U.S. Elections: Trump might be gone, but populism is here to stay.

If populism is synonymous with "America First," it is no less evil than the ethno-pluralist populism espoused by the Biden camp.

U.S. Elections: Trump might be gone, but populism is here to stay.

By Kartik Asthana

On 6th November, when the counting for the Presidential elections started, the United States of America was ready to witness a leadership change. Political analysts anticipated a turnover of 'silent voters' for the incumbent President Donald Trump's camp, propelling him to a victory; they believed that the contender  Joe Biden relied on a broad spectrum of support for his bid to the White House. On the judgment day, Joe Biden emerged victorious, securing 290 electoral votes in the tightly contested battle. Analysts believe Biden's victory marks the end of an erratic era of decision making and hoped for a mature, measured policy approach. However, the process of healing America which is sharply divided, is far from over.

Claimants of the Global Right

The Trump presidency was undoubtedly not the last flirtation of populism in the U.S but will continue to become a norm in American politics in times to come. The roots of populism in the U.S. are closely connected to the economic and political decline of the U.S in the international arena. To pretend otherwise would be a folly. Donald Trump received almost half of all the popular votes polled, feeding on the insecurities of the middle class of America. He remains a standalone vote puller for the Republican party. His self-fashioned brand and voter base is unlikely to disappear soon. The reason behind such support lies in Trump's politicking combination of ethnic and economic nationalism. The new politics in America are built around identities; both the left-liberals and the conservatives have embraced it wholeheartedly. It appears that the United States is more divided than ever, and no U.S. president could unite the divided house without solving the fundamental economic problems of the people, which often gets ignored. The U.S. is witnessing a public outrage towards policymaking controlled by a few elites of the country. The trust in institutions like the Judiciary, Congress, and Law enforcement agencies have eroded regardless of whether it is a blue or red office bearer. Under this scenario, populous policies have taken precedence over the technocratic industrial policies, as vast inequalities have persisted for decades between the privileged few with capital and the rest who form the workforce. Median wages have been stagnant for 40 years, and the non-college degree white population at present is worse off than their counterparts in the 1970s. Economic inequality has become a source of cultural and political upheaval in the U.S., which was left unaddressed by the Obama administration. American policymakers are often caught between the 99% and resentment of the 1% elites. Trump stood as a perfect torchbearer of Middle-class anxiety and economic nationalism, reversing globalization. A large swath of voters turned away from moderate politicians during these times to support hardliners.  

GOP & conundrum of Trump 

To blame the populist shift on Trump alone would be wrong as it started more than two decades ago with the Presidential bid of Pat Buchanan in 1992 and 1996. Trump could be given credit for acting as a role model for Brazil, Turkey, and Hungary, whose leaders adopted his model swiftly and chastised the global left. Initially, old Republicans supported Trump because he was willing to act on their agenda: cutting taxes for the rich, fighting regulations, etc. Nevertheless, the upsurge in Trump's popularity is because of his diametrically opposite views than the senior GOP leadership, i.e., Restricting trade, increasing infrastructure spending, and reducing its international role. His "Make America Great Again" was supported by all ethnic groups outside of the traditional white working class, as he was appealing to the middle and lower-income populous who desired better wages and job guarantees. The old GOP, which has supported globalization and immigration, found itself at odds with Trump, but the red state's voter resonated with his rhetoric. The GOP lost its spirit only to be claimed by the fringes. It would be tough to steer away from the path set by Trump for any Republican leader. Trump's popularity could be gauged because many incumbent Republicans won the Congress and Senate seats due to his influence among the core voter base. While on the other hand, Biden won the Presidency, but several promising Congress and Senate candidates lost, giving him a fractured mandate in the Congress, thus curtailing his powers from undoing Trump policies. 

Democrats' Dilemma

Democratic Party has to face another tussle between the centrist and the left for the party's agenda, and if the latter wins, it would be difficult for the party in 2022 mid-term elections and 2024 Presidential elections. The reason behind it is that American voters are yet to embrace the radical left policies of the Democratic Party. Bernie Sanders and Alexandra Ocasio Cortez, though popular among youth, have been sidelined by the Democratic leadership and its core voters. Alexandra complained a few weeks before being sidelined within the party. Her disdain towards the Biden campaign is well known, and only time will tell whether Democrats will push brakes on their neo-progressive agenda to claim the centrist space. 

The Republican Party, on the other hand, will find it rather an arduous task to brush away Trump's legacy. Republican leadership will now find it difficult to escape his embrace's snare, especially when they all bowed down and presented no alternative vision for the party. The party leadership would have to choose between old conservative orthodoxy characterized by Reaganism and Trumpism. It also brings problems for the 'country club' Republicans like Bush and Romney, who would find it difficult to align with the new phase of the Republican Party. The marginalization is bound to increase over time, and the political center would have to choose between the two fringes of left and right. Given America's aversion to socialism, a rightward shift of the political center seems inevitable, profiting the Republican Party in the long run. Nonetheless, the diverse non-white community finds themselves naturally in the Left camp.

Trumpism has transcended into a global phenomenon with Boris Johnson of the U.K. molding the Tory party on the lines of the Republican Party. The French right has put its cards behind Marine La Pen of The National Rally, the rise of Alternative for Germany in Germany, and Recep Erdogan of Turkey stylizing himself as a strongman proves Trumpism had many takers; Trump opened an enraged precedent in World politics. 

Trump has been one of the few ring-wing strongmen to be defeated in an election. Although it brings hope for American Democracy, the problems are far from over. The U.S. needs to build an excellent policy to address its economic inequality, especially employing people affected by globalization and jobs being shipped overseas from America. Democrats need to focus on regulating globalization and ensure that all reap the benefits of the fourth industrial revolution. The loss of trust in public institutions and the expertise should be restored by addressing the American public grievances in a nonpartisan manner, failing which Presidents would find it difficult to unite the country under the Star-spangled banner. 

If populism is synonymous with "America First," it is no less evil than the ethno-pluralist populism espoused by the Biden camp. In a recent survey, 56% of Americans consented to be better off than they were in 2016, which is a clear indication of the triumph of economic populism. Trump has left a legacy of giving the GOP an ideological makeover as pro-working, contrary to being traditionally pro-elites. While Trump has paved the way for analysts to rethink populism in realist terms, Joe Biden or the democrats are no less a populist, except they seemingly support multiculturalism.  More importantly, populism is not an ideology and is neither left nor right but is an election strategy of all politicking politicians, and it is here to stay, be it in the form of economic populism or identity populism.

Kartik Asthana is a Research Assistant with the organisation.

Disclaimer: This paper is the author’s individual scholastic contribution and does not necessarily reflect the organisation’s viewpoint.