Before I can definitively say whether former President Obama or President Trump is a populist or not, I think it is important that we set a definitive definition and answer the important question, “What is populism?”
Michael Kazin, the co-author of the book, The Populist Persuasion, describes populists as, “speakers conceive of ordinary people as the noble assemblage not bounded narrowly by class, view their elite opponents as self-serving and undemocratic, and seek to mobilize the former against the latter.”
In today’s press, it seems like, there is a misconception of the word “populism”. Reporters like to throw around the word lightly, often misdescribing “populist” as someone who simply says controversial things to gain votes. While this is one aspect of “populism” – tapping into people’s fear to gain advantage and votes – many are missing the important main idea.
As society changed, our view on the populism imagery changed – and today in politics, there is two prominent types of populism – right and left winged populism. And while they both label themselves as a “populist”, their difference is distinct.
Now that we have set the boundaries on the idea of Populism, I think it's fair to say neither of our former President nor the current President reflects true ideas of populism back in American history. But if I were to make a choice between the two, I am inclined to say that former President Barack Obama is more of a populist than President Donald Trump for several reasons.
Former President Obama is a generic left-winged populist. He promotes equal chances of education, he speaks up for wage-earning, low-income Americans and ensures in a lot of ways to keep our tax system fair. And while one may argue that this is more of the Democratic party’s value and ideas rather than the ideas of populism, one can also argue that he resembles populism because he speaks out for the ones who don’t necessarily have a voice in our society.
President Obama also said it himself in the North American Leader Summit; he elaborates on the misuse of the word ‘populism’ – “Maybe somebody can pull up in the dictionary quickly the phrase ‘populism’ but I’m not prepared to concede the notion that some of the rhetoric that’s been popping up is populist.” He then explains how his Presidential campaigns back in 2008 and 2012 were mainly focused representing the ‘hard-working Americans’. He then said directly, “I suppose that makes me a populist”.
When reading articles regarding Donald Trump and his “populism” awakenings, I feel like the idea of populism is really taken out of context. Yes, it is true that populist leaders like, William Jennings Bryan, used the tactic of grouping people into “us” or “them”. Yes, it is true that politicians used fear as a source of catalyst to make frightened citizens support the candidate. And yes, Donald Trump uses all these strategies to gain votes and build a big follower-base. But if one truly thinks back to the fundamental idea of “populism” which derived from debt-ridden farmers, barely trying to find a way to have a voice in the government: I think that saying one's a populist just because they throw out some controversial statements to gain votes, is degrading to not only those who fought for the populism but also degrading to the idea and history behind it.