When does populism emerge in democratic systems? Which typical features constitute it? Why do many people see it as a threat to democracy? All these questions are frequently discussed whenever populist phenomena appear on the political scene. Currently, the candidacy of controversial entrepreneur and billionaire Donald J. Trump for the presidential chair has violently rekindled the flame of populism in the United States that was about to die down after the Tea Party movement surmounted its zenith. Sensation-seeking headlines fill our newspapers, social media and television screens on a daily basis and discuss the consequences of a possible election victory and paint a bizarre picture of a world in which the 69-year-old New Yorker holds the most powerful political office. But how realistic are these predictions? Would the American people really elect the big-mouthed, xenophobic business tycoon, who wants to solve America’s problems by building a wall along the U.S./Mexican border, denying Muslims entry to the country and cutting economic ties to China? Or do the media simply embrace the offered opportunity to boost sales figures, get more hits or increase average viewing figures and deliberately blow the success and prospects of Trump’s self-financed and highly entertaining campaign out of proportion?
When the Tea Party movement arose in the early months of 2009, shortly after Barack Obama’s election victory, the reasons were pretty clear. The financial crisis had battered the American economy, the unemployment rate was at a high and the new President’s plan to pass a taxfinanced “stimulus package” to help the economy recover did not sound promising to many white, conservative, middle-class Americans, who feared alleged socialist policies and blamed the incompetence of a distanced political elite in “hypocritical” Washington for their hardships and a gray-looking future. Additionally, the Republican Party was lacking strong leadership and inner unity after candidate John McCain failed to convince the electorate of his policies and leading quality. Consequently, many disenchanted people were looking for an alternative and found it in the loud voices propagating a return to the principles and values established by the founding fathers.
The revivalist atmosphere already evident in its historically referential name and an almost non-existent agenda manifested the main features of the Tea Party phenomenon and are typical of populism. Donald Trump as a one-man movement and his campaign strikingly resemble this scheme. Targeting the exact same group of frustrated white middle-class Americans, it almost seems like he was able to win over the complete group of supporters who used to rally against immigration and health care reform during the heyday of Tea Party mobilization. At a time when most politicians associating themselves with Tea Party ideology have either integrated into mainstream party politics for the sake of their careers or vanished from the political landscape due to an abating Tea Party popularity, the billionaire himself must have been surprised how quickly he was able to woo voters away from the traditional “mainstream” candidates. In fact, Trump admitted that in the beginning, his candidacy was just a fun experiment and he merely wanted to spoil the plans of the other candidates.
But what does all this tell us about the state of the Republican Party? It seems like even after the necessary realignment within the GOP, which was sparked by the jolting success of Tea Party members, especially in the 2010 mid-term congressional elections, the party is still lacking able candidates who can convince the electorate of their potential to lead the country. How else should one interpret the instant grassroots success of someone lacking major political experience, who insults various ethnic groups living in the United States in unsubstantial speeches, who has only been a member of the Republican Party since 2009, and who formerly gave financial support to the Democrats in 2004? Furthermore, despite some GOP members complimenting him now on his success, Trump was initially lacking inner-party support of any kind, as most partisan politicians peevishly saw him as an invader damaging the GOP reputation.
At the moment, it really seems like Trump will become the Republican candidate in the election taking place this November, possibly running against former First Lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who, despite her reputation as an elitist career woman too old to endure the stress inevitably brought about by the vacant position, currently leads over Bernie Sanders in the democratic primaries. This situation by itself should only be seen as the people’s answer to a failing Republican strategy, yet another wake-up call, and constitutes an expression of a general frustration with Party politics in Washington.
Regarding the outcome of the general election this fall, the prospect of a future President Donald J. Trump seems ultimately improbable, as his supporters are mainly white, middle-class and working-class right-wingers, who feel unrepresented and first and foremost want to punish the Republican Party and the remaining political establishment. Thankfully, the diverse people of the United States consists of various other groups eligible to cast their ballot, many of whom have previously been offended by Mr. Trump. It is also questionable, if even his most persistent supporters will ultimately cast their vote for him when it really matters. Given Trump’s catastrophic agenda, many of them might eventually duck their heads in fear of remorse.
In the end, Donald Trump’s gag to become the next President of the United States might merely be the best thing that could have happened to Hillary Clinton, who wasn’t nearly able to gain as much support among Democratic voters as she and her Party initially expected. A final Republican decision to make the highly controversial billionaire run for office could open the door for her to enter the Oval Office.