When he lost a primary contest, it was not uncommon for Donald Trump to declare that the process had been rigged against him and the results were invalid; when he seemed unlikely to win the general election, he said the same; after he won the Electoral College Trump insisted that he had actually won the popular vote, too, once voter fraud was accounted for; when polls have shown that the country remains divided on his governing agenda, the President has insisted that these do not reflect the actual will of the American people. His latest (as of this writing) Twitter provocation offers the clearest distillation yet of this way of thinking: Any empirical evidence suggesting that Trump or his policies is anything short of wildly popular is prima facie false.
Any negative polls are fake news, just like the CNN, ABC, NBC polls in the election. Sorry, people want border security and extreme vetting.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 6, 2017
This kind of fantasy logic is often chalked up to Trump’s thin-skinned personality, which surely makes such pronouncements more brazen. But more than that, it represents the essence of populism, the political style Trump has employed with unprecedented success.
In his important 2016 book, What is Populism?, the political philosopher Jan Werner Müller identified the key characteristic of a populist as “anti-pluralism”—the non-falsifiable belief that he, and he alone, is the legitimate representative of the public will, and that any other claims to representation are suspect and illegitimate.
The logic of populism, Müller says, posits that there are “two peoples.” The first is the “empirical” people, whose will is represented by “elections or opinion surveys.” The second is the “symbolic” or “substantive” people, whose will can never be truly ascertained, and is presumed to always be in agreement with that of the populists. Sometimes the two peoples merge, as when populists win elections; other times, a schism develops, as when empirical data shows the populist position to be in a minority. More:
What distinguishes democratic politicians from populists is that the former make representative claims in the form of something like hypotheses that can be empirically disproven on the basis of the actual results of regular procedures and institutions like elections.
Democrats make claims about the people that are self-limiting and are conceived of as fallible; populists by contrast, will persist with their representative claim no matter what; because their claim is of a moral and symbolic—not an empirical—nature, it cannot be disproven.
In other words, it’s important to recognize Trump’s declaration that “all negative polls are fake news” not just as a manifestation of his own much-discussed need for validation and titanic ego, but as an effectuation of the core element of the populist approach to politics: The delegitimization of competing claims to representation.
To be sure, politicians we don’t necessarily think of as populists dance around this kind of rhetoric as well. Barack Obama, for example, regularly dismissed hostile Republican Congressional majorities as extremists who had been bought off by special interests rather than representatives of a legitimate constituency that opposed his agenda. But there is no question that Trump has taken this make-believe approach into new and more explicit territory, and that this represents a real threat to the existence of a pluralistic democratic system where competing interests are accommodated rather than steamrolled.
When in power, Müller argues, populism tends to corrode democratic norms, but because it still rests its legitimacy on the idea of a popular mandate, it rarely “executes anything that looks like a rupture with democracy altogether.” In other words, we need not be looking at incipient fascism to be concerned about the introduction of such fantastical reasoning in our politics.
The real challenge is to Trump’s opponents. The President’s claim to be acting on behalf of the entirety of the American people will continue to resonate with his supporters; indeed, it is what has made his style so appealing all along. If they care about preserving pluralism, Trump’s critics cannot simply counter with their own exclusive claim to representation—that is, with their own make-believe construction of a “symbolic” American people wherein the interests and aspirations of Trump supporters are phony and un-American. Instead, they need to offer ways to make institutions more responsive so that vast swathes of people no longer feel that they are being neglected, and are less likely to be drawn to the seductive simplicity of populism as the only alternative.