Which image best represents the American people?

Identity politics

How do right-wing populism and identity politics relate to one another? To put it directly and clearly: There is no populism that can do without a certain form of identity politics - namely one that primarily serves to exclude others. [1] That in no way means that everything that is labeled "identity politics" today is automatically populist and in some way dangerous for democracy. The identity that right-wing populists are primarily promoting today is national or "ethno-cultural". Almost all right-wing populists in Europe are now nationalistic (and decidedly critical of the EU). But not every nationalist is automatically a populist. Populism and nationalism are different terms, even if questions of identity are central to both. Nationalist right-wing populists present themselves as the sole legitimate representatives of a national people understood as homogeneous. Nationalists put their own nation first - in the sense of the slogan "America First" - but do not necessarily have to undermine pluralism.

Central question: affiliation

It is often said that populists are characterized by the fact that they criticize elites or "the establishment". At first glance, this assessment seems completely plausible. On closer inspection, however, it turns out to be a rather strange thought: the willingness to keep a critical eye on the powerful (whether in politics, business, science or in the cultural sector) is generally regarded as a sign of good democratic commitment and is not one Characteristic that sets populists apart from others. It is true that when populists are in the opposition, they always criticize the governments - in this sense: "the establishment". But they also do something else that goes far beyond that: Populists always claim that they and only they represent what populists usually describe as the "real people" or the silent majority.

This claim to sole representation is above all moral. It follows from this that the rivals for power must be dismissed as fundamentally illegitimate. This is never just about different views on the matter or about different views on values. Rather, other politicians are portrayed as corrupt: They did not serve the people, but enriched themselves, they represent special interests, are in the service of "globalists" and therefore wanted to dissolve the people in a world state, etc. etc.

It is less obvious that populists then claim that all those in the people themselves who do not share their ultimately symbolic construction of the supposedly "true people" (and therefore usually do not support the populists politically) do not really belong to the people at all . Remember how Nigel Farage, the former chairman of the United Kingdom Independence Party, declared on the night of the Brexit referendum that the result was a victory "for real people". This statement implies nothing else than that the 16 million or more Britons (48 percent) who voted to remain in the European Union are not actually British. Donald Trump, too, often declares without much fuss (or arguments in terms of content) that his political opponents are simply "un-American".

So populists are always about anti-pluralism, and it always boils down to the moral exclusion of others: at the political level, everyone else is considered bad characters; and among the citizens, those who do not support the populists are accused of treason - as can currently be seen in Europe, especially in Hungary and Poland, where Jarosław Kaczyński, chairman of the national conservative party Law and Justice (PiS), led to the claim that citizens demonstrating against his party had an innate "gene of treason".

The moral claim to sole representation has its own logic that points in an authoritarian direction. This also means: Populism cannot be reduced to its content-related properties. If someone says he is against immigration, for the dissolution of the euro zone and against the oligarchy of the banks, then it cannot be immediately concluded from such statements that this must clearly be a populist. At the same time, however, the following applies: There is no such thing as populism without characteristics. All populists have to somehow make the separation between homogeneous people and homogeneous (namely consistently corrupt) elites plausible. And that is not possible without a description of the people. Or to put it another way: It does not work without an identity that is assigned to the "true people". The "real people" and morally acceptable citizens must be described clearly enough to mark differences with the traitors.

One can go further: when in doubt, populists reduce all political questions to questions of belonging. One does not try to refute one's political opponent with arguments, but rather accuse him of corruption or treason. One does not accept a legitimate opposition (whether in parliament or during demonstrations on the street), but declares the critics, in the words of Donald Trump, to be "enemies of the people". Thus right-wing populists always engage in a kind of cultural war in which political speech primarily consists of assigning or denying membership to individuals and groups.

In this respect, it is not a daring claim that existing cultural divisions help right-wing populists. The Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán did not have to invent the idea that there was a liberal, cosmopolitan (in this context an anti-Semitic code word) Budapest on the one hand and a "deep" authentic Hungary in the country on the other. Kaczyński was able to take advantage of the idea that the country was divided into Polska A and Polska B (the former more western and more developed). Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made himself the representative of the so-called Black Turks, with which Islamic-influenced citizens from the Anatolian province are referred to, who stand in contrast to the "White Turks" of the republican urban elite. And Trump was also able to pretend to be a representative of "Real America", which is embodied by the red states (Color of the Republicans), in contrast to the ultimately "un-American" liberals blue states (Color of the democrats).

Division into good into bad

Populists keep talking about the urgently needed unity and "unification of the people", but their political business model is to divide society and, where possible, to deepen existing divisions. That does not mean that democracies can only function when all citizens are united in consensus. On the contrary: no democracy can do without conflicts, because without conflicts there are no real alternatives and options. The only question is how to understand conflicts or how to consciously set them up. Populists always get personal and highly moral. There are always good characters against bad ones.

According to the right-wing populists' guidelines, all conflicts are aligned with cultural guidelines in case of doubt: Ideally, society splits into a majority of the "true", "culturally correct" people and an oppositional minority, who actually do not really belong, but whose existence in turn does Populists allow the distinction between the true people and the others to be made clear again and again or to conjure up threat scenarios: the true enemy of the people lurks inside and can easily be confused. That is why Hispanics in Trump's symbolic world, who are US citizens, but who allegedly can also be "bad hombres", are at least as important, if not more important, than the enemy image of Muslims.

This is not to say that "popular speech" should best be banned, according to the motto that anyone who says anything about their own people is already a populist - and thus a danger for a system that actually promises popular rule. Quite the opposite: politics as a profession demands that you have an idea of ​​the future of your own country - or, if you will, of the future of the people. A politician who can pray up and down solutions to specific problems, but has nothing to say about the possible self-image of her country, would be an excellent civil servant, but hardly a politician. The only difference is whether one presents one's "popular conception" as one possible ideal among others (and accepts contradiction as legitimate) or presents oneself as the sole representative of a silent majority.

The completely homogeneous people that populists are calling on is a fantasy. But it is assumed by the populists to be empirically present. This is also the reason why populists so often (admittedly not always) challenge defeat in elections, at least morally, but sometimes also with legal remedies. Because in a certain way they have a downright logical problem due to their own claim to sole representation: How can it be that only they represent the people, but do not even get an absolute majority at the polls?

A typical maneuver is then to assert: If the silent majority had been able to express themselves, we would now be in power. Ergo: Somebody must have silenced the majority. And in case of doubt it is "the old elites" who want to protect their benefices. Just think of the comment of the defeated Austrian presidential candidate Norbert Hofer, who remarked that Alexander van der Bellen was the winner in the 2016 federal presidential election counted, but not elected - just as if, in addition to the banal counting of ballot papers, there was a higher form of democracy in which the people express a kind of mystical unity with the true people's leader.