A professor of politics at Princeton, Jan-Werner Müller's most recent book is What Is Populism?, so he is uniquely qualified to reflect on the implications of Donald's Trump's election to US president. Müller does so in the London Review of Books, where he outlines the anti-democratic nature of modern-day populisms in the US and around the globe. Here's an excerpt:
What defines a populist? Not everyone who criticises elites is a populist. Those who draw a lazy equivalence between Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump fail to recognise that populists don’t stop at protesting against Wall Street or ‘globalism’. Rather, populists claim that they and they alone speak in the name of what they tend to call the ‘real people’ or the ‘silent majority’. This claim to a moral monopoly of representation has two consequences that are immediately deleterious for democracy. Populists accuse all other political contenders of being illegitimate. They do not talk in terms of disagreement over policy, which in a democracy is the very point of politics – presenting citizens with options, not just competing on competence and qualifications. Instead, they make it personal: their opponents must be crooked and corrupt. Trump is extreme in this regard, but not exceptional. The unusual thing is the degree to which his followers took his assaults on Hillary Clinton’s character literally. Not just the hateful chants of ‘Lock her up,’ but the fact that, according to one poll, 40 per cent of his supporters in Florida agreed with the statement that Clinton was literally a demon. It says something about the 2016 campaign that such a question could ever make it into a respectable survey. It did so after the right-wing talk radio host Alex Jones put out a new piece of ‘information’ on his website, InfoWars: both Clinton and Obama, he said, had actually emerged from hell; get close enough to them, and you could smell sulphur.
The second consequence of what could be called the populists’ principled antipluralism is less obvious. Populists hold that those who don’t support them – or who don’t share their sense of what constitutes the ‘real people’ – may not themselves properly belong to the people. In his speech the morning after the EU referendum, Nigel Farage claimed it as a ‘victory for real people’. Evidently the 48 per cent who wanted to stay in the EU were not quite real: they might not be part of the authentic British (or, more likely so far as Farage is concerned, English) people at all. Trump has espoused similar views. ‘The only important thing,’ he declared at a rally in May, ‘is the unification of the people, because the other people don’t mean anything.’ Trump defines who belongs to the people; no one else counts, even if they happen to be American citizens (and of course the rest of the world doesn’t count either).
Liberals misread Trump’s talk of unity and unification since winning the election ( ‘We will unite and we will win, win, win!’ he tweeted on 12 November) if they imagine it as conciliatory. Unity is possible only on the populist’s own terms; since nobody else can truly speak for the people, dissent and opposition are by definition suspect, even outright illegitimate. Trump’s announcement (again, on Twitter) that ‘We will all come together as never before’ is more of a threat than a promise. Democracy is only for real people.