Trump’s rise of populist nationalism and what a Biden presidency could mean

From the rise and fall of Trump’s presidency, the world has witnessed alongside this the rise in national populism and the threats it poses to democracy.

As the world looks towards the arrival of a new American President, we are forced to reflect on what the last four years has brought, the environment the United States has fostered in order for these characteristics to thrive, and if a shift in leadership is enough to challenge the current climate.

Populism – definitions & in America Populism is defined as a thin-centered ideology that considers society ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, the “pure people” and the “corrupt elite”. Following the election of Trump, this notion has infiltrated the basic functions of the political world. Populism rarely exists in a pure form and most populist actors combine it with another ideology. For Donald Trump and his base of supporters, populism was to be combined with nationalism, delivering an even deeper divide to a hyperpolarized nation.

Populism was not always at the forefront of American politics, as pluralism worked to see society as divided into several groups with different interests. Many factors have led to the successful rebirth of populism throughout America’s history, at times being coupled with left leaning ideals and others with right leaning. The most recent era of populism can be attributed to national political elites being increasingly perceived as being “all the same”, large parts of the electorate believe that important issues are not adequately addressed by the political elites, and large parts of the voting public come to perceive this as a major problem. This has created widespread political dissatisfaction, which is a fertile breeding ground for populism.

This form of political viewing, favors a politics based on consensus between the two groups and their interests. It fosters negotiation and cooperation, while Trump’s political strategy pushes for divisiveness and an “America first” outlook that threatens the role of the United States in the international arena. From this, we knew the 2020 Presidential election was going to be monumental in offering the United States the opportunity to face itself and ask “what will we make of the cards we have been dealt?”.

What does this context mean for the United States?

In the weeks leading up to the election, citizens of countries across the world were looking to the United States to understand the possible outcomes of what could be one of the most important elections in the nation’s history. Talks of a Trump second term were centered on the difficulty for any European country to take seriously, along with the looming threat of the possibility of an American departure of NATO, following Trump’s decision to pull America out of the World Health Organization and Paris Agreement on climate change. Roger Cohen outlines the basic fundamentals that encapsulate the America that Trump has strayed from, in stating:

“The democratic framework of the United States rests on certain principles: checks and balances, a vigorous free press, an independent judiciary, protection of the individual against forms of racial, religious or sexual prejudice”.

There was no doubt that the possibility of a second term of a Trump presidency presented the threat of continued abuses in regards to issues like immigration (on which established parties have long been unwilling to campaign) as well as socio-economic issues like wage stagnation and healthcare. Even as he is facing his final weeks in office, the President continues to push for the passage of executive orders that further the nationalist populism he has made synonymous with the United States, even during a pandemic that is affecting every part of the world.

A Biden Presidency

One of the key components of Biden’s platform that directly challenged the ideals of Trump’s presidency was his campaign promise to be “a president for all Americans” and to “restore the soul of the nation”. Biden campaigned on notions of reunifying the country, but some question his ability to successfully do so. How do you approach unification in a country that has experienced an extended period of strong divisiveness, centered on comments and approval from the most powerful position in the country?

In an opinion piece, a group of journalists from the New York Times argue that Biden might approach the issue through a “Decency Agenda”, consisting of efforts to remove culture wars from politics, identifying shared components of interest between the two splits, and holding each other accountable to pushing the nation towards positive change. While simplistic, the approach coupled with Biden’s campaign statements may be successful in laying the groundwork for the right conversations to begin. Biden comes with qualities that will aid this push with Trump supporters, such as his affiliation with the Catholic religion and the average-Joe personality. The way Biden addresses members of the Republican party will be closely monitored by Trump supporters he hopes to bring to the table and will be crucial to his efforts of reunification.

Biden has taken a moderate stance on topics that are at a boiling point in the United States, rejecting ideas of defunding the police following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, but acknowledging America’s structural racism and calling for action on police reform. Additionally, it will be vitally important for Biden to not only address the partisan issues surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, but to lead by example in his efforts. He has already made significant strides compared to President Trump in this area, consistently advocating for social distancing and following mask-wearing guidelines. It will be vital for Biden to sympathize and connect with those who are tired and frustrated at the current restrictions we find ourselves under, but continue his efforts to get the country into a stable state once again by pushing his administration to lead by example and denying to hold any major event that could pose as direct opposition to what he is preaching to the American people.

The next four years will be crucial in addressing the failures of the last four years, the pressing need to address overdue conversations of racism, violence, and discrimination, and structuring an agenda for the next four years that fosters unison both domestically and internationally.

This will not be an easy feat for President-elect Biden, but if we have learned anything from the last four years of hyperpolarization, it is that we do better and are able to accomplish more if we ensure everyone is at the table and the voices of those most marginalized are amplified.

Here are some additional resources and organisations for people wanting to read more or even get involved in organisations that promote young peoples’ engagement with politics, and encourage voting in the United States.