Populism in the United States?

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, “Populism” is described as ‘political ideas and activities that are intended to get the support of ordinary people by giving them what they want’. The entry also includes the usage label ‘mainly disapproving’. The rise of Trumpism in the United States forms part of the global wave of populism that we are witnessing worldwide. However, prior to Trump assuming his seat in the White House, populism was an “ism” closely associated with the realms of Europe and South America, and hasn’t been directly identified with the United States up until this point in history. How did the USA get to this point? Is Trumpism legitimate populism?

In truth, Trump’s presidency does not mark the first time Americans witnessed populism. Historically speaking, populism sprouted in the late 19th century in the Midwest of the United States, when farmers began to mobilize and unify in response to agrarian reforms. During this time period, farm life was isolated, and many farmers were in debt. Naturally, the farmers desired inflation, because with rising inflation, the farmers then possessed the capacity to sell the products of their harvests at higher prices, enabling them to leave their state of debt faster. So, in order to create inflation, farmers encouraged Congress to print “Greenback Dollars”, a currency that was not to be backed up by gold, which therefore enabled the increased production of the currency. A political party, the “Greenback Party”, grew from the desire to print “Greenback Dollars”, and the “Greenback Party” eventually transformed into the Populist Party. The Populist Party demanded a graduated income tax and political reforms, particularly a constitutional amendment allowing for US Senators to be directly elected. However, the populist ideals did not become popular throughout the majority of the United States, as most citizens feared inflation, although the direct election of senators and the graduated income tax were eventually enacted.

As stated by José Pinto in his article Populism in Latin America and in the European Union: Two Sides of the Same Coin, “populism is usually seen in an ambivalent perspective, as it is conceived both as a threat for the representative democracy and as an opportunity for the renewal of the democratic institutions”. Pinto states that populism “provokes an antagonism between two collective bodies conceived as homogenous: the people and the elite”, and this facet of populism can be applied to the results of the 2016 US General Election. Trump supporters claimed that they desired to “drain the swamp”, a huge rhetoric utilized by Trump and his supporters, and were tired of traditional career politicians in the United States. For Trump supporters, the relationship between politicians and the citizens they served was distant and opaque. As wealthy and as elite that Trump may be, for those individuals responsible for his election, his figure is more personable and relatable than the aforementioned career politicians. Similar to that of other populist politicians, Trump’s rhetoric works to create a sense of urgency in his audience; he exacerbates terror threats and the dangers of immigration into the United States, which may serve as a strategy to maintain loyalty from his supporters. If his supporters believe that he is protecting them, then they will return the generosity through votes, feeding Trumpism.

Populism is a growing phenomenon on a global scale, and cannot be contained within respective European borders. It is not surprising that the right-wing has reemerged and remobilized within the United States, and that populist measures by the government in regards to immigration and taxes, in accordance with the global trend. Yet, as the American economy is doing well, and American unemployment is at a low 7-9%, it is probable that the trend towards populism will continue throughout the upcoming American elections, and that it will continue to hold the White House after the 2020 elections. Trump has emerged as a key image of the growing red wave of populism.  Trump may be best known for his threatening and exaggerative rhetoric, and his speeches evoke similar emotions to those evoked far-right European politicians. When will the red-wave cease? Will the citizens of the world begin to tired of phlegmatic, volatile populists?



U.S. History. Pre-Columbian to the New Millenium. http://www.ushistory.org/Us/42.asp


Pinto, J (2017). “Populism in Latin America and in the European Union: Two Sides of the Same

Coin?” https://globaljournals.org/GJHSS_Volume17/6-Populism-in-Latin-America.pdf


University of Cambridge. “Populism revealed as 2017 Word of the Year by Cambridge University Press”. https://www.cam.ac.uk/news/populism-revealed-as-2017-word-of-the-year-by-cambridge-university-press


Stacy Kanellopoulos

Barnard College of Columbia University, NYC

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