The Atlantic

What Is a Populist?

And is Donald Trump one?
Source: Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Why does Donald Trump exaggerate the size of his inauguration crowd, brag about his election win in conversations with world leaders, and claim without evidence that voter fraud may have cost him the popular vote? Why does he dismiss protesters who oppose him as “paid professionals” and polls that reflect poorly on him as “fake news”? Why does he call much of the media the “enemy of the people”?

There are explanations for these things that focus on the individual, characterizing Trump as a self-centered reality-TV star obsessed with approval and allergic to criticism.

But there is also an ideological explanation, and it involves a concept that gets mentioned a lot these days without much context or elaboration: populism.

What is a populist?

No definition of populism will fully describe all populists. That’s because populism is a “thin ideology” in that it “only speaks to a very small part of a political agenda,” according to Cas Mudde, a professor at the University of Georgia and the co-author of Populism: A Very Short Introduction. An ideology like fascism involves a holistic view of how politics, the economy, and society as a whole should be ordered. Populism doesn’t; it calls for kicking out the political establishment, but it doesn’t specify what should replace it. So it’s usually paired with “thicker” left- or right-wing ideologies like socialism or nationalism.

Populists are dividers, not uniters, Mudde told me. They split society into “two homogenous and antagonistic groups: the pure people on the one end and the corrupt elite on the other,” and say they’re guided by the “will of the people.” The United States is what political scientists call a “liberal democracy,” a system “based on pluralism—on the idea that you have different groups with different interests and values, which are all legitimate,” Mudde explained. Populists, in contrast, are not pluralist. They consider just one group—whatever they mean by “the people”—legitimate.

This conception of legitimacy stems from the fact that populists view their mission as “essentially moral,” Mudde noted. The “distinction between the elite and the people is not based on how much money you have or even what kind of position you have. It’s based on your

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from The Atlantic

The Atlantic5 min readScience
A Breakthrough in the Mystery of Why Women Get So Many Autoimmune Diseases
About 65 million years ago, shortly after the time of the dinosaurs, a new critter popped up on the evolutionary scene. This “scampering animal,” as researchers described it, was likely small, ate bugs, and had a furry tail. It looked, according to a
The Atlantic3 min readPolitics
How Harvard Should Handle the Kyle Kashuv Mess
The university and its critics can transform this polarizing culture war controversy into a constructive moment––if both take steps to placate the other side.
The Atlantic3 min readPolitics
The Defense Department Is Leaderless Again
Patrick Shanahan withdrew from consideration to be secretary of defense after reports of a harrowing family situation.