March 27, 2024 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

Populism isn’t about popular policies

That’s the whole point, writes Noah Berlatsky.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Editor’s note: The following first appeared in Everything Is Horrible, Noah’s newsletter. –JS

Populism” sounds like it should be, well, popular. It’s got that “pop” right there in its name, like a top 40 tune. Put an “ism” on that “pop” and you’ve got a mass movement devoted to giving the people what they want, and not giving the people what they don’t want. Right?

Well, no. Populism isn’t really about embracing popular policies, nor is it about fighting unpopular policies. Populists don’t really care which policies are popular, in the sense of which policies have majority support. In fact, populists embrace populism, in general, in order to do an end run around majorities, and claim a mandate for policies that are not popular, but popularish.

Populist movements — like Nazism, obviously, but also like the KKK or Trumpism — claim that they embody the will of the people. Polls don’t matter; voting doesn’t matter; democratic debate doesn’t matter.

While democracy is messy, populist authoritarianism is worse. You want leaders who feel accountable to the public, not to their own mythical sense of their own destiny. A populist leader has no guardrails and no limits. 

Populism doesn’t need these objective or semi-objective measure of popular preference, because populists believe the true voice of the people, the essence of popular will, is synonymous with the populist leader or movement. This is in fact the whole point of populism; it’s a way to claim a mandate without having to go through a democratic process or any process.

Since populism claims a spiritual mandate, it follows that those who do not bow to the leader or the movement have no legitimacy and no voice. This is manifestly Trump’s view; Trump hates elections because they undermine and question his own source of authority, which is his grandiose spiritual connection with what he sees as the real, MAGA America.

For Trump, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden lost the popular vote in the 2016 and 2020 elections because anyone who votes against Trump isn’t a real American. To cast a ballot for a Democratic candidate means you are an immigrant voting illegally or a Black person voting illegally or a disloyal Jew. Trump embodies the populist will because only people who support Trump are “Real Americans” because Trump embodies the populist will. The logic is only more powerful because it’s completely circular and unfalsifiable. Only those who are disloyal and unAmerican would question the populist leader and his cause.

Populism is a natural fit for the christofascist right, which thrives on exclusions and bigotry. But you can find it on other parts of the political spectrum too. The left does support populist policies, for the most part, but that can lead some to insist that basically everyone supports all left policies, and if some of those policies are stymied, that’s the fault of corrupt nefarious wreckers, rather than because some people disagree with them. Centrists, too, will often rhetorically appeal to “white working-class voters” as the one true democratic constituency who must be appeased first, last and always while other voters take second place. They’re not above kicking leftists as unAmerican either. “Red baiting” remains a thing.

The appeal of populism is obvious; democracy and voting are messy, and everyone at times would like to make an end run around them. The public’s opinions are not infrequently bad or incoherent, as in consistent findings that Americans want to cut spending without cutting any actual specific programs. Who hasn’t wanted at some point to don the mantle of populism and speak for what the public really wants, or at least what they really should want.

But while democracy is messy, populist authoritarianism is worse. You want leaders who feel accountable to the public, not to their own mythical sense of their own destiny. A populist leader has no guardrails and no limits. He believes everything he does, as Trump loves to say, is “perfect.” And since he believes elections are an illegitimate source of authority — since he thinks they threaten his personal, perfect connection with true America — he’s likely to try to get rid of them.

Noah Berlatsky writes about the political economy for the Editorial Board. He lives in Chicago. Find him @nberlat.

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