Interview #47 — Trump’s Jacksonian Populism and Foreign Policy

In this interview we discuss with Corina Lacatus about the international dimension of populism, in particular how populism deals with foreign policy and international relations, often proposing economic protectionism and political isolationism. Including a much needed historical perspective that goes back to Jacksonian populism in the 1830s and agrarian populism in the 1890s, this interview offers a great journey into the international dimension of populism, a focus on Donald Trump and the way in which his rhetoric has undermined international liberalism.

Enjoy the read…


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1) Populism has been mostly analysed in relation to its approach towards domestic policies. Interestingly, you look at its international dimensions and observe that early populist movements of the 1890s were agrarian in nature and often associated with economic protectionism and political isolationism. How does contemporary populism interact with foreign policy-making and contribute to shaping domestic policies?

Writ large, it is fair to say that scholars of domestic and comparative politics have shown greater interest in the study of populism and the consequences of populist politics on national policy-making. Only very recently, international relations scholars have begun to consider the impact that populism has on foreign policy. Filling this gap in our  knowledge is certainly a noteworthy scholarly pursuit. Like most politicians, populists have tended to favor in their electoral campaigns issues at the top of their electorate’s list of priorities, usually about the national economy and policy-making. Nevertheless, populist leaders and parties have advanced unique positions on foreign policy that have shaped their countries’ engagement with strategic partners, their international trade and security presence, and their support for global governance systems. One such example is the United States in the 1890s, when populist political ideas promoted economic protectionism and political isolationism.

The echoes of these early views can be heard in our contemporary politics, even as today’s world is populated by the different international actors preoccupied with distinct policy agendas. In a nutshell, we know that, generally, populist parties in Western Europe tend to dislike the United States, globalization, and generally oppose military interventions in other parts of the world. Focusing on populist politics on the right side of the political spectrum, one finds strong opposition to immigration into Western Europe, particularly out of Muslim countries. This is the case today for a number of populist parties and leaders in Western Europe, like the Rassemblement National in France or the ideas promoted by Nigel Farage and his Brexit Party in the United Kingdom. Moreover, Euroscepticism tends to be a core idea of right-wing populist platform in Europe, while sympathies for Russia and its current leader, Putin, are generally a constant. Today, these views are perhaps most evident in Central and Eastern Europe, in the policies advanced by Viktor Orban’s administration in Hungary and Poland’s current government led by Mateusz Morawiecki.

Outside of Europe, one can find the anti-imperialist foreign policy rhetoric of the former Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, placing trade and other economic issues linked to globalization at the center of populist discourse on foreign policy and Venezuela’s position in the world. In contemporary India, populism as discourse carries the most explanatory value in the procedural aspects of foreign policy-making and in its communication. However, our understanding of populism and its impact on foreign policy outside the West is very limited, due to the paucity of research on the topic.

Nevertheless, it is important to note that populist notions about foreign policy are not necessarily fixed throughout history, even when advanced by politicians in the same national context. In fact, some populist politicians take pride in changing the course of national history and breaking with tradition by promoting new foreign policy agendas. Inconsistency in political position can see members of the same populist party support radically different positions on the same foreign policy issue. For instance, the Rassemblement National expressed strong pro-NATO and anti-Soviet preferences during the Cold War only to cultivate sympathies with like-minded Russian politicians. These inconsistencies can take place across time as well. For instance, FPÖ’s support for Austria’s membership in NATO in the 1980s changed two decades later into a strong opposition toward the United States and an increased support for Russia.

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2) In particular, you analysed the case of Donal Trump for a special issue on “Trump and elections, rhetoric and American foreign policy”. Before the 2016 elections, many worried that Trump’s victory might have seriously threatened the international order. Four years later, apart from the trade war with China, it seems that Trump focused mainly on internal politics and neglected the international dimension. What was his overall impact?

In the article, I explore Donald Trump’s public communication (through an analysis of tweets @realDonaldTrump and rally speeches) in the months prior to the 2018 election for the United States House of Representatives and the Senate, reflecting also on the broader significance of his rhetoric during the first two years of his presidency. Essentially, ‘Trumpism’ is mostly about rhetoric and, as such, Trump’s discourse has led to a significant normative corrosion of international liberalism. This is particularly significant given that foreign policy has been the domain where President Trump could likely inflict the most damage, especially after Republicans lost control of the Senate in November 2018. While we might have expected presidential candidate Trump to win an electoral race on an illiberal populist agenda that builds on an image of him as the true representative of the American people and a political outsider amongst candidates (as he did in 2016), it was surprising that he continued to engage in the same type of rhetoric once he was elected and joined the political elites.

In the realm of foreign policy, President Trump’s sole tangible impact has been in the area of trade agreements. But he has generally failed advance a coherent foreign policy agenda. The analysis in the article finds that populism motivates President Trump’s approach to foreign policy, marked by a move away from the core principles of the post-war US global project – internationalism, commitment to open trade, and engagement with multilateral rules and institutions for the advancement of the liberal order. Driven by a strong scepticism regarding the United States’ capacity to support a liberal order, Trump presents the domestic and global liberal elites as being responsible for ‘bad trade deals’ and the use of American financial and military resources to advance other states’ causes to the detriment of the best interest of ‘the American people’.

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3) You describe Trump’s approach to foreign policy as inspired and shaped by Jacksonian populism and focused on rejecting the idea that the US need to maintain and lead a liberal global order. Can you tell us what kind of populist rhetoric is this?

Historically, America’s early populist movements of the 1890s were caught in a somewhat contradictory normative position. While they were agrarian in nature when it came to domestic policy-making and often associated with economic protectionism and political isolationism, they remained very interested in projecting ideas about popular sovereignty at home in their foreign policy. This form of American populism is called ‘Jacksonianism’ after Andrew Jackson, the president who in the 1830s used populist arguments to garner public support for a remake of the party system in the United States. Motivated by a deep-seated ‘resentment of the well-bred, the well-connected, and the well-paid’ during Colonial times, it encourages distrust in the motives and methods of government fuelling revolt against the political order.

Jacksonian populism has not advanced a sole political platform throughout history, but rather has endorsed different causes over the years. At certain points in history, anti-establishment populism has been a force for good generating support for political and social change for the better, as was the case with the support for universal white male suffrage in Jackson’s times and the demand for better free land leading to the Homestead Act in the nineteenth century or the later efforts to introduce basic legal protections for workers. At other moments in history, anti-establishment populism led to the genocidal removal of Native Americans from their traditional hunting grounds and the heavily subsidized ‘farm bubble’ that paved the way to the Great Depression.

4) You claim that Jacksonian populism has been promoted, in the last decade, by the Tea Party and in particular by Ron Paul, who is positioned on anti-interventionist and isolationist positions when it comes to international relations. How does this interact with Trump’s approach towards immigration and border protection?

In the United States, debate about the role of populism in foreign policy has intensified as a result of the rise of the Tea Party and the election of Donald Trump. The contemporary rise in support of the Tea Party movement is best understood as a current form of Jacksonian revolt against misguided and corrupt elites. Inside the Tea Party, two main voices dominate, which essentially differ on their approach to international security and the United States’ military presence. On the one hand, we have the inward-looking, neo-isolationist approach advanced by Ron Paul and his supporters. On the other hand, contemporary Jacksonian is promoted by the political faction endorsing Sarah Palin and her stronger preference for the United States to win wars rather than withdraw completely from international conflict. Against this background of domestic preferences, arguably the most significant challenge American administrations face is to strike the right balance between developing foreign policy strategies that are feasible and effective in the international arena while meeting Jacksonian requirements at home.

The rise of Donald Trump is essentially motivated by his use of Jacksonian rhetoric and, as the analysis in the article shows, also by his broader advancement of some key ideas of the Tea Party platform. In 2016, the presidential campaign of Donald Trump was marked by violence in his rhetoric at his rallies, and this violence was a function of the aggressive language used to describe his opponents, the mainstream media, and international actors he perceives as hostile. This rhetorical stance continued in the first years of his presidency. Endorsing some of the main ideas proposed by the Tea Party, Donald Trump’s public discourse advances a strongly negative view of Barack Obama and his policies as well as strong opposition to ‘big government’ and a reluctance to pay taxes to help people viewed as ‘freeloaders’ – including immigrants, lower income earners, and the young.

In his tweets and rally speeches prior to the midterm elections of 2018, Trump cites higher employment rates to demonstrate the success of his efforts to protect the rights of workers in agriculture, manufacturing, as well as the steel and aluminium industries. To secure employment and benefits for American citizens, Trump considers border security and strict immigration controls essential. Illegal migrants are malevolent, criminals, and a direct threat to the employment and public services paid for by American workers. Domestically, Trump presents illegal immigration as a threat to the physical security of the American people, as migrants crossing the border from Mexico are often violent criminals. Once settled in the US, they are likely to be taking jobs away from American citizens and are thus a greater threat to Americans’ job security and personal wealth. As a foreign policy concern mentioned in rally speeches, Trump often addresses the Mexican government and other Central American administrations calling them to intervene with force to put an end to what he calls ‘the caravans’ of illegal immigrants consisting mostly of refugees from El Salvador and Honduras that travel through Mexico in hopes to reach the US. Trump does not stop short of threatening to commit military force in response of illegal attempts to cross the southern border of the US. 

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The People’s Party, or Populist Party, was an agrarian populist party rooted in the Farmer’s Alliance and the Greenback Party.

5) In his populist rhetoric, how does Trump draw the boundaries between the virtuous (American) people and the corrupt (international, liberal) elites? What does he mean when he speaks of the good ‘American people’, and who is he blaming when he criticizes the international order?

As President, Trump advanced a public discourse in which the economic interest of ‘the American people’ took center stage, shaping domestic priorities and dictating foreign policy priorities. Once more, this is reminiscent of Jacksonian ideas, placed in a contemporary setting. Bad trade deals, disadvantageous involvement in multilateral agreements and international organisations, as well as the lack of migration controls have led to the decline in employment in the Midwestern and the Southern parts of the United States. In his 2016 electoral campaign, Trump set himself apart from all other presidential candidates through his aggressive dismissal of liberalism and, with direct foreign policy implications, also of liberal internationalism. To him, democratic norms and the multilateral institutions that support the liberal international order are fundamentally flawed due to the economic and financial imbalance they generate. By the end of 2018, Trump’s approach to foreign policy crystallized further, even if his public rhetoric of limited American intervention abroad remains consistent.

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The Grange movement was founded in 1867 to promote the social and economic needs of farmers in the United States. The Grangers gave their support to reform minded groups such as the Greenback Party and the Populist Party.

President Trump’s view of the world order rejects the expectation of a greater financial commitment and stronger military support from the US as essentially unfair and exploitative. In his eyes, such a change in international position is directly relevant to his voter base, guaranteeing increased economic prosperity and greater pride in their nation’s ability to garner international respect. In his public rhetoric, Trump does not appear interested in rights promotion or the normative dimension of democracy promotion tied to foreign aid and international development efforts. He goes as far as deriding the disbursement of international financial assistance as a form of exploitation to which the US has fallen victim due to poor foreign policy agendas of previous liberal administrations. More generally, his international political affinities lie primarily with far-right political figures, such as the new Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro and the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Ultimately, President Trump’s approach to foreign policy is motivated by populism in the Jacksonian tradition with strong nationalist undertones, advancing exceptionalism and a deep scepticism toward the United States’ capacity to advance a global liberal order.

6) Is Trump’s rhetoric changing between the online messages he compulsively spreads on Twitter and the speeches he gives at rallies in front of an audience?

In terms of the predominant themes that President Trump advances, the rhetoric in the two media of communication remains largely the same. In a sense, Donald Trump never stopped campaigning, throughout the first half of his presidency. Twitter might allow for more pointed sharing of thoughts and opinions on current events, for which Donald Trump is well known, while rally speeches are more focused on some key points underpinning his campaign. On Twitter, the information that Trump shares is broader in scope, as it covers daily activities for himself and often the First Lady, most important news, references and responses to ‘fake news’, announcements about domestic and international events, as well as mid-term campaign promotion. When it comes to the broader themes Trump seeks to advance in the public sphere, the two media of communication are largely alike.

In important ways, social media represent an ideal outlet for populist ideas. In general, populists tend to value unmediated communication with the people, and at least in principle, social media allow for engagement perceived as more direct. In this respect, rallies serve a similar purpose, allowing for direct communication and political mobilisation as well as the continued ‘performance’ of populism that creates the sensation that the psychological distance between the politician and the audience is reduced. During the autumn of 2018, rally speeches included references to the administration’s ‘major accomplishments’, but they were generally focused on advancing the electoral campaigns of various Republican candidates around the country and promoting a platform for continuous campaigning for the presidential 2020 elections.

7) In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, did you notice any change in Trump’s rhetoric? Did he handle a global phenomenon according to the same Jacksonian populism he used to rely on?

The short answer is – no, he did not change his approach. Rather, Donald Trump has stayed largely true to the Jacksonian populist message, rejecting the advice of scientific elites and evidence-based management of a public health crisis. This view expanded also to his foreign policy, an approach that was particularly evident in his virulent critique of the World Health Organization. While the White House press briefings on Coronavirus imparted a more conciliatory approach to crisis management, seeking to create a ‘rally-around-the-flag’ effect, his Twittersphere remained a space from where the United States president sought to reassure his electorate that he would remain the same candidate they endorsed in 2016. Since the start of the pandemic, the tone of his public communication has changed, as his tried-and-tested populist rhetoric has become more virulent. He has made use of increasingly aggressive language to advance bitterly hostile views of the Democratic party, blame Democratic governors of crisis mismanagement and large Covid-19 infection rates, while actively discrediting public health messages such a mask-wearing and social distancing.


by eva-photography.com

Corina Lacatus is a Lecturer in Global Governance at the Queen Mary University of London and, during 2020-21, a Hillary Clinton Fellow at the Queen’s University Belfast. She holds a PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science and a second PhD in Germanic Languages and Literatures from the University of California Los Angeles. Her research interests are at the intersection of International Relations, Comparative Politics and Political Communication.

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