When Donald Trump assumed his role as President of the United States on January 20th, many people were, understandably, freaking out about what this might mean for the USA. It can be tempting to look at this event and say that his racist comments or war-hawkish rhetoric has allowed him to draw support from the fringes of American society. But this isn’t the case. Trump won because he managed to do something Clinton couldn’t do. Trump managed to tap into the populist sentiment that was sweeping the nation.
It was this exact attitude which allowed Presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders to compete against Clinton even though he wasn’t taking any big money donations from PACs or Companies. The fact that Sanders managed to nearly beat Clinton despite the DNC’s interventions and his lack of big money support just goes to show how powerful the populist message in America had become. Now France’s election is coming up, and we see the same thing we saw in the USA: A presidential candidate with, arguably, hateful rhetoric winning in the polls due to this populist sentiment.
But what is populism? And why is it appearing after years of silence? These are the questions we should be focusing on instead of “how we are going to survive four more years of Trump?”
For those who may not know, the word ‘populism’ can be defined as the support for the concerns of ordinary people. Its appearance in the USA tends to be sporadic, appearing only after long periods of struggle among the populace. For example, it was a very popular idea during the Gilded age, when America was “flourishing,” but a majority of citizens were suffering in the factories that were creating that very thriving society. The Great Depression saw another surge of populism with many individuals struggling to survive. It was this sentiment which allowed Franklin Delano Roosevelt to rise to prominence and to lay the foundation for the society we have today. Although, it appeared several times since then, it hasn’t managed to gain as much strength as it did in the past. So what happened? Why did that concern for the everyday man vanish?
The answer is complicated, but the American society and its media had a huge role to play.
According to Shanto Iyengar, professor of political science at Stanford University, television news is dominated by episodic frames which emphasize individual people or events, then mixed by the American bootstrap mentality to create a situation where we start to blame the victim. So while Populism starts to rise, it also tends to die as Americans start to blame individuals for things outside their control.
So why did it rise now?
The ’08 crash caused the greatest global economic disaster since the Great Depression, which created the perfect storm that allowed for the conditions of populism to rise. Conservatives managed to latch on to this early on and have managed to win elections in Europe, Brexit being a result. In America, Trump and the Republican Party have managed to establish a stranglehold on the government. So why is this important now several months later? It’s important because there are several elections taking place nationwide and in Europe which threaten the same result.
This growing wave of conservatism promises populist results, but the fact is, many of their policies are anything but populist such as threatening to kill Obamacare. We can’t afford to wait until 2020 or 2018 which many believe is the only way; we have to understand the direness now to preserve the policies that aim to help individuals who cannot help themselves.
Conservatives are largely in control, but it’s important to remind them they got to where they are with a populist message. The least we can do is hold them to that.
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Iyengar, Shanto. Is Anyone Responsible?: How Television Frames Political Issues. Chicago U.a.: U of Chicago, 1991. Print.