Populism is a type of ideology that believes society to be divided into the ‘people’ and the ‘elite’.
The people are seen as purely good and the elite as purely corrupt. Politics should therefore be about making sure that the will of the people triumphs over the elite.
Unlike most ideologies, populism is ‘thin-centred’, meaning that it can be attached to more comprehensive ideologies, such as nationalism or socialism.
That means that different populists can disagree on just about everything except the division of society into the people and the elite (Mudde & Kaltwasser, 2017).
Examples of Populism
1. Donald Trump (United States of America)
The former American President Donald Trump can be considered a classic populist, as his political style is to rail against various elites, such as the media or courts.
In contrast to the elites, he will often promote himself as standing up for ordinary people. For example, he would claim that he loves“the poorly educated”(Fares & Cherelu, 2016).
Itis important to note that Trump is, of course, a billionaire himself. This shows that one does not have to be outside the elite in order to be a populist. It also demonstrates how populism is a style of communication as much as an actual worldview. It may indeed be simply a method for winning elections.
“Populism is a style of communication as much as an actual worldview.”
2. Hugo Chavez (Venezuela)
An example from South America is the now-deceased former President of Venezuela.
He was in many ways Trump’s opposite. Coming from a poor background, Chavez was part of the Indigenous minority of the country.
Instead of right-wing policies such as cutting taxes, Chavez was a staunch socialist. He aimed to overturn the power of the wealthy elites in Caracas (the capital of Venezuela) and give it to the poor.
Since the passing of Chavez, Venezuela has become a dictatorship under the rule of his successor, Nicolas Maduro. This shows how dangerous populism can be.
By claiming that they represent all the people, populists leave little room for dissent and disagreement.
Chavez and Maduro also show that not all populists are out to fight inequality. Some simply want power for themselves!
3. Juan Perón (Argentina)
Juan Perón was the President of Argentina from 1946 to 1955, as well as from 1973 to 1974.
He and his wife Eva Perón (subject of a famous musical) were extremely popular among working-class Argentinians. They primarily aimed to eliminate poverty from the country. Unlike Chavez or Trump, however, they were not considered to be either left-or right-wing.
Perón’s ideas live on in the Peronist movement. The movement blends nationalism with its support for the working class.
The Peronist movement has been extremely successful, winning 10 out of the 13 presidential elections in Argentina that they have participated in. However, the country has faced major economic problems and suffers from an inability to reform itself.
4. Jeremy Corbyn/Boris Johnson (United Kingdom)
Another left-wing populist, Jeremy Corbyn,was the leader of the Labour Party in the United Kingdom until 2019,when he lost an election to another populist, Boris Johnson.
Unlike Corbyn, Johnson was right-wing and led the Conservative Party. He had been part of the so-called Brexit campaign, which successfully got the country to leave the European Union (EU).
This example shows how both the political Right and Left can harness populism for their purposes.
The Left will usually argue that the corrupt elite is made up of wealthy people oppressing the working class.
Meanwhile, the Right will claim that people with degrees living in cities look down on the common people. Furthermore, in the Brexit campaign, the EU was seen as an international elite ruling over the people of Britain.
5. Nigel Farage (United Kingdom)
Nigel Farage is another British populist who was the figurehead of the Brexit movement.
He headed up the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and agitated for Britain to separate from the European Union.
Central to Farage’s message was the idea that the European Union was led by elite bureaucrats who did not care for working-class Britons.
Farage’s message was well-received throughout England, especially in the traditionally left-wing working-class suburbs in the North-East of the nation. This message led to the independence movement winning a referendum to exit the European Union in 2015.
6. Silvio Berlusconi (Italy)
Silvio Berlusconi was the Prime Minister of Italy at various times during the 1990s and 2000s.
Similar to Trump, he was a flamboyant businessman with media influence before turning to politics. Berlusconi was later convicted of tax fraud and expelled from political office, though he has since returned to politics.
His case again shows how one can be part of the elite while railing against ‘the elites’.
Having a public image before getting into politics also worked for both Trump and Berlusconi. And even though both have been shown to have issues of corruption, a good enough populist can survive most political challenges.
7. Marine Le Pen (France)
Marine Le Pen of France is another example of a right-wing populist.
She argues that that the people of France (by which she means those whose family history is completely French) are being taken advantage of by other people. These other people include the European Union and immigrants.
Here we can again see the nationalistic form of populism which defines ‘the people’on the basis of their ethnicity. That can,of course,lead to serious problems such as racist policies.This form of populism has been quite popular insomeEuropean countries.
8. Viktor Orbán (Hungary)
As Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán was very much against immigration.
Similar to Le Pen, he also is a populist who believes that the ethnic majority of Hungary represents the ‘true people’.
Orbán has passed laws to prevent illegal immigration, as well as building a fence on the country’s border (similar to Trump’s Wall).
He has connected the issue of immigration with opposition to the European Union by arguing that the EU is the cause of migration to Hungary.
However, Orbán had previously advocated for a much more mainstream form of politics. This suggests that it may indeed be simply politically beneficial for him to use populism as a tool to win elections.
This again highlights the point about populism being sometimes simply a means to getting power.
9. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (Turkey)
Populism does not just affect Western countries. A good example of this Turkish populist Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
His brand of populism is Islamist, which means that he seeks to increase the importance of Islam in the daily life of Turkish society.
Traditionally, Turkish elites were not in favour of religion having a big role in society. In fact, separation of religion and politics is embedded in the Turkish constitution. However, many people in Turkey are very religious, and Erdoğan was able to use their frustration to get elected.
This shows how elites ignoring large parts of the population can lead to populism. Populists take advantage of the frustration of the masses.
Populist messages are more likely to be believed if they tap into existing feelings of the elite being “out of touch”.
10. Narendra Modi (India)
An example of a different kind of religious populism is Indian populist Narendra Modi.
Modi came to power with the support of Hindu nationalists.
In India, Muslims happen to be a minority who many Hindus view as enemies. Modi has divided this extremely multicultural nation by pitting one religious group against another.
This is a common tactic among populists, as evident in the other examples in this list. Modi’s case shows that even very diverse nations which have historically had harmonious relationships between communities are not immune to the spread of populism.
11. Rodrigo Duterte (Philippines)
Another example from Asia is Philippine populist Rodrigo Duterte.
Duterte has been a highly controversial figure from the start. He won the 2016 election by promising to purge all drug users from the country, thereby taking the War on Drugs to a new level of violence.
Since then, thousands have indeed been shot by the police. This has, in fact, prompted an investigation by the International Criminal Court. Duterte has in response vowed to stop it.
Once again, we can see here that targeting a small part of the population is a successful political recipe for populists. Even though, in this case, it is not an ethnic or religious minority, claiming that some individuals are not part of ‘the people’ still works. We can see that crime is also an easy issue for populist politicians to entice people to vote for them.
12. Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil)
The Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro also rose to power by promising to tackle crime.
Following a corruption scandal that sent a former president to jail and caused another one to be impeached, Bolsonaro promised to cleanse the government. He has indeed been referred to as the “Trump of the tropics”(BBC, 2018).
However, Bolsonaro’s time in power has itself been marred by corruption scandals and ineffective governance. This has been most prominently showcased by the catastrophic death toll caused by Covid-19 in Brazil. Bolsonaro is a great example of how far populist promises can fall from actual policy achievements.
13. AMLO (Mexico)
Mexican socialist Andrés Manuel López Obrador, commonly referred to by his initials as AMLO, is another example of a Latin American populist.
Like Chavez, and unlike Bolsonaro, he is a leftist. He has also come to power by promising to represent the poor, mostly Indigenous parts of the population.
This shows how ingrained inequality will often produce the same rise of populism in different countries.
Unlike Venezuela, however, Mexico has not (so far) slid into authoritarianism. Concerns remain nevertheless as AMLO consolidated more power under his presidency.
14. Bernie Sanders (United States)
Bernie Sanders never managed to rise to power in the United States, but he came to prominence as a left-wing populist at a time in the United States when populist sentiment was on the rise. He almost took over the Democratic Party – twice!
While Sanders was a staunch supporter of the democratic will of the people, he still had a strong belief in what he called “democratic socialism”. This required the masses and working-class to rise-up against the elite capitalist class who was exploiting the American people.
Sanders was the anti-Trump populist alternative. This was an era where populism was rising and there were left-wing and right-wing alternatives. Sanders was the left-wing option.
However, the elites in the Democratic Party prevailed and Sanders never made it to the Presidential ballot.
Populism is a political ideology that pits the masses against an enemy. Usually, this enemy is the social, cultural, and economic elites.
However, sometimes the target population that bolsters populist movements can be a minority group such as immigrants or a religious group who are seen as holding too much power and pulling all the strings in a nation.
As the above examples show, populism spans the political spectrum – from left to right.
While populists often have an important message (such as critiquing the amassed power of the elite or the injustices against the working class), we see over and over again that populism also becomes what it despises. It often leads to authoritarian dictatorships and the corruption of democracy.
BBC. (2018, December 31). Jair Bolsonaro: Brazil’s firebrand leader dubbed the Trump of the Tropics. Retrieved from bbc.com: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-45746013
Fares, M., & Cherelu, G. (2016, February 25). Trump loves ‘the poorly educated’ … and social media clamors. Retrieved from reuters.com: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-trump-socialmedia-idUSKCN0VX26B
Mudde, C., & Kaltwasser, C. R. (2017). Populism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.