term, thus weakening the concept and causing confusion. Moreover, the term becomes politically biased if we paint all the parties discontented with the status quo with the same brush without further qualification.
Even when populism is not a “thin” ideology but a simple rhetoric, that does not make the dichotomy between the people and the elite meaningless: it refers to a supposed (1) working, (2) homogeneous, and (3) majority people against a (1) lazy, (2) heterogeneous, and (3) minority elite. These six fundamental characteristics define populism whatever the ideologies onto which it is grafted, depending on whether we are dealing with right-wing or left-wing populism.
On the side of the people, labor is central. There is no populism without the value of labor. Homogeneity is asserted in the name of the supposed great camaraderie between often very different people brought together by common suffering (bosses and workers, the young and retirees, the rich and the poor, etc.). The majority carries the legitimacy: it cannot be mistaken precisely because it is the majority; the “people” of populism is always the most numerous group of people. There is no populism in the name of a minority unless a majority is allegedly in danger of becoming a minority—as, for instance, with Donald Trump’s white majority in the 2016 campaign. There is, therefore, an identity between number and legitimacy that is often mechanically associated with “truth”: the man in the street, the average Joe or Jane, cannot be wrong. The charismatic leader cannot be wrong either, since he or she speaks on behalf of the people.
The elite, on the other hand, is seen as lazy, taking advantage of the “system.” They don’t know how to work the land or work in the factory. They develop their influence at cocktail parties and in lobbies. They get rich off the work of the people, either by speculating on the product of their labor (finance), by managing their money skillfully (banking), or by being elected to join the political class (the Washington, D.C., political elite). The elites are heterogeneous; no common origin or social class brings them together. The elite is about the lure of gain and manipulating the people. Finally, it is a minority, and as such, it has no legitimacy.
The six elements that characterize the two camps of populism are not at all insignificant—yet they are too simple to form an ideology, even a “thin” one. This is precisely what makes the concept problematic. It is also why this rhetoric can be grafted onto very different ideologies. When it comes to the Republicans in the United States, one can find both Ross Perot and Arnold Schwarzenegger on the center-right, and then Donald Trump further to the right, even leaning toward the extreme right, as when he mobilizes a nativist discourse like that of Pat Buchanan, to which I will return later.
These four Republican political actors exhibit different ideologies, yet each of them employs an opposition between a people and an elite. With Perot and Schwarzenegger, the people are the honest people: they are the sometimes-poor people who work hard, or entrepreneurs who pay too many taxes, and neither skin color nor origin matter here. They are all workers, homogeneous in their suffering and their courage, and forming a majority of the population; they all fall between the independent worker and the businessman but certainly do not include the “abstract” CEO of a multinational company. When it comes to Trump and even more to Buchanan, the people is also made up of workers, but they are mostly white, of European origin, and Christian. Here, homogeneity is affirmed based on this ethnic component. This explains the racist loading implicit in Buchanan’s work and in Trump’s rhetoric, the latter being often crude in the sense that it is intellectually unstructured (such as his infamous “Mexicans are rapists” formula). For them, the “people” forms a majority, but a tenuous majority, one that is threatened by immigration and multiculturalism—this is the heart of the nativist project.
The ways in which these four politicians define the elite also differ. Perot and Schwarzenegger denounce the wasting of public money by an elite born into wealth and comfort. Schwarzenegger attacks certain categories of civil servants in California, as well as the collusion between the Democrats and the unions. Trump denounces not only Washington “upstarts,” but also arrogant journalists and politically aligned researchers who, he says, tell lies about global warming or COVID-19. Buchanan denounces the liberal elites and those Republican elites converted to globalism, the free market, multiculturalism, relativism, mass immigration, and so on. He adds to all this the notion of a conspiracy, a supposed “cultural Marxism” allegedly fomented by the Frankfurt School’s leaders after the Second World War. (This conspiracy theory has also been taken up by Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.)
We can do the same exercise on the left with Jesse Jackson in the 1980s, Huey Long in the 1930s, and several leaders of the People’s Party at the end of the nineteenth century. In the Jackson campaigns for president (in 1984 and 1988), the people was branded the “rainbow coalition,” bringing together very different people who shared the same suffering and problems. In his speeches, Jackson used the metaphor of the “quilt” to represent his conception of a plural people made up of multiple pieces, multiple sizes, multiple origins: whites, Hispanics, Blacks, Jews, Arabs, peace activists, businessmen, young people, old people, gays, and so on. All are working people, or at least people looking for work. It is the great diversity of the coalition that makes it homogenous; these people are all different but they form a unified body because they have all gone through difficult times owing to their origin or life’s hazards. They are also in the majority: it is not Wall Street but the rainbow coalition that makes America.
Elected governor of Louisiana in 1928 on the basis of a policy platform that proposed wealth-sharing and a fight against inequality, Huey Long spoke of the people in terms close to Jackson’s but without the ethnic, racial, and sexual dimension. For him, the people are the workers, the local entrepreneurs, but also the businessmen, who may well get rich, but by producing goods or services and not by begetting “money from money” (like speculators). In other words, the small local banker is part of the people. The people are also the poor, the sick, the illiterate, the disabled, the old, those hit hard by inequality, those who are evicted from their homes for not having paid their monthly instalments, those who are born without money, without inheritance, without family. Finally, the people are also African Americans, whom Long does not stereotype or use as scapegoats—rare at the time, especially in the South, and even more in Louisiana. “The people are good,” Huey Long said a few years after the stock market crash of 1929. “If you believe that Louisiana can be ruled by the people, that the poor are as good as the rich, that Louisiana is a state where every man is a king but where no one has a crown, then vote for me.”
The elite in leftist populist rhetoric is circumscribed, often in a Marxizing way; it is embodied by the masters of capitalism who control Wall Street, the mainstream media, and the Washington elite, as well as, in the eyes of Jesse Jackson, by the military-industrial complex. But here, too, the elites are lazy, heterogeneous, and a minority. Lazy because they amass more and more considerable wealth without working hard, heterogeneous and a minority because—as we also see in right-wing discourse—only greed brings them together and they are few in number compared to the population.
Once again, this is certainly not the only way to approach the complex phenomenon of populism, but this point of entry into the topic allows us to apply the same concept to very different political positions without being confronted with untenable contradictions.
What are the characteristics of Donald Trump that you think reflect this populist tradition, and what, perhaps, is its future in a “post-Trump” but not “post-Trumpist” America?
I would start my answer by focusing on the technological developments that have always accompanied the great figures of populism. Huey Long broke new ground by systematically traveling all over Louisiana, including to the most isolated villages, taking with him a microphone, speakers, two bodyguards, and a trailer as a stage. In the countryside, he made an incredible number of speeches per day; he was also very present, and very early on, on the radio, giving speeches that have remained famous, such as “Share Our Wealth.” Radio, television, and then the Internet have accompanied the emergence of all populist speakers throughout the twentieth century. And in Europe, Berlusconi is at the origin of the concept of TV-Berlusconism…
Donald Trump has innovated with his use of the tweet. For the first time in media history, a head of a democratic state has managed to establish a direct and reliable line of communication between himself and the people—without institutionalized intermediaries and mediation, without any obstacle in his relationship with his voters. Twitter is the populist’s dream; it makes it possible to marginalize all those who seek to put themselves in the way of you and your words, such as experts, commentators, or journalists. Social network studies have already demonstrated how Trump has seized on a unique and decisive opportunity to exercise his mandate. If he had submitted his communications to a traditional team, like all his predecessors did, things would have been very different.
Trump’s populism is rightist in that it gives the “people” an ethnic loading: white people of European origin threatened by Mexicans and immigration in general, and to a lesser extent by African Americans. His shift to the far right (in the European sense) is unquestionable but not recurrent. Some key moments of this shift include his decision to separate children from their migrant parents at the southern border with Mexico; his refusal to differentiate between neo-Nazi and Antifa protesters during the Charlottesville riots; and the signals of sympathy he has sent to the Alt-Right, as well as myriad direct or indirect meetings with European extreme right-wing leaders, notably through his advisor Steve Bannon. He has also been helped by demographics, no longer speaking obliquely of the transformation of the white majority into a relative majority as compared to other racial groups. Trump has clearly fashioned a discourse that mixes economic risk (unemployment and poverty) with ethnic risk (probable disappearance of the majority group). He has innovated in this area.
But in his criticism of elites, Trump has offered nothing original when he has attacked Washington’s elected officials, high-ranking civil servants, the “deep state,” or Wall Street financiers. He has also imitated other populists before him (including Silvio Berlusconi in Italy) when he has pointed out that, unlike his opponents, he does not come from the political class and has not been corrupted by that environment.
The only aspect in which he has radically innovated in denouncing the elite is that, even prior to his arrival at the White House, he associated influential journalists and commentators from major media outlets with the political establishment, to the point of systematically rejecting the former’s investigations and associating them with fake news. He was also pioneering in calling into question the neutrality of scientific reports on issues related to global warming, the environment, and later the COVID-19 pandemic. To dare to attack these two professional categories (journalism and academia) so early in his mandate (and even prior to it)—and so frontally—was quite novel and risky, but it has worked well.
And if there is a specific contribution that Donald Trump has made here, it is the doubt that now hangs over public discourse and especially over scientific knowledge—up to influencing electoral results, even when validated by official agencies, as we saw at the end of his term in office this fall. The Tea Party had prepared the ground, but Donald Trump effected the shift.
I would add that Donald Trump is a reality TV man (notably on The Apprentice). He knows that reality TV is invented and imposed as an alternative reality, which is to say that everything in it is partly true and partly false. Bringing reality TV to the level of the White House was also new and could tempt other political actors to follow suit.
You have also worked on European populisms. Are there general features that differentiate American populism(s) from European populism(s)? Do American and European populism share a common identity or is it more appropriate to talk about specific national traditions?
I would say that the only major difference is in history. With the federal architecture of its origins and the growing power (and cost) of the federal state over more than two centuries, U.S. populism that defines an “us versus them”—the people versus the establishment—is much older than its European counterpart. It is also coupled with trust in the local authorities (e.g., the governor, a figure who played a key role in validating election results in late December in the face of accusations of electoral fraud).
That being said, since the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, a similar “people versus establishment” binary has taken shape in Europe: European Parliament deputies and especially the “bureaucrats” in Brussels have been denounced in European populist discourse in forms that sometimes resemble those deployed against Washington elites. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán speaks, for instance, unflinchingly of Hungarian history as the history of a people under foreign occupation: that of the Nazis until 1945, of the Communists until 1989, and of the arrogant elites of Brussels from 2004 (the year of Hungary’s entry into the Union) until now. From Matteo Salvini (Lega Nord/Italy) to Marine Le Pen (Rassemblement National/France) via Geert Wilders (PVV/Netherlands) or Tom Van Grieken (VB/Belgium), all see the elites in Brussels as a threat to Europe’s authentic identity on the same level as immigrants and Muslims. What I mean to say is that anti-elitism is now becoming structural for European populism, too.
Another peculiarity in Europe is the strong link between populism and the far right in the collective imagination—unlike in the United States, where populism has been an integral part of political life from the outset. It has, of course, had varying degrees and intensities, including among those in the mainstream, as when Ronald Reagan, one of Donald Trump’s models, stated that “the state could not solve the problem because it is the problem.” In Europe, populism is associated with the far right not because there is no such thing as left-wing or extreme left-wing populism, but because historically the first populist threats to liberal democracy came from far-right parties, which were sometimes openly heir to the fascist ideologies of the 1930s.
It was during the 1980s, notably, that the concept of populism took a negative and pejorative turn, especially in the French-speaking world, where Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front grafted a people/elite rhetoric onto a classic far-right ideology. This party, founded in 1972 among many former Vichy collaborators, is the oldest, most powerful, and best-known of the far-right parties and has long been a model for right-wing extremists across the European continent.
That being said, if we want to bring the two continents closer together, we can look to Italy in the 1990s and especially to Silvio Berlusconi, who is undoubtedly the best European figure for helping us understand the Trump presidency. The very tense context that characterized Italy in the 1990s: political polarization, massive distrust of the political class, the disappearance of the Communist Party and the collapse of Christian democracy, the proliferation of partisan media outlets, Berlusconi’s fortune and his links with the media and reality TV, his arrogance and verbal violence—all this evokes what came to pass across the Atlantic twenty years later.
You recently published on Pat Buchanan and on the connection between ethnic loyalty and democracy. Can you summarize for our readers how Buchanan—as well as what is called paleoconservatism in the United States—is emblematic of a certain populist tradition? How might Trump compare (or not) to Buchanan?
The peculiarity of Pat Buchanan is that he defends the principles on which democracy is based, but at the same time he doubts the capacity of a multicultural society to function democratically. He believes that a certain homogeneity in culture, ethnicity, language, etc., is necessary for citizens to be willing and able to make a republic work in the American sense. In his many books, he praises democracy and supports electoral processes, majority rule, etc. To put it another way, he does not advocate for dictatorship, authoritarianism, or a greater concentration of power, but instead defends the separation of powers, constitutionalism, and citizenship as the people’s ability to defend their rights and freedoms and to understand what is at stake in politics. Moreover, he also denounces the omnipotence of the market, which distances us from our commitment as citizens. In many ways, he is a democrat with a strong right-wing bias.
But if we look further, we see that his conception of the Republic integrates the notions of ethnicity, ability, and loyalty. Ethnicity in the sense that only people who share a certain culture, a certain religion, and some history are, in his view, capable of making a democratic system work. The underlying idea is that non-European migrants are not predisposed to accept or to be able to play the U.S. democratic game. Buchanan maintains some subtleties. He does not think that it is because migrants are stupid, nasty, or have bad intentions that they are naturally incapable of being democrats. For him, they are simply not “culturally ready.” In other words, Buchanan claims that European Judeo-Christian culture and European history are preconditions for the development of citizens who respect democracy, without openly identifying a minority or a culture that would be incapable of such respect.
Buchanan thus establishes a causal link between ethnicity and ability for democracy, but he adds a third element: the loyalty of citizens to their political system and their nation [of origin]. Questioning the sincerity of migrants and citizens of non-European origin, he suspects them of thinking only about themselves, their religion, or their country of origin without being willing to invest in their host country. In other words, Buchanan does not believe that one can extricate oneself from one’s culture, nation, and past for the benefit of another nation. This is why he vigorously rejects multiculturalism, which he associates with the death of the soul of the nation and the “Balkanization of the United States.” Here, too, there is a trick: it is the cultural fragmentation of the public space, and not their origin as such, that would make minorities disloyal.
Buchanan’s theories illustrate the special relationship of U.S. nativists to the constitutional order, as nativists share the belief that being American means believing in a common creed embodied in the Constitution. For nativists, only those who share the race, religion, or ethnicity of the dominant group of white Americans are able to adopt this creed. The ambiguity is strong because there is both a defense of a certain idea of American democracy and a simultaneous belief that only the founding peoples of European origin have the ability, will, and loyalty to make the system work. On numerous occasions over the past four years, notably on his blog, Pat Buchanan has commended Donald Trump’s nativist agenda.
Our program is called the Illiberalism Studies Program. What do you think of the heuristic value of the term “illiberalism” in defining the challenges facing liberalism today, and how do you see the relationship between illiberalism and populism?
In the United States, the concept of illiberalism may fit Pat Buchanan quite well, both on the level of his critique of multiculturalism and on that of the growing power of minorities, which, in his view, weakens the silent majority. In addition, Buchanan is highly critical of international institutions and has consistently advocated for a return to a much greater national sovereignty, as well as military disengagement. He has unambiguously supported Donald Trump’s wish to “Make America Great Again.”
In Europe, I observe that more and more political parties historically associated with the far right (Rassemblement National in France, FPÖ in Austria, Lega Nord in Italy, etc.) have today become the defenders of a rather restrictive conception of democracy. In fact, if we set aside violent groupuscules or clearly neo-Nazi parties such as Golden Dawn in Greece, one must admit that the main far-right parties are trying to defend an essentially procedural conception of democracy (separation of powers, party pluralism, elections at regular intervals) against a “liberal democracy” seen as overly influenced by human rights, internationalism, and the neoliberalism of the European institutions.
Seen in this way, if we want to make advances with the heuristic value of the concept of illiberalism, I see several interesting questions around the transition of the far right from opposing democratic principles entirely to accepting some of them but dissociating them from anything coming from liberalism. From this point of view, the concept of illiberalism deserves to be deepened, because there is a gray zone in Western Europe covering the decades 1980-2020 on how this shift was made and what it entails for the definition of democrats and their opponents in Europe.
Jérôme Jamin PhD is Professor at the University of Liège, Belgium. where he also leads the Center Démocratie. His research area focuses on the democratic dynamic in Europe and the United States; populism, nationalism and extreme right; conspiracy theories; ethnic relations and cultural diversity.
His 2019 book, Le populisme aux États-Unis: Un regard pour l’Europe (Populism in the United States: An Glance for Europe) covers many of the topics addressed in this interview and argues that populism has been deeply rooted in American political life since its origins.
Jamin, Jérôme. Le populisme aux États-Unis. Un regard pour l’Europe. Bruxelles: Centre d’Action Laïque, coll. “Liberté j’écris ton nom”, 2019.