Trumpism is not uncommonly associated with populism as a politics of hate.
Question: How despicable is Donald Trump the presidential candidate?
Answer: He’s a racist, a misogynist, a bigot, an authoritarian . . . and a populist.
Exhibit A: Michael Gerson writes that Trump’s political ascendency is “the triumph of anti-reason,” “misogyny,” and “authoritarian impulses.” Trump has reduced the Republican Party to “a laughingstock among the young, a toxic brand among minorities, an offense to many women, a source of worry among U.S. allies and alarm among national security professionals.” His self-serving conspiracy theories are an attack on “our constitutional order.” Trump is “using American democracy to work out his inner demons or perhaps to position his brand.”
Exhibit B: Fareed Zakaria, writing in the Washington Post the same day as Michael Gerson, declares that Trump’s message of racism and bigotry is aimed at remaking the Republican Party into “a populist, protectionist, nationalist party.”
In short, Trump’s “predatory and abusive language” (Gerson) moves “the crowds” (Zakaria). Trump uses democracy against reason to undermine the constitutional order. He personifies populism understood as a regressive politics of hate.
There is something ritualistic going on here. I do not defend or support Donald Trump when I point to his critics using his unsavory campaign to delegitimize democracy by reducing it to populism and populism to hatred. Trump is a convenient caricature of democracy, which serves as a ritualized warning from ruling elites that democracy degenerates into demagoguery when it isn’t sufficiently watered down and contained. Thus, the biggest “lesson” we are supposed to draw from the present election cycle may be that the alternative to the ruling order is populist rancor and chaos.
This is an oft-repeated lesson that sustains moribund Empire—a sheer dichotomy between the war state’s rule of privilege and a democratic rule of the people. What may not be desirable about the former is made palatable by the specter of the latter.
What is it about the specter of popular democracy that makes it so unworthy an alternative to elite rule? To that question I will soon return to examine the professed and disputed relationship between populism and hate.