Trump’s an Example of Populism Gone Wrong
Michael David McQueeney is an undergraduate student at Cornell University pursuing a major in Industrial and Labor Relations and minors in Law and Society, History, and Classical Civilization. Click here for his website, The Past Parallel.
He rode a wave of popular support to defeat an entrenched, well-financed establishment. No candidate has won the nomination for a major American party by so thoroughly bucking — and humiliating — the established political order. How can Donald Trump’s populist rise not be a triumph for democracy?
The man who predicted the fall of the Roman Republic might have the answer.
In the second century B.C., the Greek historian Polybius drew on the example of the first democracies — primarily Athens — to create a theory on the progression of governments. He called it Anacylosis.
Anacylosis is not Simba and the Circle of Life; it is a grim, never-ending cycle of political chaos and government collapse. In short, it is a fancy name for a simple concept: good government degenerates.
If we take Anacylosis at face value, one day the voters in a democracy will push demagogues to power. As these rival demagogues compete in a bloody struggle for control, society will descend into mob rule and anarchy. Eventually, one man will emerge from the turmoil and secure total power.
Is this our destiny? Of course not, most Americans would say. The very nature of the cycle — its inevitability — is instinctively disagreeable to us. We are exceptionalists by nature —our society is always different. It can’t happen to us.
The Romans themselves believed as much. But only a few decades after Polybius invented the world’s most depressing merry-go-round, the Roman Republic degenerated into mob rule and tyranny, just as he predicted.
How did this happen? And will it happen to us?
At the outset of the Roman Republic, the patricians — noblemen — held complete control over the government. Over the centuries, the Roman plebeians — common people— managed to wrest power from their patrician betters. By the second century B.C., the Romans believed they had achieved the ideal state: a republic with strong checks and balances that provided a voice for the common people while limiting the dangers of direct democracy. By the mid 140s B.C., victories in foreign wars had led to a massive expansion of Roman power. It seemed the Republic — stable, powerful, and immensely wealthy — would last forever.
But things changed. The economy transformed as Roman power expanded across the Mediterranean. As Rome began to import cheap grain from North Africa in quantities previously unimagined in the ancient world, grain prices plunged. Domestic small farmers were squeezed out of the market and off their lands. Rich landowners snapped up land from these struggling farmers, incorporating these plots into giant plantations worked by slaves from newly conquered territories. Many of these land acquisitions were illegal — but the plebeians were powerless to stop them. Forced to compete against slave labor and facing a nascent form of corporatization that favored the wealthy, the plebeians felt that they were cast aside as Rome ascended to greatness.
In response to these changes, the plebeians voted a slew of populist politicians to power. These politicians were called Populares. While some Populares genuinely sought to uplift the plebeian class, others learned to harness the power of the people in a cynical ploy for power. Clodius Pulcher was one of the most opportunistic of these Populares — and his methods would ultimately help bring down the Republic.
Clodius hailed from one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in Rome. After rising to fame in one of history’s first cross-dressing scandals, Clodius was dismissed by the Roman elite as a tacky eccentric. In a society obsessed with respect, honor, and dignity, Clodius desperately wanted to prove himself. The new political power of the restless plebeians could provide that opportunity. Formally renouncing his nobleman status, he ran for office in the popular assembly. Like the Populares of the past, he tapped into the anger of the disaffected plebeians. Dramatizing and exaggerating their economic problems, he convinced the plebeians that they were entitled to the rising wealth of Rome. He demonized the establishment that had denied the plebeians their due and offered vague promises to expand the plebians’ libertas (liberty), gratia (grace), and dignitas (dignity, entitlement, and respect). He would make the plebeians great again.
Yet while Clodius borrowed motifs from past Populares, he pursued a darker course to power. Through fiery rhetoric and bombast he fashioned himself as the manifestation of the people. As such, he encouraged his supporters to use violence to achieve his own political ends, unleashing his forces on anyone who would dare to speak against him in the Roman forum. At the height of his power, he ruled the streets as a mobster with a popular mandate.
The violence that he let loose ultimately consumed him; Clodius’ political rivals copied his methods, using his own laws to form mobs of their own. One of these mobs assassinated Clodius on the street, putting Clodius’ bloody reign to a fitting end. The violence that Clodius unleashed would serve to undermine the democratic traditions of the Republic, paving the way for another populist demagogue — Julius Caesar — to kick in the door of the Republic and install himself as dictator for life only a decade later.
All told, the promise of populism proved to be a pipe dream. Soon after the people found a voice through populism, the demagogues manipulated that voice through hyperbole, distortion, and fabrication. These demagogues leveraged their popular mandate to amass power — and used violence when the traditional levers of democratic power failed them. As such, the republican system collapsed, anarchy reigned, and tyranny followed.
But the United States is different. Right?
Our system of government was modeled after the lessons of Rome; in fact, our founders often name-dropped Polybius and Anacylosis in their arguments to limit direct democracy. With the Roman example in mind, our government began as a hybrid democracy-oligarchy; constitutional restrictions served as safeguards against demagoguery.
Over the centuries, we have shed these anti-democratic constraints. The injustice of voting restrictions based on sex, race, or property status has been eliminated. The 17th Amendment allowed for the direct election of senators, while movements throughout the 20th century pushed nearly every state to adopt direct primaries. In all, we are witnessing a thoroughly democratic moment, and Donald Trump’s populist rise seems to mark a new height for the democratic movement. In spite of rumblings of a stolen convention or a third-party alternative, the Republican establishment failed to derail Trump. The candidate who received the most votes in the primary will serve as that party’s nominee. What could be wrong with that?
From the moment he declared for the presidency, Donald Trump’s campaign has been laughed off by the establishment as a frivolous, improvised sideshow. Yet Trump’s rise has been anything but improvisational. After President Obama humiliated him at the 2011 Correspondents Dinner, Trump decided that he would prove the establishment wrong. He slowly built up a political network within the Republican party. He painstakingly crafted a populist, tell-it-like-it-is message. He even tested his inflammatory message in focus groups to ensure that he could hit just the right notes on the campaign trail.
It’s a message we know all too well. Washington’s immigration policy has been a disaster: he will deport 11 million illegals and a build a wall (that the Mexicans will pay for!) to keep out the Mexican rapists. Wall Street wreaked the economy with shady subprime loans: he is the only one who can control Wall Street because he doesn’t rely on their dirty money. Free trade policies have led to wage stagnation and unemployment: he will limit free trade to ensure foreign industries can’t undermine hardworking Americans.
At the core of this message lies the common thread tying populist movements across the millennia: entitlement. The populist demagogues of ancient Rome argued that the establishment favored large slaveholders who forced small farmers from their traditional lands; Trump argues that the liberal establishment favors dangerous illegal immigrants, Wall Street criminals, and cheap foreign labor over working-class Americans. Like the Roman demagogues, Trump uses the established order as the scapegoat for the ills of the working class — and claims that he is the only can beat back this corrupt establishment. And like the Roman demagogues, much of Trump’s message is built on misrepresentation, hyperbole, and outright fabrication.
Politifact’s Truth-O-Meter checked 152 of Trump’s recent statements and found eighty-eight percent of them to be “half-true,” “mostly false,” “false,” or “pants-on-fire.” For the celebrity mogul, mischaracterization is marketing by another name.
“I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration and a very effective form of promotion”- Donald Trump, Art of the Deal.
To his followers, his mischaracterizations are truths that no one is willing to say — and these truths create a compelling argument for his election. Through these exaggerations and wholesale lies, Donald Trump has transformed simmering resentment into rage. This rage demands action — and Trump promises to serve as its instrument.
But what happens when someone stands in the way of the people’s instrument? Trump has encouraged his supporters to use violence against protestors at his rallies — and his supporters have followed suit.
What else can Trump get his supporters to do? Trump claims that his supporters will follow him even if he gunned down an innocent person on the street. Will Trump’s supporters riot if the establishment steals the Republican nomination? Will Trump’s supporters follow him as he uses the state to prosecute Hillary Clinton? Will Trump’s supporters follow him as he water-boards terrorists and kills their families? Will Trump’s supporters follow him as he puts the world on the brink of nuclear war?
Harnessing the power of direct democracy, Donald Trump has kindled something primal—and something familiar. As Trump walks in the shadows of the Roman demagogues, we can only hope that Polybius is wrong. But history might tell us otherwise.