by Simon Julian Staufer
On 22 January 2021, Donald Trump’s term as President of the United States officially came to an end. Trump had been impeached and acquitted; had contracted and survived Covid-19; fought for re-election and lost, refused to accept the election outcome, and tried to overturn it. He had told supporters on January 6, the day the election results were certified, that “if you don't fight like hell, you're not going to have a country anymore,” then watched as a mob of rioters broke into the Capitol in a last attempt to remake American history and secure him a second term; resulting in Trump being charged with incitement of insurrection, impeached for a second time, and finally acquitted once again, when his term had already expired.
All of this is very recent and very well-known history. The attack on the Capitol was the dramatic conclusion to four years that it can be described without hyperbole as the most turbulent and controversial single presidential term in American postwar history. It demonstrated in the starkest possible manner that Donald Trump was not only the most consistently unpopular US president since World War II, but that at the same time, he had built a devoted political base radical enough to physically try to stop a presidential transition by attacking a core institution of American democracy—even after Trump’s opponent had won as many electoral votes as Trump himself in 2016, clearly carried the popular vote and had his victory confirmed not just by the Electoral College but by judges and election officials across the nation, many of whom represented Trump’s own political party. Never in the country’s history had so many people turned out to vote for either giving a president a second term or ending his tenure.
Donald Trump has very often been described as a populist, to the extent that the label can be considered widely accepted in describing his politics, his behaviour, and his approach. While driving out large numbers of voters either for or against oneself is not the definition of populism, it has been a result of Donald Trump’s style of both magnetising a large segment the voting population and repulsing another one. And if there is one element of a definition of populism that is universally acknowledged, it is its reference to ‘the people’—who, in the particularly turbulent final weeks of the Trump presidency were explicitly told that they had been robbed, and that election officials and judges were conspiring to misrepresent their will.
But appealing to ‘the people’ is not sufficient to establish ‘populism’ in a meaningful sense. ‘The people’ can be a neutral term for any democratic politician’s constituency, and it seems safe to presume that every modern American president or presidential candidate has used it in some form. To understand how Donald Trump’s brand of politics is linked to the idea of populism as an approach to politics—and to study its relationship with recent events—it is worth looking at how we should define populism and what we should consider its key characteristics.
Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders
In 2018, in the earlier stages of Donald Trump’s term in office, I started researching Donald Trump’s success as a politician since the announcement of his presidential bid in June 2015, and the relative success of a politician at the other end of the left-right spectrum in American politics, Bernard (‘Bernie’) Sanders. While Sanders’s success never extended beyond good results in certain primaries and caucuses, it was still considered remarkable by many that a 74-year-old, self-proclaimed democratic socialist (who only joined the Democratic party temporarily to run for president) managed to win almost 2,000 primary delegates and move into the position of being a serious competitor to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination for several months. Sanders accomplished a similar, if more short-lived, feat in 2020, leading the race for the Democratic nomination in its earliest stages.
In 2016, Trump and Sanders campaigned on platforms that had little in common. Their ideas as to how to improve the economy—then, as in most election years, considered the most important issue by the American electorate—were radically different, as were their views on immigration, climate change, and a range of other topics. Yet the ‘populism’ label was applied liberally to both. Moreover, with the rise of many (purportedly) populist parties and movements in Europe in the 2010s, the story of Trump and Sanders, two ‘populists’ competing with ‘establishment’ figures like Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton, tied in with a broader debate about the state of democracy on either side of the Atlantic.
Agreeing on the nature of populism, however, is tricky. While there is broad and systematic academic research into this topic, universal consensus on any aspect of it appears confined to the observation that political actors who can legitimately be deemed ‘populists’ in some way pit ‘the people’ against some other entity that they are opposed to. In addition, the notion is common—albeit not uncontested—that populism, whatever its exact nature, is systemically opposed to the tenets of a liberal democracy such as the United States, and much of the more recent research in populism studies has focused on actors on the far political right. On the other hand, there is no consensus on the nature of the entity the ‘people’ are juxtaposed with, on whether populism is a political ideology in its own right, and if not, on just what exactly it is.
In a specifically American context, however, the term ‘populism’ predates contemporary usage and scholarship, and it is historically associated with the left-wing People’s Party of the 1890s, which championed smallholder farmers and labour unions. Only in the 1950s, in the era of what has come to be known as the Second Red Scare, aggressive campaigning against the alleged communist subversion of the United States put right-wing politics in the spotlight of the discussion about populism, and—as the historian Michael Kazin writes—‘the vocabulary of grassroots rebellion’ began serving ‘to thwart and revert social and cultural change rather than to promote it.’ On the other hand, politicians considered left-wing populists kept playing a major role in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, particularly in Latin America, with figures like Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales rising to prominence years after the end of the Cold War.
This broad application across the political spectrum makes ‘populism’ even more elusive than it would be if applied chiefly to political movements on the contemporary right. It demonstrates that not only Donald Trump but also Bernie Sanders stands in a long tradition of politics associated with the concept. Their campaigning at the same time for the presidency during a timeframe of a little over a year—from 15 June 2015, when Trump announced his campaign, until 12 July 2016 when Sanders retired from the race—makes for an intriguing object of study in attempting to observe empirically whether, and to what extent, two politically fundamentally opposed actors can both be populists. If indeed two so wildly different actors should be populists, the question also arises whether the concept of populism may mean different things for different individual approaches to the political discourse.
However, such research needs to first get back to the question of what populism in general is. Attempts to do so in academic studies have differed significantly. Ernesto Laclau has constructed what is perhaps both the most wide-reaching and the most abstract theoretical framework for the topic, widely recognised for focusing on the essential characteristics of populism as such (rather than on elements only found in some forms of it) but also criticised for making it difficult to differentiate populism from other approaches to politics. An oft-cited alternative to dealing with this challenge is Cas Mudde’s definition of populism as a ‘thin-centred ideology’ based largely on a juxtaposition of ‘the people’ with an ‘elite’ against which populism rallies—which is thus malleable enough to fit a wide range of policy orientations and political platforms, while allowing for different types of mobilisation and political organisation. However, applying the ‘ideology’ label to populism has been viewed rather critically by authors such as Michael Freeden, Donatella della Porta and Manuela Caiani, and Benjamin Moffitt and Simon Tormey.
Aiming to address the discussion on both populism’s ideational core and its amorphous nature, and to provide a foundation on which to build empirical research, I define populism as a political discursive logic whose normative ideational core is the juxtaposition of ‘the people’ as the group it claims to represent with one or several particular antagonists. This definition builds on a Laclauian approach but maintains that populism can be distinguished from other political discursive logics through this particular presentation of an antagonistic relationship, and of the people being the entity purportedly represented, rather than any other or more specific group (such as e.g. Christians, liberals, etc.).
There are several elements of political discourse that can serve to express this relationship, which different populists may use differently. Based on the prior research in the field, I identified11 possible ways in which populism as a discursive logic articulates itself at the level of text (as opposed to non-textual or meta-textual levels such as the tone of speeches or visual elements of populists’ presentation), serving an instrumental function in expressing the people-antagonist dichotomy that lies at its core. The list of elements is not designed to exhaust all possibilities—and it bears stating that non-textual or even non-verbal elements would merit being studied through alternative or more extensive designs—but it is considered to feature most of what are considered populism’s most common traits on this level of analysis in the literature:
Two different kinds of populist
Donald Trump’s and Bernie Sanders’s 2015 campaign announcement speeches were key elements of their political platform, as were two books written by them, or in their name, Great Again. How to Fix Our Crippled America (Trump) and Our Revolution (Sanders), both of which describe the platforms of their respective (attributed) author and their ideological positions and policy ideas. The definition of and empirical framework for populism established was thus applied with a focus on this key discursive output in their campaigns. Speeches made by both candidates during the primary elections in 2016 were analysed to complement their books’ ideological content.
The results offered new insight into the ideological malleability of populism, and into the challenge of pinning it down. The analysis found that both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders engage in a form of political discourse that features populist elements, but that they represent distinctly different approaches to articulating populism.
Neither Donald Trump nor Bernie Sanders can be considered an ideal-type populist. For the discursive actions of both candidates during their respective 2015–2016 campaigns, some of the 11 elements identified were clearly present in the material analysed, some to a limited degree, and some, not at all. Both former presidential candidates’ discourse presented a normative juxtaposition of the people as a group with one or several antagonists, as has been considered constitutive for the definition of populism—in the case of Donald Trump, the antagonists are painted as external forces from countries like China, Mexico and Iran as well as politicians and bureaucrats whose most essential characteristic is incompetence in representing American interests against these outside forces; in the case of Bernie Sanders, the main antagonist is the ‘billionaire class’, whose schemes are aided and abetted by ‘establishment’ politicians from both major American parties.
While Sanders makes a more explicit appeal to ‘the people’ and provides a more specific moral framework than Trump, a clash between populism and pluralism can textually be identified only in Trump’s discourse. Elements #6 and #7 of the framework—disregard for deliberative processes and a favourable view of swift executive action as well as promises of fast and wide-reaching change—are where Trump and Sanders differ most sharply. There is no evidence of these elements in Sanders’s speeches and book, and there is a substantial amount of evidence in Trump’s.
Crucially, where in both the academic and the popular debate, especially in Europe, there is a tendency to equate ‘populism’ with the political far right, in a sense Bernie Sanders is more of a populist than Donald Trump—because his appeal to ‘the people’ is more explicit, reference to them as a group is more central to his discourse than to Trump’s, and the people-antagonist dichotomy is more clearly framed in normative terms.
Populism and pluralism
This finding has implications for the study of the relationship between populism and the political pluralism that is a fundamental tenet of liberal democracy. Considering that the people-antagonist conflict that forms the normative ideational core of populism is more clearly present in Bernie Sanders’s discourse than in Donald Trump’s, the idea seems questionable that populism, in and of itself, is at odds with liberal democracy, as proposed by a number of authors in populism research. While this notion remains prevalent in the literature of authors seeking to establish definitions of populism that take account of its unique features vis-à-vis other political phenomena but are universally valid, other research has indeed claimed that, at the very least, a diverse electorate can be openly acknowledged by populists, and it may be that, even with a normative people-outgroup antagonism firmly in place, a denial of pluralism does not necessarily follow.
Based on the example of Bernie Sanders, the argument could in fact be posited that populism can aim—or certainly profess to aim—at restoring the very mechanisms of liberal democracy that would make a campaign like that of Sanders unnecessary. The extent to which this correlates with Sanders’s position on the political left-right spectrum would be an interesting subject for further research on actors who position themselves similarly and use a similar, arguably populist discursive approach.
What recent events have, in any case, emphatically demonstrated is how on the other hand a brand of populism that openly disdains institutionalism, multilateral decision-making and any opposition through the democratic process can unleash great destructive potential and have significant consequences for the stability of democratic institutions. The January 2021 storming of the United States Capitol is a stark reminder of that.
 See also https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/trump-approval-ratings/
 This is true not only of the absolute number of voters but also of the percentage of the voting eligible population since the earliest data point available (the 1980 election), and of the percentage of the total voting age population since the 1960 election (when no incumbent ran). See https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/statistics/data/voter-turnout-in-presidential-elections for detailed statistics.
 M. Kazin, The Populist Persuasion. An American History (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995), 4.
 See for example E. Laclau, On Populist Reason (London: Verso, 2005).
 See for example C. Rovira-Kaltwasser and C. Mudde, Populism. A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).
 See for example: M. Freeden, ‘After the Brexit referendum: revisiting populism as an ideology’, Journal of Political Ideologies 22(1) (2017), 1–11; M. Caiani and D. della Porta, ‘The elitist populism of the extreme right: A frame analysis of extreme right-wing discourses in Italy and Germany’, Acta Politica 46(2) (2011), 180–202; and B. Moffitt and S. Tormey, ‘Rethinking Populism: Politics, Mediatisation and Political Style’, Political Studies 62(2) (2014), 381–97.
 It may be noted that Donald Trump is reported to have employed a ghostwriter for his book, while Bernie Sanders is reported to have written his book himself. However, both books constitute textual output with which either respective politician is officially credited, to which he contributed, and which formalises his official positions and views.
 See for example J.-W. Müller, ‘Populismus: Theorie . . . ’, in ibid. (ed.), Was ist Populismus? (Berlin:
Suhrkamp, 2017), pp. 25–67; and P. Rosanvallon, ‘The populist temptation’, in A. Goldhammer and P. Rosanvallon (eds.), Counter-Democracy: Politics in an Age of Distrust (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 265–73.
 For a specific example and case study of ‘inclusive’ populism, see Y. Stavrakakis and G. Katsambekis, ‘Left-wing populism in the European periphery: the case of SYRIZA’, Journal of Political Ideologies 19(2) (2014), 119–42.