Essay: Populism

CJ Trowbridge



English 1A Tue/Thu


What do Donald Trump, Theresa May, Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, and Adolph Hitler all have in common? There are lots of easy answers, but a harder one might explain the easy ones and more; populism. What is populism and what causes it? According to The Economist, populism is the idea of a political movement made up of the common people rallying together to smash some elite group (Economist).

One thing all these people had in common was mastering the art of riding a mob to power, and this strategy has found new life in recent years across the west. What causes populism? The Harvard Kennedy School’s John F Kennedy School of Government published the paper, “Trump, Brexit, and the Rise of Populism: Economic Have-Nots and Cultural Backlash.” As its name suggests, there are two leading theories for the recent rise of populism; the “economic insecurity perspective” and the “cultural backlash perspective” (Norris). Xenophobia and the evaporation of opportunity have coalesced to cause the vitriolic miasma of isolationism and hate that have taken the reigns of contemporary political discourse.

Yesterday marked the end of the third national election in recent memory where one of the major contenders was a staunch and unrepentant populist. Just like the two who followed closely behind her, Marine Le Pen campaigned on a platform of unbridled xenophobia and on the idea that her constituents could somehow reclaim the jobs lost in the collapse of the archaic and obsolete industries of the past. Globalism, in her view, was not an empowering force driving innovation, lower prices, and expanding opportunity, but a menace to the misunderstood and delicate domestic industries which she sought to preserve. The key according to Le Pen, was not to develop new ways to compete on the global stage, but to build economic walls to shut out foreign competition and protect failing domestic industries from the dangers of competition. While she was at it, she would also need to get rid of the pesky foreigners who didn’t belong in France, and to take France out of the European Union. (Nossiter)

Following closely behind this whirlwind election, the Dutch faced a similar choice. Geert Wilders promised to build the same economic walls, kick out the same unwelcome foreigners, and bring back the same obsolete industries which could not afford to survive in the modern age in Holland. The same chords resonated with some portion of the base, which came out in xenophobic droves to vote for this savior who promised to bring back the forgotten halcyon before the European Union. (Langfitt)

Does anyone remember what the world, and especially Europe, was like in that halcyon? Adolph Hitler had risen to power on the same arguments of nationalism and economic protectionism. In fact, those terms in German are abbreviated and combined into the name of his political party, the “na-zi” or “nazi” party. He started a world war for those ideas, and took around a hundred million people with him to the grave before he was done. Don’t forget the rallying cry was the same devotion to destroying a particular group of people. This group of his enemies gradually expanded to include most of humanity, and just like Le Pen and Widers, it was baseless and random from start to finish. (Pope Francis)

The reason that all the countries in Europe decided to form the European Union was two-fold. It was partly to unify the political and cultural establishments and better arbitrate conflicts in Europe, but also to strengthen Europe’s collective economic interests and trading power on the world stage. You will notice, I am sure, that both of these are directly opposed to the ideas which drive populism. Ironically, the effect of populism is in reality contrary to its own motivations. Protectionism reduces economic opportunity, and cultural backlash can only grow and worsen. There is no normative effect in either case, least of all when they accomplish their goals. (European Union)

The biggest recent election involving populism came just before the Dutch elections, when to the astonishment of the world; Donald Trump won the American presidency. He did this despite running perhaps the most disgraceful campaign in history, with popular comments like “I can’t help it, I just grab [women] by the pussy” and who can forget, “Mexicans are rapists” (Levin). This man made the same hollow promises of bringing back coal mining jobs in a country that has moved on to building solar panels and wind farms, and getting rid of the undesirable immigrants who he frequently accused en masse of every crime under the sun. His win came as an utter shock to markets like the Dow Futures, which crashed by over a thousand points that night, and to former trading partners from France to Holland which have publically denounced him and his populist policies, despite his victory.

The arc of the world’s recent downward spiral can be argued to have started with another major vote just before the American elections, when Britain shocked the world by voting in a referendum to leave the European Union. Britain’s currency lost much of its value overnight. Instantly, everything the people need to buy became much more expensive, and their future became less certain. The idea of building economic walls and isolating themselves from their former trading partners had been the bullet which the British fired into their own feet from the gun of populism. Once again, the cause of populism had achieved its goals, and drastically worsened the position of the people as a result. Theresa May was inducted as new prime minister, effectively crowned king of the ashes of the economy and nation she had fought so hard to destroy for its own supposed good. Figure 1 shows the sudden abrupt collapse of the British currency, and its long-term decline afterwards. (Bowler)

Figure 1

In the case of each of these recent elections and the referendum in Britain, the person on the soap box at the head of the mob argued the two same flawed positions; the job market ain’t what it used to be, and it’s the fault of the people who aren’t like us. Harvard Kennedy Business School elaborates on the causes of populism within the cultural backlash perspective,

“…increased tolerance among the younger cohorts and the college educated living in Western societies for the expression of diverse forms of sexuality, LGBT rights, same-sex marriage and varied family units, and more fluid gender identities; more secular values, habits, and ethical norms; open-mindedness towards migrants, refugees, foreigners, and multicultural diversity … In affluent countries, cultures have gradually been transformed by growing support for progressive post-materialist values through successive processes of generational replacement (Norris).”

This just perfectly outlines the platforms of all of these populist candidates. They seem to say, “The world is changing and you don’t have a place in it.” All of these candidates use hatred against immigrants as fuel for their mobs, and most of them also target other minority groups that don’t fit into the traditional mold.

The second half of the fundamental driving force for populism, the economic opportunity perspective, is a bit more nuanced, and it feeds on the fear of outsiders outlined above, “…economic vulnerability is conducive to in-group solidarity, conformity to group norms, and rejection of outsiders. When threatened, groups are thought to seek strong, authoritarian leaders to protect them from what are perceived as dangerous outsiders seen as threatening jobs and benefits” (Norris). Can you see how these two major driving forces of populism coalesce and feed one another?

The basic formula is not very complicated, there are people out there who are different from us, and it is their fault that the world is not what it could be. The problem is that in every case, these ideas lead to a worse outcome than where they started. Protectionism drives up costs, and xenophobia only begets more xenophobia. Hitler started with a list of a few of what Trump might call “Bad dudes,” but he ended up putting basically all of humanity on that list. The German economy started out very strong, but he underestimated the importance of trading partners, and he wasn’t able to fight the whole world by himself. In both the cultural and economic arenas, his efforts to strengthen his position through populism led to a weaker position. In the same way, Trump’s plans to put heavy taxes on imports will hurt Americans far more than they will hurt our trading partners. If gas prices and Walmart prices and car prices go up, all the coal mining jobs in the world won’t save us from the collapse of our economic future.

Some argue that these waves of populism are just rational self-interest on behalf of the parties involved. People like Trump supporter David Duke or Marine Le Pen’s father Jean-Marie Le Pen make passionate cases for national and racial identity and the need to segregate ethnic groups by national borders in order to preserve separate identities and cultures. This argument is very widespread in populist movements, and strikes me as a poorly concealed admission of bigotry as a driving force for xenophobia.

There is perhaps a rational self-interest argument to be made for the economic opportunity perspective of wanting to limit immigration. If unemployment were high, especially among unskilled jobs, it would make more sense. But the fact is that Americans do not want to be migrant farm workers. The modern American agricultural industry would not be sustainable without exploiting immigrants who come here seeking better lives and willing to work unbelievably hard for it.

There is another argument which I have heard articulated more than once which says that these movements are really just being orchestrated by master manipulators who hold secret control over the masses. People like Donald Trump and Peter Thiel are supposed to be exerting subtle control over the world by sewing just the right amount of chaos in which to accomplish their goals. This does not seem even remotely rational to me, as a casual glance at the content of Trump’s speeches and constant stream of tweets is very challenging to see as anything other than the ramblings of insanity. It is very difficult to picture his public statements as even slightly deliberate, much less the product of some master manipulator.

The fact is that Britain today is facing a harsh and unforgiving world. The European Union has voted unanimously to make Brexit expensive and painful for Britain in order to dissuade other member states from leaving. Some early estimates say Britain may have to pay over a-hundred-billion euro for the right to leave. This combined with the loss of much of the value of their currency puts them in a terrible financial position. They will be paying for this choice for generations. Their future would have been much brighter if they had tried to work with their former trading partners to resolve differences together, rather than shooting themselves in the foot with the all-too-common mistake that is populism.




Works Cited

Bowler, Tim. How has the economy fared since the Brexit vote? Ed. 2017. 28 Mar 2017. 13 May 2017 <>.

Economist. “What is Populism?” 19th Dec 2016. The Economist. <>.

European Union. 14 May 2017. 13 May 2017 <>.

Francis, Pope. Al Jazeera. 22 Jan 2017. 13 May 2017 <>.

Langfitt, Frank. The Populist, Nativist Appeal Of Dutch Politician Geert Wilders. 8 Mar 2017. 13 May 2017 <>.

Levin, Bess. Vanity Fair. 27 Mar 2017. 13 May 2017 <>.

Norris, Ronald Inglehart and Pippa. “Trump, Brexit, and the Rise of Populism:.” August 2016. Harvard Kennedy School John F Kennedy School of Government. <>.

Nossiter, Adam. Marine Le Pen Echoes Trump’s Bleak Populism in French Campaign Kickoff. 5 Feb 2017. 13 May 2017 <>.