Is the Attack on the US Capitol Populism?
“Populists on the left and right share a belief that the people’s democratic power is being undermined by elites who control democratic institutions,” says BU’s Rachel Meade
“There’s not going to be any immediate emergence out of this.” Rachel Meade
What happened Wednesday?
Rachel Meade, College of Arts & Sciences lecturer in political science, says the mob that attacked the US Capitol, incited by President Trump’s words, but failed to stop Congress from ratifying the Electoral College vote count, displayed the ugly side of populism.
President-elect Joe Biden condemned Trump, who had urged the rioters to march on the Capitol after repeating false charges he’d won November’s election. The violence, in which the window-smashing mob breached even the Senate chamber itself, left a woman shot dead by police and three others dead from what authorities called medical emergencies.
Trump is but one iteration of populism, says Meade, who studies the divergent camps in that movement. Researching the anti-lockdown protesters last year in Michigan, she found that many were rural Christians who think elite institutions look down on them. But in other research, she explored the anti-corporate sentiment of Bernie Sanders voters and the Occupy Wall Street movement spawned by the Great Recession.
With Rachel Meade
BU Today: If Sanders supporters and Occupy Wall Street were “populist,” how can populism also motivate right-wing congressional Republicans who challenged the vote counting, and the mob that used more violent tactics?
Rachel Meade: At the most basic definition, populists on the left and right share a belief that the people’s democratic power is being undermined by elites who control democratic institutions. Often on the left, you have a broader view of “the people,” in the sense that the people trying to take power back from the elites are everybody except the economic elite, the 1 percent.
Whereas with right-wing populism, the people are viewed in narrower terms. In the case of Trump supporters, there’s a sense the groups taking away power are liberal elites controlling institutions like the media, the education system, and our government. Those politicians are working in favor of other groups who [populists deem] are not the true, authentic people—maybe undocumented immigrants, or Muslims who want to institute Sharia law and attack Christianity, and African Americans.
BU Today: Undocumented immigrants overwhelmingly are people of color; Muslims in most cases are people of color; you mention African Americans. Saying the mob and Republican politicians oppose elites—is that a polite way of saying they’re racist?
The fact that it seems the threat is disproportionately coming from people of color certainly speaks to racial resentment. But the reason I would say it’s not just racism is that, when you combine that with concerns about institutions not representing the population—and there are shared concerns on the left and the right in terms of corporate power, Big Tech companies—there’s an economic element to this.
When people think about politics, they don’t separate out, this is my economic side and this is my cultural side. They’re feeling economic displacement or sense that the world has changed a lot—maybe jobs have left in my area—both culturally and economically. Populism paints a story when there have been huge upheavals. Economic upheavals of the last decades have made it harder to raise a family, make ends meet, and progress towards the American dream. There’s always been this debate: is it economic grievances or racism underlying Trump’s support? My take on that would be they really intersect. I would never deny there is a strong racial element here, but I don’t think it’s the whole story.
BU Today: Do the protesters sincerely believe Biden stole the election and identify in their own minds as populist freedom fighters? Or are they well aware Trump lost, identifying themselves instead as fighting a decadent majority that they believe is wrecking the country?
I think they do believe [Biden stole] it. But the reason they believe that has to do with your second point: there is this decadent, democratic establishment working to overthrow everything great about the country. And they believe that because of the basic definition of populism: a group of elites are against the interests of the people, they’re in control of a variety of institutions, especially the media. Even when Fox News, which typically conservatives trust, reports that there’s been no fraud, it’s easy to reject that information if you have that preexisting belief that those institutions are giving you inaccurate information.
We had anti-institutional distrust of political parties, media sources, etc., before Trump. Then Trump kind of amped up the type of populism based on him. He made the case—many populists do this—that if you attack me, you’re attacking the people, because I am uniquely qualified to represent your interests against these nefarious forces. What happens is people become not just pro- and anti-Trump, but pro- and anti-Trump supporters and opposition. The population is viewing the other side as enemies, and that overlaps with another trend in politics that political scientists call “affective polarization,” which goes beyond ideological differences. It’s about viewing members of the opposite party as the enemy, as personally threatening to you. That kind of partisanship has been steadily rising since the 1960s.
BU Today: President-elect Biden said after the Capitol attack, “Our democracy is under unprecedented assault.” Is he right?
I don’t think he was exaggerating the threat. It’s not just that some people are believing the election was stolen, despite evidence to the contrary. It’s that that belief is part of deep-seated beliefs about elites undermining the interests of the people through a variety of institutions. That it’s now extending into disbelief in the electoral system signals an advanced type of populism.
A lot of what Trump has said about why the election was stolen relies on anecdotes about “a Trump supporter saw a certain thing at the polling station.” That’s exactly the evidence that somebody really holding a populist identity would accept, because they truly believe people who don’t follow this populist leader are believing lies, so they have to seek out this hidden evidence.
There’s not going to be any immediate emergence out of this. The immediate question of how do people accept the election—I don’t have a good answer for that. In the longer term, I think the causes of distrust of institutions, elites, the media—I think that comes out of a sense that representatives are not representing the interests of the people. When you look at rising economic inequality and increased monopolization of industries and difficulties people are facing, there are places where politicians and parties could work to gain back the trust of people.
[Trump] gave them the cultural side of populism, the us-versus-them side. His calling for $2,000 [pandemic relief] checks was something that looked like a populist move, but that sort of thing has been few and far between in the way he’s governed.