What puts the “pop” in populist rhetoric? by Donald R. LaMagdeleine


The last eight years have been hard on the West, not to mention the globe. Since 2008 a global economic crisis that originated in the US has eliminated tens of billions of capital from which no economy has fully recovered. Largely as a result of the neoliberal economic policy “wisdom” that governs the most powerful nations and international financial institutions, fiscal austerity has largely been the order of the day. Most notably, Greece narrowly avoided exiting from the EU and reverting to the drachma, which many speculated would potentially cast both Greece and the EU into a sharp tailspin. Donald R. LaMagdeleine goes on to discuss further.

These financial troubles have more recently been accompanied by another kind of threat; radical Islamist violence against soft public “targets” in which large numbers of ordinary people are killed or seriously wounded. Such attacks have occurred in virtually every continent, but within the last calendar year three of them – the Charlie Hebdo and Paris attacks in March and November, 2015 and the Brussels attack that just occurred as I write this – have galvanized global media coverage.

However, alongside the economic and terrorist woes besetting western economic conditions and consciousness, another social dislocation that will arguably bear even more significant consequences for Europe has been unfolding. The massive refugee migration from war-torn Syria and other parts of Africa and the Middle East has resulted in over one million displaced, mostly young male, migrants in 2015 alone.[1] Most commentators think it a near-certainty that at least some of the radicalized Islamists responsible for the European terrorist violence have hidden among the refugees, which in itself is a dangerous premise. However, I consider the resurgence of anti-immigrant popular antipathy even in some of the nations most committed to the EU an equally troubling development. This has manifested itself in the recent spate of nativist and rightist political movements aligned against refugees, their customs, and their religion.

This brief essay considers the internal logic common to the resurgent rhetoric and politics, both in the EU and in the US. However, because he generates the most intense media attention and analysis, the remainder of this essay analyzes Donald Trump’s rhetorical tropes during the 2015 US presidential primaries as emblematic of populist rhetoric of many varieties.

Deep structure of populist rhetoric

While it has a long history in western culture, populism has only recently become the focus of serious academic analysis. The term derives from “populus,” (Latin for “the people”) but the premise of rhetoric framed as defending the interests of an audience that identifies with a specific region or group dates at least to the Greeks. Although some studying the phenomenon have identified it with a specific set of political or ideological positions, this analysis adopts the definitional strategy of focusing on the internal logic of populist discourse. Its hallmark is the pitting of an allegedly virtuous but threatened populace against a malign elite that aims to usurp its rights, integrity and ultimately core identity.

In the EU cases of contemporary populism (e.g., France’s Marie Le Pen or the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders), the majority of recent populist rhetoric has returned to the subject of the misguided acceptance of mostly non-Christian refugees who drain national resources after a hiatus in which the Great Recession dominated populists’ attention. During that period the common target was financial elites who demanded fiscal austerity as the only suitable remedy for the crisis. Since early 2015, however, the subject of massive numbers of refugees entering the EU through its porous boundaries has emerged as the focus of antipathy. One of the most susceptible audiences to the anti-refugee rhetoric are working-class males, many of whom have fared badly during the ongoing globalization of durable and other manufactured goods; a trend exacerbated by the recent global economic troubles.

Although the specific attractors for contemporary populist animus always feature recent events and trends, its internal structure mirrors collective patterns of discourse common throughout recorded history. The rest of this essay briefly outlines the structure of this discourse and why it is so powerful.

The power of binary oppositions

Scholars have debated for many centuries about how knowledge is developed. For most of Western history the field in which this argument occurred was philosophy (e.g., Plato’s eternal verities versus Aristotle’s emphasis on observing data that could test conceptual premises). However, at least one branch of social scientists who study culture and its dynamics have been heavily influenced by Emile Durkheim’s radically sociological approach to the issue of how collective knowledge develops. He argued that its root cause was common experiences of major proportions – think drought, famine or devastating warfare – that cemented a strong sense of solidarity among group members. This solidification resulted from surviving the events themselves; but also in the collective remembering of how and why the group’s survival occurred with the aid of ceremonies, stories, and symbols commemorating them. These accounts included myths of origin, core beliefs and rituals that defined the group and its members.

The structure of these accounts has, in virtually every instance that has been studied and regardless of culture or context, been arrayed in oppositional categories. For example, a given tribe’s core accounts of itself have provided a clear key to ascertaining membership; who belongs and who doesn’t. Those who belong revere certain mythic figures and creation accounts which are continuously reinforced by participating in certain rituals. Those who don’t pay these accounts and rites no heed; even mock them or intentionally desecrate them by destroying sacred sites or defacing iconic symbols. If Durkheim and those influenced by his theory are right, the narrative structure of the vast preponderance of human discourse has been constructed in this way. The subtext of such discourse is both nakedly oppositional and quite powerful because it is non-ambiguous. A given actor or group is either with us or against us. The latter are by definition evil, and its members the enemy.

9781785361388One of the reasons Durkheim generated considerable antipathy in his time was his contention that the above dynamics were equally true of the European discourse of his day as they had been throughout human history; only with a different lexicon. As demonstrated in the tropes of Donald Trump, this is still the case. The New York Times recently captured and analyzed a week’s worth of every Trump speech, interview, news conference or other utterance during his presidential primary campaign. Because he has so successfully captured the attention of the media, the total amounted to ninety-five thousand words, most of which feature the same kinds of binary oppositions noted by Durkheim.

For instance, Trump habitually juxtaposes “we/they” statements that place actors and groups he opposes in the category of the Other. He has blatantly accused (illegal immigrant) Mexicans of widespread rape and murder while casting a wide array of actors – including his political opponents, reporters, and females he considers less than beautiful – as “losers” or simply “stupid.” He contrasts all in this camp with himself and his supporters, who are “smart,” “beautiful,” or simply “winners.”

Many have noted how difficult it is to track actual policy positions in Trump’s rhetoric. This is partly because he often claims his stated comments were misunderstood, but also because he sometimes simply reverses them. At other times he simply cites “facts” that cannot be documented or are patently false. He also makes claims about his first days in office that are virtually impossible to act upon (e.g., building a wall across the southwestern US at Mexico’s expense) or patently unconstitutional (barring Muslim immigrants).

The net meaning of Trump’s rhetoric is almost incomprehensible as measured by standard policy and governance discourse. Not so, however, when it is measured against modern racist demagogues like George Wallace in the US or Adolf Hitler in Europe. Indeed, Trump’s blend of stark binary oppositions and murky policy proposals deeply appeals to one of the most disenchanted groups within US society; white males without a college education who are mightily struggling in the global economy. This is due to the atavistic appeal of simple, polarized accounts that provide a simple rationale for why someone who feels cheated by “the system” is in this sorry state, and who is to blame for it.

[1] References for all information discussed here are available from the author at drlamagdelei@stthomas.edu.

Donald R. LaMagdeleine is Professor at the School of Education, at at the University of Saint Thomas, USA

The first chapter of Donald’s new book The Leadership Imagination: An Introduction to Taxonomic Leadership Analysis can be downloaded for free on Elgaronline.


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