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Trump’s populist leadership

Henrik Bang's picture

US President Donald Trump again demonstrated his populist leadership and communication style at a first solo press conference. Henrik Bang explains why Trump appeals to those who feel excluded from ‘big’ politics.

Aggressive, dominant, narrow minded, ruthless are some of the leadership traits that are ascribed to Donald J. Trump’s new populist leadership. He also shows narcissistic traits, praising his own leadership; expecting everyone to serve his needs; holding grudges against those who don’t; and blaming others of his own failures. Yet, many show more trust in Trump than in ‘the system’. How come?

I think Trump’s success is directly related to the uncoupling of ‘the system’ from ordinary people’s everyday worries. Distrust in politicians and the decline of parties are now spilling over to the core institutions of Parliament and the Constitution. Today, populism is threatening liberal democracy on its existence. We witness daily how Trump and his Administration are placing increasing pressures on every link in the democratic chain of checks and balances. Yet, most in the mainstream have been chanting that the decay is only skin deep:

‘The old rules of politics have not changed; politics remains about people expressing conflicting ideas and interests and then finding a way to reconcile those ideas and interests in order to rub along with each other’[1]

It is precisely this image of ‘rubbing along’ that makes people accuse elites of ‘robbing along’. So when Trump brimming with self-confidence tweets about those in the ‘wicked and corrupt system’ who are ‘all words and no action’ it resonates in the mind of many. People are simply tired of elites who only network, deliberate, negotiate, and make deals with one another. As Peter Mair argues, what we witness today is democracy being ‘steadily stripped of its popular component – easing away from the demos.’[2] The leadership has colonised the party organisation, the party movement and the whole of the public sphere.

But there is more to populism’s success than this. New public management’s takeover of public administration is contributing too. Weber’s classical model for the exercise of legal-bureaucratic rationality is being replaced by neoliberalism’s scientific-technological management. Bureaucrats are besieged by technocrats, exercising change management in the name of unceasing competition and growth. In the process, citizens are converted into consumers helping management to uphold the permanent reform. Individuals are nudged into making the right choices and take more responsibility for their own successes and failures.

Hence, populism’s rapid advances should not come as a surprise. On the one hand, ‘the people’ are fed up with a political establishment ignoring their worries over their kids’ future, declining real income, rocketing house prices, waves of immigrants, and so on. On the other hand, change management is dividing individuals into winners and losers from cradle to grave. Thus, it’s no surprise, that ‘the deplorables’ – that is those who feel excluded from ‘big’ politics, and who will not or cannot live up to neoliberalism’s credo of success – are taking revenge, using populism as their vehicle. As the right wing paper The Washington Times puts it:[3]

Mr. Trump stands poised to reinvent the entire federal government in favor of the American people alone. He is a tireless agent of disruption and an unbending force for creative destruction

I think populist leadership is dangerous. When Trump exclaims: ‘I am your voice’, he is denying people their own voice. Trumpism reminds me of the situation just before the collapse of the Weimar Republic. Despite the growing persecution of Jews and other minorities, those in the mainstream went on chanting that democracy would survive; that antisemitism would be contained; and that Hitler just needed some basic democratic potty-training. Yet, I also see elements of a ‘new connectivism’ among ‘professionals’ and ‘amateurs’ who want to recouple elite democracy and popular democracy.

This requires a ‘third way’ leadership, recognising that good governing is not only about being decisive and strong but also about daring to show emotions and admit failures. Such soft and emphatic leadership would recognise that telling people the truth boldly and frankly implies believing that they are able to govern and take care of themselves.



  • [1] Stoker, Gerry (2006) Why Politics Matters. Basingstoke UK: PALGRAVE MACMILLAN: p. 202
  • [2] Mair, Peter (2013) Ruling the Void. London: Verso p. 2

 

Henrik Bang is Professor at the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis at the University of Canberra. His research interests include new forms of participation and governance, neoliberalism, new institutionalism, political parties and critical theory postmodernism.