… Several times in American history, populists have attempted to organize, but have failed to enter the mainstream arena. Donald Trump’s victory stems from his unique ability to personify a populist ethos that attracted a majority of Americans, through the exploitation of public cynicism about politics, anti-elitist sentiments, and sensationalism among vulnerable Americans….
Public cynicism towards the government is not unique to contemporary politics…. During the agrarian populist movement of the 1890s, farmers and ordinary men came together to seek to restore the government of the Republic to the hands of the plain people. Similarly, Ronald Reagan used populist rhetoric when he denounced the “puzzle palaces on the Potomac.”
…The rise of anti-elitist sentiment resurrected populism among the American electorate and gave rise to the Donald Trump phenomenon. Whether of the Occupy Wall Street or Tea Party variety, anti-elitism has fueled contemporary populist movements…. People in both groups claim to live in a world controlled by elites focused only their own self-interests.
This belief is fueled by the dynastic political careers of the Bushes and Clintons. For the past 27 years, a Clinton or Bush has played a major role in mainstream politics. Had the election occurred in the summer 2015, our choices would have been between another Bush and another Clinton.
Meanwhile, the CEO-to-worker compensation ratio changed by 237-1 between 1978 and 2013. The combination of a political narrative dominated by elites and an increasing economic gap between the haves and have-nots produced the perfect storm for a populist movement in this past election cycle….
Populism draws boundaries by defining who “the people” are that are being oppressed. While the populist spirit has managed to mobilize various particular groups, particular historical populist movements have failed at mobilizing a majority because of their inherent exclusivity. The brilliance of Donald Trump’s populist message is that the enemy is everyone except the American citizen. Donald Trump created a narrative that pitted all American people against “crooked Hillary,” against the “polluted swamp,” against Muslims and Mexicans. In fact, Trump pitted everyone against the American people except himself. While populism is nothing new in American politics, what makes the success of Trump extraordinary was his attempt to utilize the populist spirit in a way that included ordinary Americans.