When Donald Trump ran for president, he sounded like a populist. He attacked the elites. He promised to help the working class. He championed economic nationalism, vowing to put “America first.”
“Today we are not just transferring power from one administration to another,” Trump said in his inauguration speech, “but we are transferring power from Washington, DC, and giving it back to you, the people.”
Now that he’s in office, Trump is governing like conventional right-wing Republican. The policies he’s promoted would lead to more privatization, more tax breaks for the rich, more spending cuts for welfare programs like Social Security and Medicaid. He’s also studded his administration with bankers and billionaires and industry lobbyists.
This is not the stuff of populism.
The differences between candidate Trump and President Trump raise a few questions. First, is Trump actually a populist? And if so, how unusual is it, either in America or elsewhere, for a populist to abandon his agenda once he’s elected?
Perhaps most importantly, what tends to happen when a populist fails to deliver on all those promises? Is there a revolt? Do voters flee?
I reached out to seven scholars of populism for answers to these questions. They all agree that Trump falls somewhere on the populist continuum. The reason is that populism is not so much about policies as it is style and rhetoric. Trump may not govern like a populist, but he still talks like one.
Trump’s apparent abandoning of his campaign promises isn’t that unusual — experts pointed to examples of Latin American politicians who also ran on populism but did not govern that way. Some of them managed to hold on to power for many years. But eventually they lost power, sometimes in dramatic fashion.
What does this mean for Trump? The experts I talked to cautioned against assuming that Trump will be punished for neglecting populist policies.
“Being a turncoat does not entail falling into disgrace with the base,” one told me.
Still, if Trump keeps favoring traditional Republican policies over populist ones, his base might grow restless. And he’ll need more than platitudes to keep them happy.
Is Trump actually a populist?
Trump often compares himself to Andrew Jackson, arguably America’s first populist president.
Does the comparison hold up? Is Trump a populist?
There are varying accounts of populism among political scientists, but they all tend to converge around a few key attributes. One, as Harvard’s Pippa Norris told me, is “an appeal to popular sovereignty over and above liberal democracy.”
“The argument,” she adds, “is that moral virtue and power should be with ordinary people and not the establishment.” Certainly we heard a lot of that rhetoric during the campaign.
“We are going to replace our failed and corrupt establishment with a new government that serves you, your family, and your country,” Trump said at a September rally in Virginia.
Then there’s the explicit anti-elitism. “Populists employ a particular kind of rhetoric that seems to reveal a specific worldview,” Kirk Hawkins, a political scientist at Brigham Young University, told me. “They see politics as a cosmic struggle between the supposed will of the people and a conspiring elite.”
Populism, in other words, thrives on a distinction between “us” and “them,” between regular people and the leadership class.
“The populist claims that he (and only he) can tell you who is part of the people and who is an outsider,” Paulina Ochoa Espejo, a political theorist at Haverford College, says. “A populist leader claims to know who is a member of the corrupt elite and who is part of the virtuous people.”
Here Trump’s populist bona fides are self-evident: “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it,” he told the crowd at the Republican National Convention last summer.
This emphasis on the leader as the one and only representation of popular will is central to the final dimension of populism, which Norris describes as “popular sovereignty in practice.”
Because they insist that only they can interpret the people’s will, populists “tend to reject institutional constraints,” Espejo says. Hence strongman authoritarianism is typically associated with populism.
Importantly, none of these qualities refer to ideological content. As Stanford’s Cécile Alduy told me, “populism designates a type of rhetoric rather than an ideology.” It’s less a philosophy and more an orientation, a way of doing politics. Which is why populists can be left-wing or right-wing or even centrist.
“In the States, we tend to think of populism as a set of policies, which are pro-poor, progressive, and redistributive.” Kenneth Roberts, a scholar of Latin American politics at Cornell, told me. “But that’s not how populism is typically understood in comparative politics.”
“In most parts of the world,” he says, “populism is about creating an antagonistic space between the people and the elites.” So populism might not be tied to a particular economic agenda, but it always sets itself against the prevailing power structure.
By these standards, Trump is a populist. But again, the policies he’s now pushing are conspicuously pro-elite. While a populist need not conform to any fixed economic agenda, it’s still worth asking: Is it unusual for a populist to ride a wave of anti-elite sentiment to power and then pivot immediately to policies that serve elite interests?
Populism might be ideologically malleable, but one would expect there to be some consistency between what a candidate says on the trail and what she does in office.
Campaign like a populist, govern like an elite
The gap between Trump’s rhetoric and his policies is not all that uncommon for populists. In Latin America, for example, we’ve seen many populist leaders who campaigned one way and governed another.
Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser, who teaches politics at Chile’s Universidad Deigo Portales, points to Peru’s Alberto Fujimori as a useful example. “When he campaigned for the presidency in 1990,” Kaltwasser says, “Fujimori was aggressively populistic, vowing to resist neoliberal impositions from corrupt leaders in Peru and their Western accomplices.”
Almost immediately after he was elected, however, Fujimori returned from a meeting in Washington and announced that he was enacting a host of neoliberal reforms, which was later dubbed “Fujishock.” Kaltwasser sees this bait and switch as similar to Trump’s early administration.
This sort of about-face is not the norm, though. Pierre Ostiguy, another scholar of populism who teaches at Universidad Catolica de Chile, told me that most populists do follow through on their promises, or at least they attempt to do so.
Take Hugo Chávez, who served as president of Venezuela from 1999 to 2013. Chávez was a flamboyant left-wing populist who fulfilled his campaign promises with a vengeance, becoming more radical after nearly every election. Although he engaged in what Hawkins calls “tactical retreats,” he consistently governed as he campaigned.
Other left-wing populists like the Kirchners in Argentina and Evo Morales in Bolivia and even Huey Long, the former governor of Louisiana, are all examples of authentic populists who tried to deliver on their promises in office.
But it’s important, Espejo told me, to distinguish between failing to deliver on promises and not trying. “The failure to deliver on promises is typical of all popular politicians. In order to get elected, politicians in democracies often make promises that they cannot keep.”
In most democratic systems, there are limits on what a single politician can accomplish, and so agendas get watered down as leaders are forced to compromise for the sake of getting things done.
Trump, though, appears not to care or even understand his promises. It’s not as though he has fought for a more generous health care system only to be shot down by his Republican-controlled Congress. On the contrary, as Vox’s Sarah Kliff has noted, Trump seems unaware of what’s actually in his own health bill. He merely wanted a win, a chance to say that something — anything — was passed.
Recall that Trump once said, “Everybody’s got to be covered. This is an un-Republican thing for me to say. … I am going to take care of everybody. I don’t care if it costs me votes or not. Everybody’s going to be taken care of much better than they’re taken care of now.”
And yet the bill that was produced in the House, according to the Congressional Budget Office estimate, would leave 23 million fewer Americans with health care coverage. It also takes $600 billion out of health care in order to fund a massive tax break for the rich.
In spite of that, Trump celebrated its passing with an awkwardly staged photo op in the Rose Garden, calling it a “great plan.”
Trump has since called the House bill “mean,” but he’s made no concerted effort to advocate for a viable alternative. And the latest bill to be released in the Senate is scarcely better for low- and middle-income Americans.
Trump’s policy aloofness put him closer to former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, a self-aggrandizing media tycoon, than to Chávez or Morales or Long or even someone like Marine Le Pen, the right-wing French populist. Say what you will of Le Pen, she appears to believe in her extremist vision, and would likely strive to implement it were she elected.
The same cannot be said of Trump.
About that populist agenda
So what happens when all those “forgotten men and women” realize they’ve been hoodwinked? How will they respond to millions of people losing health care and to more tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans? What will they do when the wall isn’t built and the coal jobs don’t return?
If the populist experience in Latin America is any indication, Trump may or may not pay a political price for his failures.
As Roberts told me, cases in which populists “implement policies that are diametrically opposed to what they promised on the campaign trail” usually suffer a quick political death. This has been the history of Latin America, where leaders have tried to counter inflationary pressures with strict austerity measures that disproportionately hurt lower- and working-class voters.
Fernando Collor de Mello, the president of Brazil, was forced to resign in 1992 due to voter discontent and corruption charges. Abadalá Bucaram and Lucio Gutiérrez, both of whom served briefly as president of Ecuador, were forced out by mass protest movements.
In Bucaram’s case, voters revolted against his unpopular neoliberal reform policies. The populist constituencies that carried him to office eventually turned on him. Gutiérrez’s story was similar: He rode a populist wave to power and then alienated his supporters by embracing a free trade agenda. This was seen as reinforcing the status quo; protests engulfed Ecuador, and Gutiérrez was forced out.
Some populists, according to Roberts, have survived backing down on campaign promises, at least in the short term. Peru’s Fujimori and Carlos Menem, who served as president of Argentina from 1989 to 1999, managed to get reelected despite betraying their core supporters. But they did so through corruption, strongman politics, and what political scientists call clientelism, which basically means giving select groups benefits in exchange for their political support.
Fujimori temporarily shut down congress in 1992, arguing that it was the only way to counter the obstructionism. It worked because congress was even less popular than he was, and so he actually got a bump out of it. He was also wildly corrupt, buying off political opponents and funding death squads to squelch rebellions.
Such a strategy, though not impossible, would be harder to execute in our system. This kind of patronage arrangement works well in countries that lack strong institutional checks. America, thankfully, still has reasonably robust institutions that limit outright corruption.
And corruption and strongman tactics don’t work forever. Fujimori held the presidency of Peru for eight years after his shutdown of congress, fleeing the country in 2000 and faxing his resignation letter from Japan. In 2009, he was finally convicted of human rights abuses and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Menem’s tenure ended in less dramatic fashion, but it ended nonetheless — after 10 years in power, he was voted out of office.
Ostiguy cautions against assumptions that Trump’s base will abandon him. “Being a turncoat does not entail falling into disgrace with the base,” he told me.
Much hinges on Trump’s ability to control the narrative. Maintaining a “populist style,” as Ostiguy put it, is essential in a media-centric environment like ours. Trump is not going to dismantle Congress or hire death squads to neutralize political opponents. In order to keep the base happy, he’ll have to convince them that he’s not the problem, that others are to blame.
He can almost argue plausibly that he can’t follow through on his big promises to do infrastructure or renegotiate trade because Congress won’t allow him to. Of course it’s more complicated than that, but there’s at least a story he can tell.
Health care is a tougher sell. Whatever happens or doesn’t happen, it’s on him. He made the promises, he praised the House bill when it initially passed, and he showed little to no interest in the process. In short, it’s his mess.
At the same time, as Fujimori showed in Peru, populists have a talent for scapegoating. Congress is still deeply unpopular in this country, as is the media. It’s entirely possible that no matter what happens, Trump will use his platform to pin the blame on the obstructionist Congress and the liberal media.
For now, it appears many Trump voters still believe in him. If, however, conditions get bad enough, if they start to feel real pain and real loss, Trump will probably need policies — not just words — to win them back.