“Trump is a populist because his primary target is the white working-class”: Professor Françoise Coste comments

by Laure Van Ruymbeke

“Populism” is a term many deem to have been overused by the media to the extent that in the US it has become synonymous with Republican candidate Donald Trump. In a short interview with Françoise Coste, author of a Ronald Reagan’s biography and senior lecturer at Toulouse University, specialising in the American Republican party. I sat down with him to explore “Populism” in the US electoral context.

What does “populism” mean in the US? Is it still relevant today to use it? How has the word- and its meaning- evolved through the years?
Populism has a long history in the US. Historically, it was a rather left-wing movement, opposing the “have-nots” to the “haves” (as with the populist farmers movement of the late 19th century). But in the second half of the 20th century, populism evolved rightward. Starting with Nixon and Reagan, and culminating with Trump of course, conservative populism has been a movement which opposes the largely white “us” to the non-white “them”: it mixes economic and racial dimensions, which makes it very powerful.

Is Trump a populist? Does he differ from any other candidates in the past?

Trump is a populist because his primary target is the white working-class that suffer due to globalization and free trade, which he appeals to by using racial arguments (like building his wall on the Mexican border). Previous Republicans also used race to appeal to the usually Democratic white working class, but Trump does it more explicitly, more radically, in a more overtly racist way one may say (for a telling comparison: Reagan was a populist but he accepted mass-scale Hispanic immigration)

Is Trump particularly brilliant or is it just a matter of timing? Why are the Americans so receptive to his speeches?

Trump is not brilliant in a traditional way, but he’s a great entertainer: his speeches are easy to follow; he’s very provocative and can be funny. This is why the media have covered him so extensively: he draws crowds and big ratings. This in turn helped Trump, especially in the primaries, by giving him a lot of free time on TV so he didn’t have to raise as much money to build a public image as the other candidates.

Is the Trump vote a vote against the system and the elites?

The Trump vote is a vote of a segment of American society (mostly male, white and older) who feel they’re losing their privileged status. Hence the very nostalgic slogan of “Make America Great Again”: great for whom? Which past period? This explains why Trump is much less popular among minorities and women. In that sense, the Trump vote is the sign of deep political and demographic evolutions in America. But these Trump fans are probably wrong if they think there’s a way to go back to their ‘good old days’.

What would be the consequence of a Trump victory?

In terms of foreign politics, the consequences would be huge since he represents a split in the Republican party’s history: he advocates a return to isolationism and even questions NATO. He talked about his desire for countries like South Korea and Saudi Arabia to gain nuclear arms; the whole geo-strategic equilibrium would be challenged.

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