Interview #7 – A talk with Cas Mudde on American and European Populism

trump tower.jpg

Trump Tower in Chicago – April 2016

POP interviewed Prof. Cas Mudde about populism in the US and Europe, the presence (or rather absence) of populism in the current American Presidential campaign, and the conditions triggering different types of populism in the Old continent.

Are “the people” and “the elites” relevant categories in the discourses articulated by Trump and Sanders?

The economic crisis, combined with terrorist threats and a constant flow of migrants create a widespread fear among the European electorate: which political actors benefit from this situation?

These and other issues on the interview with Prof. Mudde.


1) The New Yorker titles “Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump Ride the Populist Wave”, and the US edition of the Huffington Post echoes “How Rising Trump and Sanders Parallel Rising Populism in Europe”. I am absolutely, 100% sure that if I claim that Trump and Sanders are populist I will appear as a smart and well-informed commentator. Correct?

no to trump

Anti-Trump rally, Costa Mesa (California), May 2016

Yes, you would give the journalists what they want, namely a simplistic interpretation of contemporary politics, in which all politics is reduced to mainstream versus populism. However, you would not be correct according to some definitions, including my own. I believe neither Trump nor Sanders is populist. Trump doesn’t speak in the name of the people, but (only) in the name of The Donald, and Sanders has fundamentally an interest-based discourse, not a normative discourse.

2) What do Trump and Sanders consider being their ‘enemy’, and what do they mean when they refer to ‘the people’?

Neither politician speaks much about “the enemy,” but they do distinguish an “elite.” For Sanders this is “the 1%”, echoing the Occupy Wall Street movement, which has integrated this terminology into political mainstream. It is mostly the super-rich, linked specifically to Wall Street, which control US politicians because of the role of “big money” in US politics. For Trump it is a combination of Wall Street and East Coast liberals, thereby following the long-standing interpretation of “the elite” of right-wing populism in the US, most recently expressed by the Tea Party movement. For Sanders the people are “the working people” or “the middle class” (which in the US normally means the working class). He describes them mainly in terms of interests and basic values (e.g. hard work), but his discourse is not ultimately normative. He also draws upon the abundance of academic research that proves that the richest 1% of Americans have profited from most of the economic recovery since 2008. Trump refers to an amorphous “the people”, which are mostly the ones that are “screwed” by the elites. They are innocent and gullible rather than a moral compass.

3) Can we say that Trump took over part of the Tea Party message, while Sanders is continuing the discourse articulated by Occupy Wall Street?

Yes, even though neither were really part of those movements. Trump taps into the anger of the Tea Party grassroots, which was always authoritarian and nativist, while openly attacking the Tea Party Astroturf, which is closely allied to the Republican establishment. But his socio-economic agenda is somewhat different from the Tea Party, in most of its versions, as he stands for a stronger role of the government in certain aspects (e.g. health care and tariffs). Sanders has taken on much of the issues, and seemingly supporters, of the Occupy movement, without necessarily its leaders. His movement is quite white and middle class, but Sanders combines it with an old-school social democratic agenda, which reflect his own youth rather than that of its young supporters.

4) But then, does it still make sense to speak of populism when analyzing the US presidential campaign? In other words, if Trump and Sanders are not populist, is there anyone among the candidates who could be labeled as such?


5) One-million-dollar question: how could Clinton ever lose against Sanders first and Trump then? What could turn the campaign in another direction?

She can’t, really. Because of the undemocratic internal system of the Democratic primaries, Sanders is doomed. In fact, he would probably have even lost, although slightly, in a more democratically (proportional) organized primary. She could lose against Trump, however unlikely this is. I see two vulnerabilities: (1) a major new scandal involving the Clintons (always possible given the past and present of them and the Clinton Foundation); and (2) a major terrorist attack on the US close to the elections.

6) In a famous (more quoted than read) article published in 2004, you described the success of populist parties referring to a populist Zeitgeist. Is the Zeitgeist still alive and kicking in 2016?

Hmmm, I don’t know how I feel about it being more quoted than read… both have advantages, I guess. Anyway, yes, the populist Zeitgeist is still very much alive. While I agree with the argument of Matthijs Rooduijn that it hasn’t led to many policy changes, proposed or implemented, that was never the core of my argument. I mainly claimed that the political and public discourse had become increasingly populist, with media and politicians pandering to an illusionary, homogeneous “the people” and criticizing an amoral “the elite” (even if it at times includes their own party). On top of that, populist parties have significantly increased their support since I wrote that article, both some of the established radical right parties (like FN and FPÖ) and some new radical left (e.g. Podemos and SYRIZA) and idiosyncratic populist parties (like the Five Star Movement).

7) Let’s talk ‘European’ for a moment. And Europe, in this historical juncture, means three things: migrants, terrorism, and economic crisis. Who is profiting more from this situation: right-wing populists against the migrants (PEGIDA, Alternative for Germany, Front National)? Left-wing populists against the Troika (SYRIZA, Podemos)? Or could it be the case that the only political actors considered able to cope with terrorism are the mainstream and established ones (Merkel, Hollande, Renzi)?

I think it is too early to state unequivocally which group profits the most. It is clear that left populism has limited appeal. There are only a few truly successful cases; both new parties that still have to prove their longevity. More established left populist parties like Die Linke in Germany, Sinn Féin in Ireland, and the Socialist Party in the Netherlands have hardly profited so far. Overall right-wing populist parties have profited a lot, in their various permutations, although the success is very unequal and some seem to suffer from government participation (e.g. Progress Party and Finns Party). The biggest winner, sadly, is the “non-vote”, which is mostly ignored in analyses. Turnout is decreasing rapidly in many countries, not just in second-order elections. In the last Greek elections non-voters were the plurality and that country has compulsory voting!

8) What is the role of the media? Joseph Pulitzer claimed that “a cynical, mercenary, demagogic press will in time produce a people as base as itself”. Do you think the media are giving an advantage to populist parties and creating cynical and disillusioned citizens?

Sure, the transformation of the media landscape favors the populists, who provide the ammunition for the alarmist and sensationalist stories that commercial media thrive upon. Moreover, many populist parties have leaders who are particularly skillful at using the media, including social media. However, they are helped by the lack of mainstream alternatives. Mainstream parties have shed ideology for pragmatism and ideologues for pragmatists, who make for bad media stories. This is not a given, however, and non-populist parties and politicians can (re)gain the media spotlight, as happened with ANO in the Czech Republic and Cuidadanos in Spain.

9) Ten-million-dollar question. Do you think populism, both in the USA and Europe, is here to stay?

Yes, in one shape or another. There are fundamental societal transformations underlying the rise of populism, including “cognitive mobilization” (Dalton), ideological convergence of mainstream parties, the rise of undemocratic liberalism, and the transformation of the media landscape. These won’t go away when the Great Recession will finally be over.

muddeCas Mudde is Associate Professor, School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA), University of Georgia, USA.
Researcher, Center for Research on Extremism (C-REX), University of Oslo, Norway
Co-editor European Journal of Political Research.

He has written several academic articles and books on populism.

Recent books:
On Extremism and Democracy in Europe (Routledge, 2016)
ΣΥΡΙΖΑ: Η διάψευση της λαϊκιστικής υπόσχεσης (Epikentro, 2015)

Forthcoming books:
SYRIZA: The Failure of the Populist Promise (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016)
The Populist Radical Right: A Reader (Routledge, 2016)

Populism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford UP, 2017)


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