Suffolk University

U.S. vs. Them: Use of racism as a tool of Populism in Trump’s America by Katrina Ramkissoon

In the age of democracy erosion, we are beginning to see a rise of populism in global actors across the world. Political figures are now employing populist principles in order to stabilize their party and secure the bid for future elections. Populism by definition divides society into two groups. The “Pure People” and the “Corrupt Elite”. Under the jurisdiction of populist rule, the government and society will adhere to the general will of the people. This division of the people is employed using different political tactics, which ultimately leads to security in positions of power for populist leaders and further growth of populist rule.

This concept has cyphered into American politics exponentially with the expansion of right wing populism in the 1980s. Since then, the growth of this ideology and its principles has embedded into campaigning techniques across the country. This is even the case for the President, Donald Trump. John Shattuck, a foreign affairs and human rights expert spoke on the rise of populist discontent with democracy in his lecture on Populism and Nationalism. In this speech, he stated that the current state of democracy in this country is weakened by the loss of social solidarity. This, he elaborates, is due to a lack of addressing racial conflicts, and a fear of demographic change, as people are becoming threatened by racial minorities and refugees, seeing these groups as a threat to the American identity.The subsequent rising strength of minority voters has led to a suppression of the minority.

How does this apply to the President? In contemporary politics, the media continuously looks at the policy tactics of the President and declares him a populist based on his divisive rhetoric against minority groups in the country. Under Trumpian populism, he paints the idea of Mexicans as drug dealers, criminals, and rapists which effectively supports the strong racial divide in the U.S.  This is a policy tactic aimed at encouraging the country to “build the wall”. In his view, this border security would mitigate the illegal immigration into this country. By stimulating fear of Mexican immigrants, it would further support the notion that a wall is needed. However, there has been social consequences to this form of hate speech. As a result of his win in the 2016 election in conjunction with this widespread publicized rhetoric, there has been a significant rise of hate crimes, and in the counties that hosted Trump rallies in 2016, there has been as much as a 226% rise in reported hate crimes.

The use of racism within populist rule is not a new concept as leaders like Viktor Orbán, the prime minister of Hungary has used racial division tactics in an attempt to stop immigrants from entering the country since 2011. Shattuck argues Orbán’s anti-Semitic and racist propaganda targets immigrants. Orbán has made promises to Hungarian people to defend Christian Europe against Muslim Invaders. Between Orbán and Trump, this inflammatory rhetoric has fueled hate in the country which ultimately hinders the democratic process as populist rule destabilizes democracy through its hierarchical divisions.

What can we do to fix this? We need to begin with fixing the state of our democracy. This can be done through effectively using our democratic institutions as a check to balance the powers of the three branches, thus minimalizing the chance of overt populist rule. This has already begun to take place with federal judges blocking Trump’s efforts to mitigate asylum seekers from entering the country. Using all three branches to balance and restore the powers within government will help restore democracy in the country. Shattuck contends that democracy can only be restored if we build coalitions on popular divides by connecting with voters and by voting. Beginning to address these racial issues in order to build social solidarity, and promoting the democratic value of voting, can mitigate some of the divisions that are set throughout the country. Ultimately, it will take the will of citizens, our democratic institutions, and branches of government to rehabilitate democracy and mitigate populist rule and the divisions it sets in place.

1 Comment

  1. Lakesha Harahap

    May 9, 2019 at 12:20 am

    I really enjoyed reading this piece. You perfectly capture the essence of contemporary populism with this sentence alone; “rising strength of minority voters has led to a suppression of the minority.” Unfortunately, pitting ethnic groups and classes against one another is a political weapon is a tactic common in many countries.

    Interestingly enough, the US is not particularly unfamiliar with influential figures who convey prejudicial and racist rhetoric. In fact, the likes of Joseph McCarthy, Huey Long, and Charles Coughlin are also characterized as “outsiders” who were able to gain sizable minority support. Why do you think demagogue populism has returned in the US? Could this possibly be another “phase” in history? Or a backlash of globalization? It would be interesting to study the variables that come to play when considering these figures and determine a pattern.

    Right now, I think the most fundamental aspects that contribute to the rise of populism is social media. Implementing social media in politics has really paved the way for Trumpian populism. Unlike news media, there are no existing tools used to filter out fake news or gatekeepers to fact check sources. Without a platform, Trumpian populism would not garner so much attention.


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