Populism: Democracy’s Secret Killer

2020 is expected to be an eventful year for global politics, especially with The United States (US) presidential elections scheduled for November. These elections raise concerns amongst international relations scholars on the future condition of democracy globally. This concern is mainly due to the rise of populism in international politics. Boris Johnson’s recent election as prime minister, Tayyip Erdogan rise to power in Turkey and the completion of Donald Trump’s first presidential term highlights a shift towards populist sympathies within politics. The global rise in populism over the past few years is problematic for countries and is very damaging for the state of democracy around the world.

Populism is a term used to describe a particular leadership style and is often associated with anti-establishment leaders. There are a few characteristics that identify populism as a separate style of leadership. These characteristics consist of: criticism towards the status quo, victimizing minorities, weaponizing public anger and the claim to be an anti-pluralist and anti-establishment (Muller 2016). Populism happens when there has been, “mobilization of a mass movement in pursuit of political power, this element theorizes that populists thrive where ties between voters and bureaucratic parties do not exist or have decayed.” (Kenny 2018). Trump, a populist leader, rose to power due to his disassociation with establishment politics and the mobilization of rust belt workers public anger (Sligo 2018). Populism differs greatly from identity politics because populism is especially damaging on the functioning of a democracy. Populism often creates a downgraded form of democracy that promises to create a good democracy (Muller 2016).

Donald Trump’s rise in popularity is a further evidence of the global trend amongst voters in favour of populist leaders. Donald Trump rose to power in the US by utilising populist tactics to gain votes. Trump presented himself as an anti-establishment and anti-pluralist candidate option to win the support of disassociated and disenfranchised voters. He also combined the demands and consolidated the concerns of rust belt workers, thus gaining their support (Sligo 2018). Populist tactics ultimately won Trump the 2016 election. Trump also displays a variety of other characteristics of a populist leader. For example, his continual attack on minorities by often using of them as a scapegoat for national issues. Trump does this by attacking the Latin immigrant population blaming crime and drug problems on this minority community (Anbinder 2019). These traits not only mark Trump as a populist leader but highlight the damages he has caused on the functioning of America’s democracy.

Donald Trump’s presidency as an anti-establishment, populist leader has had a severe impact on standard of America’s democracy.  A clear ramification of Donald Trump presidency is his damage on the freedom of the press, a tool he uses to build his anti-establishment image. Trump’s does this through consistent attacks on journalists as the “enemy of the people” and the labelling of many news agencies as producers of “fake news”. These actions by Trump undermine the legitimacy of the press and its important democratic function to hold those in power accountable. Trumps vilification of journalists as enemies’ positions them to be working against the interests of the people thus, influencing the American populous perception of the press. Further, The White House Press Secretary has also significantly reduced the number of press conferences held in the White House limiting the presses access to Government reporting. These subtle actions undertaken by Trump limit the US citizens ability to access free press causing a downgrade in America’s democracy. In 2019 The Economist’s Democracy Index, America is rated as a flawed democracy with a 7-8 rating out of 10. Thus, proving the negative impact Donald Trump has had on the functioning of America’s democracy.

The impact of the rise in populist movement is already causing a ripple effect globally.   In the Economist 2019 Democracy Index, only 22 out of 167 countries were classified as a full democracy and only 54 out of 167 countries were classified as a flawed democracy. The global democracy score is 5.44 which is the lowest score since The Economist started the democracy index in 2006 (The Economist 2019). When looking at these figures of democracy’s current struggle, it is important to consider the patterns and fluctuations of democracy that have always occurred since its creation. Therefore, whilst there may be a decline in the global standard of democracy, it is important to believe in the strength of democracy as it is likely to recover in the years to come as leaders come and go (Carothers and Youngs 2017).


Anbinder, Tyler. 2019. “Trump has spread more hatred of immigrants than any American in history.” The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/trump-has-spread-more-hatred-of-immigrants-than-any-american-in-history/2019/11/07/7e253236-ff54-11e9-8bab-0fc209e065a8_story.html.

Carothers, Thomas, and Richard Youngs. 2017. “Democracy is not Dying .” Foreign Affairs. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2017-04-11/democracy-not-dying.

Kenny, Paul. 2018. Populism in Southeast Asia. Cambridge : Cambride University Press.

Muller, Jan. 2016. What is Populism? Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Sligo, Frank. 2018. “Trump’s Populism.” Media International Australia 169: 131-143.

The Economist. 2019. Democracy Index 2019. Washington: The Economist.

Writer: Ellie Hawthorne

Editor: Angganararas Indriyosanti

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