ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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The Temptations of Populist Democracy

Decoding Donald Trump

Donald Trump epitomises deeper fault lines and contradictions that bedevil America's image of itself. It is symptomatic of a populism that travels for the most part across party lines and political affiliations. Democratic candidates have also resorted to a softer populism on the idea of the foreigner intruding into sacred national territory.

Eight years ago, when America, in an historic election, elected Barack Obama as its 44th President, the moment was widely recognised as significant for numerous reasons. Not least among these was the fact that the election of Obama, biracial but coded as black in the schematic of racial classification that informs everyday life in America, was perceived as representing a genuine breakthrough in the United States (US) race relations. Obama’s election was seen as clearing a space to begin a much-needed public conversation about the violent legacies of exclusion, slavery, and oppression through which a mainstream notion of American identity as white had been consolidated. Obama’s landmark speech, “A More Perfect Union,” delivered on 8 March 2008, in the course of his campaign, itself outlined the necessity and difficulty of undertaking such a task: of the need for America to live up to its professed ideals, and of the urgent task of moving towards the paradoxical goal of the “more perfect” union of aspiration and reality and of America’s various peoples (Obama 2008).

Cut to the present, to the Republican primary campaign leading to the presidential contest that will decide the US’s next president, and the rhetoric is marked by exactly antithetical sentiments. Immigrants, particularly of the wrong kind, such as those from Mexico or West Asia, should be excluded from the US. The authenticity of one’s Americanness is contingent upon one’s race and ethnicity. Muslims, in particular, deserve to be viewed and treated with suspicion. And the greatness of the US rests upon an aggressive, unapologetic assertion of this narrow conception of American identity. All these sentiments coalesce in the figure of Donald Trump who, bucking the predictions of pundits and to the surprise of most observers, has moved from the position of outside figure to the leading Republican candidate. A recently conducted poll shows him maintaining this lead—at least so far—contradicting those commentators who point out that every election sees an unexpected candidate take an unlikely lead in the initial stages only to cede it to a more conventional candidate later (O’Connor and Hook 2016). The fact that Trump has leveraged himself into this position precisely by cashing in on extreme sentiments usually associated with fringe figures—despite such views—appears to have caused considerable anxiety and alarm, not just among liberals but also among mainstream Republicans and other candidates.

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