The Problem with being Populist


Many reports indicate Donald Trump may be reversing his stance on immigration, even though Trump himself claims that is not the case. So too do members of Trump’s campaign staff and Trump mouthpieces deny the candidate is flip-flopping on immigration. If anything Trump is merely shifting his stance on immigration. He is being “fair, but firm”.

While still emphasizing his plan for a border wall and the need to more stringently enforce existing immigration laws in order to prevent foreign criminals from entering the United States in the first place and to deport criminals who have managed to enter, Trump’s “deportation force” suddenly seems less threatening. No longer is Trump sticking to his long hard-line stance on immigration of using this force to round up and deport all immigrants who are in the United States illegally. Instead Trump seems to be offering an immigration solution much closer to the one put forth by President Obama, potentially giving amnesty to illegal immigrants who have not committed any crimes.

The softening comes at a time when Trump attempts to appeal to minority voters. Thereby his new stance on immigration may be seen as fitting into this direction. However, this new tempered, nuanced view does not appeal to many existing Trump supporters and risks alienating his core support. It has also furthered criticism of his campaign by many within the Republican base. As Trump seemingly attempts to generate greater appeal to those politicians and potential voters many see this sudden change in policy as another example of why Trump is unqualified and unfit to be president.

This is the difficulty of being a populist running for president. Running for president means trying to appeal to the greatest number of voters as possible. At its root populism is the belief in the power of regular people and their right to control the government. Running for president and being populist means appealing to the faction of the people who believe the elites running the establishment to be undemocratic and self-serving and seeking to mobilize against them. For Donald Trump, this appeal is invoked by anger and is about fueling existing resentments. As powerful a motivator as anger may be, such an appeal misses a significant portion of the national audience who may feel resentment yet remain hopeful those resentments will be addressed, and may be turned off by the appeal to anger. It also angers those who are targeted by the appeal.

What this appeal does accomplish, however, is to create even greater anger amongst those who do buy in. By altering his stance to be more in line with those elites against whom he railed in order to gain more votes Trump turns anger against himself. This has always been the thin line Trump must walk. Repeating his populist message ensures continuing support from those who buy in but also decreases the possibility of broader support. This is reflected in polls that demonstrate Trump supporters do not waver no matter his controversial statements but Trump has significant issues attracting new supporters.

What Trump has accomplished is effectively creating two separate groups of voters. This is not a process Trump began but he has perhaps brought the process to its zenith. If Trump changes his proposals he may gain in one group but he necessarily loses in the other.

Populism works when it brings voters together. Trump’s populism works by dividing voters.

No matter that his immigration proposals are not feasible.



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