By Ellie Bowen
Amidst the frenzy and politicking that has come to define much of Donald Trump’s presidency, whether it be the buzz surrounding the 35 day government shutdown or the latest Twitter fight, there exists the resurgence of a political “tendency” that has existed throughout history: that of populism. Populism generally refers to a political sentiment wherein ordinary people feel ignored by the establishment and the elite, but it is a difficult term to precisely define, even for the experts. The Daily interviewed a few such experts, including the political scientists and historians Francis Fukuyama, Russell Berman, Iván Jaksic and Jack Rakove, in order to unpack the ambiguities surrounding populism. The professors aimed to take a step back from the tumult of today’s politics in order to situate this trend in its broader historical context.
From Brexit in the U.K. to the election of Bolsonaro in Brazil, the rising Trumpian breed of nationalistic populism fits within the international trend. Browse the op-ed pages of The New York Times or The Washington Post and you are bound to encounter a plethora of articles comparing Trump to various historical figures notorious for their demagoguery, be they Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson or even Hitler.
The implications of these comparisons are manifold, but equally telling are their divergences. The lack of consensus on exactly who Trump’s closest historical analogue is reveals the difficulty in drawing such parallels and the uncertainty that Trump’s actions have elicited among political commentators from across the spectrum.
Regardless of which comparison is most apt, if Trump were indeed a figure whose legislative decisions aligned with any historical precedent, predicting the outcomes and lasting impact of his presidency would be far easier.
However, the Stanford historians and political scientists with whom The Daily spoke nearly unanimously contend that Trump really cannot be compared to anyone. They also question both the longevity and solidity of the populist political tendencies we see today, even hesitating to label them as proper political “movements.”
Trump defies historical parallels
“There’s never been a successful figure in American politics who you can compare to Trump,” said Jack Rakove, professor of history, political science and, by courtesy, law.
Russell Berman, professor of German studies and comparative literature and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, agreed, saying that Trump “doesn’t map neatly onto any one person.”
Berman did point out that Trump’s relatively isolationist approach to foreign policy in an age of globalization parallels that of Obama. Comparatively, both the Clinton and Bush administrations were more willing to enter into violent conflict overseas (in Yugoslavia for the former and Iraq for the latter), whereas Obama was not — Trump, too, has worked thus far to pull troops out of overseas engagements.
Berman added that historical analogies often lack contextual completeness. A scholar of German studies, he pointed to the common comparison of Trump to Hitler as one such unsound parallel, saying that it reflects a “lack of recognition of the vitality of American institutions.”
“I can’t think of any case… where the Hitler government wanted to do something and it was stopped by courts, or where the Reichstag was able to block it,” Berman noted.
After the economic disaster of the Weimar Republic in Germany, which marked a period of unprecedented inflation, anti-democratic parties within the Reichstag were able to halt parliamentary work and invoke emergency powers in order to further their agenda. Many have argued that this ability to obstruct Parliament is part of what enabled fascism to gain a stronghold in what would soon become Nazi Germany.
Trump, contrastingly, is often stopped from capitalizing on some of his more dangerous ideas by America’s institutionalized system of checks and balances, be they the courts or Congress or the Senate.
Iván Jaksic, professor of history and director of Bing Overseas Studies in Chile, likewise emphasized the strength of America’s institutions, with the many checks and balances of government, in withstanding drastic swings in one particular political direction. The vitality of America’s political institutions, Jaksic believes, allows it to accommodate turns to the right and left without losing its liberal democratic center.
Jaksic, an expert in Latin American history, drew comparisons between the rhetoric in populist-driven, nationalistic movements in countries like Nicaragua and Chile — led by the Somozas in the late 1960s and Pinochet during the 1970s, respectively — and the rhetoric in America today. However, he again underscored that the parallels often drawn are not wholly apt due to America’s unique institutional factors and history of liberalism.
Still, Jaksic contended that the populist rhetoric and the “politics of fear” that we see in America are a little too similar to those of many nationalistic and dictatorial leaders in Latin America for comfort. Referring to such figures as Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, whose authoritarian hand has wreaked havoc on the Venezuelan economy and people, he said this particular and eerily familiar brand of leadership should not be underestimated.
In dealing with the economy and other issues in Venezuela, Maduro caters to the whims of the people, as opposed to leading based on guiding principles, something that Jaksic calls the “politics of pandering” and argues is present in all populist movements.
One example of the “politics of pandering” in the Trump administration has been the debacle with the wall on the southern border, a policy push by Trump which many believe reflected a desire to appease a portion of his base that felt threatened by immigration. This led to an unprecedented government shutdown that cost the U.S. economy $3 billion.
Francis Fukuyama, senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, discussed the political underpinnings of the government shutdown, arguing that while it played to Trump’s base, it may have ultimately made him look bad.
“I think if he were a more clever politician… he wouldn’t have wasted all that political capital doing something like that,” Fukuyama said.
Commentators also have drawn comparisons between the two leaders’ contempt for formal and informal norms of constitutional government — though Maduro’s efforts to pack the Venezuelan Supreme Court with his political supporters and to rewrite the Constitution entirely exceed Trump’s threat of invoking emergency powers to build the wall through executive order.
“[Political pandering] is the failure of populist movements,” Jaksic told The Daily. “Like Venezuela — that’s a road to disaster. I mean, you do need some self-discipline.”
After concluding rather decisively that Trump could not be accurately compared, the scholars were each asked to explore concepts in 21st century populism in an attempt to unpack the term’s ambiguity and to shed light on the current political moment.
‘Politics of anger’
Populism is an intrinsically nebulous term, one that Rakove believes is an example of the problem of the “inflation of political language,” wherein a political term comes to mean almost anything and, as a result, substantively nothing at all. Other professors agree that it’s not only a hard term to define, but also a difficult one to apply.
“It’s an ambiguous term about movements that are themselves ideologically ambiguous,” Berman said.
Despite the vagueness of the term, Berman did not deem it accurate to describe the era of Trump as a historical movement in line with the populist movements of the past. Instead, he characterized Trump’s rise as evidence of a “neo-populist potential” within America today, which he does not think will come to full fruition, as he thinks it will be unable to gain a stronghold due to America’s two-party system.
In Europe, this is not the case. The pluri-party capacity of the European system has allowed for populist movements to blossom in many countries there, as evidenced by Italy’s “Five Star Movement,” France’s “Rassemblement National,” Greece’s “Syriza,” or Spain’s “Podemos,” for example. This phenomenon, which Berman ties to anti-globalization sentiment, encompasses all sides of the political spectrum.
“We’ve only been saved from that kind of European outcome by our two-party system,” Berman said. “[It’s] so hard for a third party to get traction here.”
According to Berman, another significant feature of this phenomenon is a harsh anti-elite and anti-establishment mentality, which aligns ideologically with prior populist movements. While we definitely see these attitudes in America, these alone do not make for a definitive movement, which is why Berman characterizes today as harboring a “neo-populist potential,” as opposed to the much stronger breed of populism we see in some European countries.
Jaksic thinks that this anti-elite sentiment is a large part of what allowed Trump to mobilize previously disengaged voters, such as blue collar workers, and win the election in 2016. However, he predicts that as a result of how Trump’s policies have unfolded, the very populace that Trump mobilized in 2016 may be the mass that kicks him out of office in 2020.
In particular, Jaksic thinks that the economic effects of the trade war with China and the Trump administration’s extreme hardlining on immigration policy will harm the coalition that voted for him in the first place. Both policies, Jaksic believes, will lead to general economic hardship in the U.S., hardship which will inevitably weigh heaviest on the middle-class, blue-collar workers who constituted a plurality of Trump’s base in 2016. Additionally, voters from rural areas who rely on export industries for their incomes are particularly hard hit by the president’s actions on trade.
“It’s like a backlash,” Jaksic said. “[The 2020 winner] will — broadly — probably be somebody young. Probably a woman. And probably either Latino or African American.”
Berman thinks we will see the effects of this sooner than 2020.
“In the second half of Trump’s term, with a democratic Congress, it would not surprise me if he were to pivot to the left,” Berman said. “Because in that he could still speak to his base.”
Although not explicitly, Berman’s hypothesis connects to Jaksic’s idea of Trump’s “politics of pandering.” However, Berman emphasized that this is more so based upon the “political ambiguity inherent in populism,” which allows a populist-type leader to promote whichever policies his constituency asks him to promote. In this way, Berman sees the “populist potential” in the U.S. as capable of transcending left and right party lines.
In a broader sense, Berman sees this draw towards populist-esque policies and toxic political polemic in America as a symptom of broader concerns with inequality and skepticism toward globalization.
The risks of a globalized economy were starkly revealed in the aftermath of the housing crisis of 2008, whose disastrous effects bled to virtually every corner of the globe and revealed the not-so-rosy side of globalized economics. Berman argued that these economic forces likely contributed to the desire for a more nationally-focused economy that we see today.
To Berman, the effects of both the pullback from globalization and the cultural appeal of populism were also very clear in the results of the 2016 election.
“There was a populist revolt against the party establishment [in both parties],” Berman said. “And in one party, that populist revolt won, and in one party that populist revolt was crushed — and the party in which the populist revolt won is the one that won the election.”
Fukuyama echoed Berman’s sentiments, adding that there’s a cultural identity element to the discourse as well, largely in response to immigration increases in recent years.
“In many countries there has been a similar [populist tendency],” Fukuyama said. “Especially on the part of people that didn’t benefit from globalization, who feel that they’re being displaced by immigrants and foreigners.”
Fukuyama, who wrote about this topic in his book “Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment,” went on to say that the populist tendency that we are seeing extends beyond economic causes and seeps into identity politics. Questions of identity used to be predominantly addressed and championed by populist movements on the left, Fukuyama argued; however, today we are seeing more and more right-wing populists take up these issues.
“That whole framing and rhetoric has now moved over to the right,” Fukuyama argued. “You get white nationalists now who say, ‘We are being pushed aside by minorities, our rights as Americans are not being respected, and the elites are looking down on us.’”
Fukuyama questioned why, even in light of the economic motivations behind this phenomenon, the left-wing populist movement did not end up dominating the government with people like Bernie Sanders and movements like “Occupy Wall Street.”
To Fukuyama, the answer is obvious: Cultural divisions among the American populace were an equal, if not more powerful motive for political action, and help to explain the Trump vote in 2016. He also asserted that in the period since the financial crisis, right wing populism has been much better organized and more forceful than left wing populism.
“The right wing populists speak to these cultural and identity issues in a way that the left wing populists don’t really do,” Fukuyama said.
Berman agreed with Fukuyama’s assessment, adding that oftentimes coinciding with populism’s social agenda is a xenophobic, anti-other mentality.
“This is sad to say, but one feature of populism also historically has been some kind of hostility toward others — toward minorities — and sometimes nativism,” Berman added. “And if intolerance toward minorities is a feature of populism, it’s well distributed across the spectrum.”
To Fukuyama, this nativist sentiment, combined with the extreme polarization of issues, is malignant.
“I work a lot on immigration reform issues, and because of this stupid wall of his, that issue has become so toxic for people,” Fukuyama lamented. “I think it’s going to be years before we can get back to a kind of reasonable discussion of how we can reform our immigration system.”
Jaksic asserted that this shift in rhetoric is motivated by what he describes as “white rage.” He characterized the populism we see in America today as a populism without principles and as such also questioned whether or not it could be labeled as a movement.
“‘Make America Great Again’ is not a principle,” Jaksic said. “It’s a politics of anger and it’s a politics of pandering.”
‘This is what it sounds like’
The internet has lead to the increased democratization of voices in public discourse, a fact which many scholars agree has fueled the “populist tendencies” of many modern political candidates. It also has academics considering the long term effects of this shift in dialogue.
“There’s nothing wrong with people’s voices being heard in this unfiltered way,” Fukuyama said. “The problem is that the internet can be easily weaponized by people that don’t necessarily share democratic values.”
Fukuyama asserted that this problem extends beyond the question of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election to everyday people in the U.S who are able to propagate conspiracy theories and misinformation that “20 years ago would have been relegated to the complete fringes of the political discourse.”
Berman pointed out that the traditional “gatekeepers of allowable opinion,” such as The New York Times or The Washington Post, have lost their power to control the scope of political discourse, which is just one effect of the populistic, anti-elite sentiment that we see in America today.
“[The internet] was going to give everybody a voice,” Berman said. “And you know what? It did that. And this is what it sounds like.”
Of course, many worry about false news being propagated through internet channels, and criticism of both journalism institutions and regular people spreading misinformation abounds. In these debates over fake news, Berman says that he is much more concerned with the potential risks of censorship and the subliminal or overt values that are embedded in censored material than he is with deciphering fact from fiction online for himself.
“Censorship is not value free,” Berman said. “So instead of being able to hear every nut, I’m only going to be able to hear the nuts that Mark Zuckerberg approves of.”
In order to make ethical decisions about what kind of content they allow on their platforms, many tech companies create regulatory frameworks to help them decipher what falls within the bounds of acceptable content. These regulatory frameworks — from Facebook’s controversial comment moderator to WhatsApp’s viral message forwarding mechanisms — are now ubiquitous in Silicon Valley, but their presence is not going unnoticed, as it is often a damaging one.
In recent months, these companies have faced heavy criticism about the burgeoning negative effects of their regulatory frameworks. The regulatory policies of these companies go awry — sometimes as a result of biased algorithms, sometimes as a result of negligence and almost always as a result of attempting to occupy a role they were never meant to occupy: as the arbiters of free speech.
Facebook’s comment moderation framework, for example, mistakenly shut down a fundraising appeal for volcano victims in Indonesia, but allowed a prominent extremist group in Myanmar to maintain their page, despite being accused of instigating genocide. In addition to Whatsapp’s viral forwarding mechanism, which makes it easy to rapidly send information to vast amounts of people, the application’s encryption also makes it difficult to track where misinformation is stemming from. This became a huge issue during Bolsonaro’s election in Brazil, when targeted messages about his opponent were blasted to who knows how many people — perhaps hundreds of thousands or even millions. Many speculate they came from Bolsonaro himself, but due to the aforementioned encryption, it’s virtually impossible to trace the origin of the messages.
As serious as these problems of election interference and Facebook page moderation are, regulatory frameworks have led to even worse issues, such as mob violence in India, where a number of murders have been linked to the spreading of fake news on WhatsApp by Hindu nationalists amidst growing anti-Muslim sentiment.
To Berman, the solution boils down to educating the next generation to be critical readers, whose digital literacy will help them cut through all of the false information.
And despite the concerns about information dissemination, many of which are stirred by Trump’s near-constant denunciations of the “fake news media,” the professors with whom The Daily spoke do not think, by any means, that the internet is going to indelibly change the political landscape to be a populist-centered one.
“My suspicion, and I would say certainly my hope, is that it is a temporary glitch,” Fukuyama said. “You’re already seeing some pushback against this populist tendency… in the midterm election here in November.”
Jaksic says it all comes down to critical evaluation and mobilizing people to vote, especially young people.
“I’m confident — not complacent — but confident that the U.S. has the traditions and the institutions to get back to what has been … a very consistent trend towards the middle, towards the center,” Jaksic said.
Under the microscopic vision of the present, it can feel like we will never escape the battleground that is our current political landscape. But taking a historical lens on the political issues that we are facing today is at once reassuring and humbling: reassuring because the more alarming parallels to historical figures and populist movements that people are drawing to the Trump administration seem not to hold, and humbling because it draws our attention to the systemic problems that got us here — such as prejudice and inequality — and reveal how much further America still has to go.
President Trump casts himself as a nontraditional, unprecedented figure. Perhaps, then, there is something to please both the president himself and his opposition in the conclusion of some of Stanford’s deepest political thinkers: Trump is the first president of his kind and may well be the last — until the cycles of history turn again.
Contact Ellie Bowen at ebowen ‘at’ stanford.edu.