Is the word ‘populist’ an insult?


The word ‘populism’ seems to appear practically every day in the media. Indeed, the media appears to spend an inordinate amount of time on what they consider is the ‘populist’ rhetoric of Donald Trump. At times they do speak of other populist personalities, especially those in countries like Poland and Hungary, but mainly it’s Donald Trump. But populism is not something new, and history is laden with populist personalities, whether they come from the left wing or the right wing of politics. Even Julius Caesar was accused of populism by Cicero. But what is it?

Populism as a noun has been defined as support for the concerns of ordinary people. It identifies with the mass of people at the bottom. The Cambridge dictionary defines it as political ideas and activities that are intended to get the support of ordinary people by giving them what they want, for example tax cuts and higher wages. Populists are also accused of making promises which they know cannot keep. However, if the above is true, then most politicians populist or not will be found guilty with their unrealistic promises, especially at election time. Of course, the elite like to think they are beyond this accusation of populism.

So is this a battle between Mr. Trump representing the ‘people’ and the progressive liberals representing the ‘elite’? To answer this question very briefly, let’s look at the format of some their speeches.

Classical rhetoric tells us there are three types of speeches to persuade an audience: those relying primarily on the personal and professional credibility of the speaker, those built on connecting with the emotions of an audience, and those built on argumentation. These three dimensions were called ethos, pathos and logos by Aristotle. Each one of them is present in every speech although one will dominate according to the circumstances. But in the case of populism, politicians usually follow only the first two of these formats.

The first mentioned is called deliberative rhetoric, which is often referred to as political or visionary rhetoric, and is primarily based on credibility, or Ethos. This concerns a speaker’s personal confidence and trust with his or her audience. It needs gravitas, that soundness of character that creates this needed confidence and trust. This gravitas may naturally exist, or be carefully crafted with the help of PR consultants. Faking gravitas is more common than people like to think. Deliberative speakers often address topics in a black and white fashion: such as what is beneficial or harmful and what is advantageous or disadvantageous. They obviously take one side only. They present a point of view and support it by some selected facts, stress the common ground with the audience, and then proceed to persuade their audience as to their advantage (or disadvantage, depending on the case). Barrack Obama and the two Clintons all followed the deliberative format.

However, much of a populist’s speech, as with Mr Trump’s speeches, is more based on the second category, audience emotions. It involves straightforward audience psychology, which brings an audience to the right state of emotion to accept the speaker’s message. Politicians are often accused of being populists, because they get involved with this type of speech-making. The PR consultants get little work from the populists.

Some populist politicians such as Mr Trump, dislike the media, shatter norms and customs, and often are boorish towards those who oppose them. They continuously communicate their anti-establishment stance, which means that when they get into power, they have to stay on the offensive. They are in a permanent campaign to maintain their difference with their opponents, especially the media. However, in the case of Ronald Reagan, unlike Mr Trump, he was witty, likeable, good mannered, and more than anything else, he was a very good speaker. In this case, because of this, populism was not an insult.

Even so, the democratic elite reacted to Ronald Reagan by condemning him as a failed Hollywood actor espousing a right wing social and economic agenda. Likewise both the media and the elite have condemned Donald Trump’s appeal to the emotions of his audiences. They point out what they consider as his boorish manner in a very personalized way. They mean it as an insult. This can get annoying to observers if we suspect that those criticising Mr Trump are far from authentic themselves and are advocating a progressive liberal message and have labelled those who disagree with them as the ‘despicables’. It seems they have an authentic message for the West coast-East coast elite, but do they have one for the rest of the country?