The Populist Appeal

When voters are dissatisfied, they’ll try anything new—like Donald Trump.

By Peter Bjel.

Those who are unhappy with the status quo will always demand change, even if they don’t know what that change should be. Offering solutions to the downtrodden from either the left or right of the political spectrum, populism is as old as politics itself. It emerges when a new politician or movement claims to be able to solve the supposedly neglected concerns of a large demographic of citizens. Populist leaders criticize the entrenched political elite for their apparent failures and point to an easy scapegoat as the cause of all the nation’s problems. Populism may arise in response to legitimate grievances, but unfortunately the solutions it proposes are usually more popular than legitimate.

In the last several years, populism has spread throughout the Western world in a way it hasn’t since the Second World War. New political forces have emerged to appeal to discontented masses, and they have pulled traditional politics further into the realm of populism as leaders struggle to maintain their party base in the face of rising demagogues.

Populism is at the root of the ascendancy of both the far right and far left in Europe. To win votes in the last election, the U.K.’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, gave in to far-right nationalist calls for a referendum on a British departure from the European Union, even though it went against his party line—a decision that led to the humiliating end of his political career when the Leave vote won. Faced with a disastrous economy, Greek voters turned to its most left-wing party, Syriza, which claimed it would be able to do things differently and then found it could not. Throughout the member states of the E.U., populism is feeding off a simmering societal malaise stemming from years of economic turbulence and the increasing effects of globalization.

The long-term consequences of these seismic shifts in Europe have yet to be seen, but populism can become its own worst enemy. Its unrealistic politicians usually either enact legislation that fails to fulfill the hopes that catapulted them to success, or they are forced to abandon their ideologies—and constituents—once elected.
Nonetheless, this phenomenon has yet to be eclipsed. Quite the contrary: it has made the rounds in North America, and may well ascend to even greater levels in the upcoming U.S. presidential election. In May, real estate magnate and reality television personality Donald Trump, called a populist by many, surpassed the threshold of 1,237 Republican delegates necessary to secure the party’s nomination for presidential candidate.

Despite a highly controversial and polarizing campaign, Trump has endured. He now stands a chance at becoming the next American president. When declaring her support, Oklahoma GOP chairwoman Pam Pollard articulated why Trump has done so well. “I think he has touched a part of our electorate that doesn’t like where our country is,” she said.

Populist Popularity

Some observers in both the U.S. and internationally have expressed disdain and alarm that Trump, who has limited political experience or knowledge of domestic and foreign affairs, has done so well. Elizabeth Drew, who has written extensively on the 2016 election, speculated that Trump’s talking points, when not relying on “bluster to propel him”, come solely from television talk shows and news snippets. His arguments have …

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