PSR Interviews #1: “Enemies of the American people” – Donald Trump, populism and politics of insecurity – interview with Daniel Béland

Why does Donald Trump want to “depict his opponents as enemies of the American people, who will cheat and do whatever it takes to kick him out of the White House”? What consequences will his actions have on the country’s future? Now, when America is facing a profound political change, we decided to discuss Donald Trump’s political legacy with Profes­sor Daniel Béland. He’ll debate collective threat framing, Trump’s populist tactics and the results it may have on the country’s society. A fuller analysis of these issues can be found in Prof. Beland’s PSR article. But here, we’re beginning a short PSR research-based interviews series

PSR: How would you define populism? What components do you find the most essential?

Daniel Béland: Populism is a slippery and contested concept that can be hard to define. In my article, I draw on the work of Jan-Werner Müller (2016) to stress two main components of populism: its critique of the elites and its claim to speak on the behalf of a people that is both unified and coherent. My article focuses exclusively on right-wing populism, even if left-wing populism shares these two basic characteristics. 

How is populism linked to the politics of insecurity?

The politics of insecurity is largely about the framing and reframing of collective threats. In my article, I suggest that right-wing populism defines migrants as a key threat, something obvious in President Trump’s rhetoric, which depicts them as “folk devils” who constitute a direct menace against the American people.      

What are the major collective threats that have been framed and acted upon during Donald Trump’s presidency?

Migrants are only one of the major perceived collective threats President Trump focused on during his presidency and it is the one I decided to focus on in my article. Other collective threats President Trump has referred to include the economic threat stemming from China and the “bad” trade deals with other countries, including Canada and Mexico, a situation that led to the renegotiation of NAFTA. However, these threats are less “personal” and seemingly immediate than the migrant caravan I discuss in my article.    

Trump might have lost the popular vote and at the electoral college but right-wing populism and white nationalism associated to him and his faithful base are unlikely to disappear any time soon

If populism is about framing and reframing national identities, what was the major change caused by Trump’s rhetoric?

Under Trump, the emphasis on border control has increased well beyond the issue of terrorism, which became such a central issue in the United States after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. For instance, concerns about the US-Mexico border had long existed but President Trump depicted Mexican and Central American migrants who cross the border as an imminent and existential threat to the United States. More recently, in a similar way, the president has also attacked Black Lives Matter and ANTIFA, which he has distorted the image and blown out of proportion to scare voters.    

How has the framing of migrants and other collective threats reshaped how Americans regard politics? Will – regardless of his defeat, – the base of Trump supporters reshapes the US politics itself?

President Trump’s recent refusal to concede defeat and recognize the clear victory of Democratic candidate Job Biden is part of a broader attempt to depict his opponents as enemies of the American people, who will cheat and do whatever it takes to kick him out of the White House. Clearly the accusations of voter fraud are embedded in racial prejudice, especially when the president targets alleged yet fictional widespread “cheating” in cities with a large black population like Detroit and Philadelphia. Trump might have lost the popular vote and at the electoral college but right-wing populism and white nationalism associated to him and his faithful base are unlikely to disappear any time soon in what remains a highly divided country, in which different narratives about who the people is are now embedded in resilient and highly contentious partisan identities.   

What are the key contributions your article brings to the field?

The main contribution of my article is theoretical, as it bridges and integrates the literatures on populism and on the politics of insecurity to formulate an integrated framework that other scholars could apply or adapt to a variety of political and geographical settings. This is why the article is not only targeting students of the United States or the politics of immigration but all scholars interested in the insecurity/populism nexus.     

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ABOUT

Prof. Daniel Béland

Prof. Daniel Béland – James McGill Professor; Director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (MISC).

Questions and production: Eliza Kania, Brunel University London

Photo used in the heading image: Gage Skidmore via Flickr (link), license: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0), modified.

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