The New Face of American Populism

Populist rhetoric, used notably by George Wallace in the 1960s in opposition to the civil rights movement, has taken a new form today. While most candidates in this present election appeal to populist attitudes and use populist arguments in some form, one candidate in particular has a brand of populism that fits traditionally with that of the 19th Century U.S. People’s Party and that of George Wallace in the 1960s. Donald Trump has used familiar techniques to push his way to the top of the Republican field. These techniques are eerily similar to those used in the past, but they have also evolved into something new that is unique to Trump and American politics in this era.

It is important to note exactly what “populism” is in this context and why it is relevant to discussion of political discourse today. When the word populism is used it is usually used pejoratively. The phrase has dozens of meanings depending on its context. In this context however, populism refers to a specific type of political tactic. The essence of populism has several different layers. In general it relates to the pitting of an evil elite group of society against the good common man.Populism also has underlying principles among them being; a rejection of the rule of law but the belief in the moral preferences of the majority as absolute, a belief in the honest labor of the producers of society and a negative view of those who do not fit this work ethic, and a belief in the revitalization of national ideals (i.e. Making America Great Again).

There are certain dangers associated with this type of speech. Above all is the tendency of populist speech to degrade proper civil discourse. It tends to focus more on becoming in tune with common citizen ideals instead of focusing on what is beneficial for the country as a whole or what is the best policy. Populist rhetoric tends to fuel emotions rather than reason. The populism today of Mr. Trump has these undertones in common with the populism of George Wallace in the 60’s, showing a continuing trend of effective populist tactics.

Trump’s and Wallace’s Populism

When discussing policy and political ideas, the constitution is only mentioned by Trump and Wallace when it suits them. To them, the most important staple of democracy is majority rule, the beliefs of the common man. Thought like this tends to favor the views of the majority over the rights of minorities. Take for example Trump’s calls for the surveillance of the Muslim population, or Wallace’s calls for “segregation forever” despite previous Supreme Court rulings and the rights of those effected by segregation.

The sanctity of the working man, or the producers of society, is held by both leaders. Wallace used the tax system as a means to pit the working class against the poor/lower classes. He explained how the tax system stripped the working class of their hard earned money and was used to feed to poor. Similarly, trump takes a stand against undocumented immigration on the grounds that American citizens are forced to pay tax dollars to undocumented immigrants and the grounds that immigrants entering the U.S. could burden the welfare system. The claims of both are generally not supported with evidence, but that is not the point. The speech sounds good and feeds into the idea of the common, struggling, working man fighting against an unfair system that does not respect his values.

These two leaders have another more ominous commonality between their rhetoric. As discussed before, populist rhetoric does not usually examine the affects and usefulness of policies, but how well they fit into the structural model of the populist’s version of how society is doing. This type of thought requires scapegoats to use as a means of transferring blame. When a policy needs to be put in place but has no real function, a scapegoat is needed. For example, Trump needed to offer a policy of Muslim surveillance, so the stories of the Muslim community in New Jersey celebrating the fall of the world trade center were invented. Just as when Wallace needed to implement segregationist polices for political purposes myths about the negative effects of integration were circulated. Furthermore both leaders used the threat of violence and the plight of protesters to further their agenda. Wallace rallies contained violence against counter protesters and used the mocking of protesters as a means of communicating with supporters. Today we see the same atmosphere of violence surrounding Trump rallies and the same contempt for protesters, which takes away from the process of true discourse surrounding policies and ideas.

Where Trump Diverges From Traditional Populism

Trump undoubtedly has his own brand of politics. Very few politicians communicate the way he does and his type of campaigning has completely changed the way American political discourse is carried out. Regarding his brand of populism, he differs in some ways from past populists.

Most notably is Trump’s image as a billionaire. Trump not only is a billionaire, but he flaunts this trait while still claiming to be a man of the common people. This is interesting because it breaks with previous tradition. Normally a populist would want to be viewed as one of the people they are representing. However, in Trump’s brand of populism he is able to connect with the common man yet still flaunt his elitism. This is likely due to his pull yourself up by your own bootstraps ethic. Meaning that he is viewed as a common man who just happened to work hard enough to become wealthy.

Secondly, Trump has changed the intellectual nature of political discourse. Populists in the past although they did not necessary use logic and reason to choose policies, they did lace their rhetoric with pseudo-intellectual talk that glossed over the nature of their speech. With Truump he does not use this tactic. His speeches are filled with one-liners, contradictions, and no clear political philosophy. This could be an anomaly with Trump, or it could be indicating a change in the nature of the American voter. Social media, twitter, and headline news has made us hungry for quick information without regard for analysis of the issues at hand. Perhaps, Trump’s rhetoric is just a manifestation of the decline in the public’s desire for proper civil discourse.

Jeremy Clement is a student in the School of International Service class of 2019. He can be contacted at

All views expressed are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the World Mind or of Clocks and Clouds.


About Jeremy Clement

Jeremy Clement is a staff writer for the Government column of the World Mind. He is an International Studies major at American University with an interest in International Development and Conflict Resolution. Jeremy has a professional background involving internships and jobs with the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, the Center for Israel Studies at American University, the New York State Senate, the SUNY Center for International Development, the New York State Unified Court System, and volunteer experience abroad in Israel and Palestine. Lastly, he hopes to study law after undergraduate study.