The rule of law is also a casualty of populism — and chaos a victor — as might makes right in the absence of truth, and whoever has power at any given moment sets the rules.
The populist leader thrives by harnessing fear. Good governance and popular appeal need not be mutually exclusive, but complex problems tend to require complex solutions, which is the opposite of what the populist leader offers. When cornered, populists have no choice but to offer more conspiracy theories, more dog whistles. He may try to find new ways to divide people against one another in order to distract them from his failures and excesses, which further erode public confidence, exacerbate divisions and amplify extremism.
Throughout the presidential campaign and continuing today, Trump has provided a coarse, nationalist example of populism. But a similar political tactic is also rising on the left, as Democrats seek a competitive edge against Republicans.
In August, for instance, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., tore a page from Trump’s playbook and engaged in incendiary anti-trade talk, even though research shows that automation is much more to blame for manufacturing job losses than trade. Unfortunately, actual solutions for the future of work in the U.S. (in the context of rapidly expanding automation, e-commerce and artificial intelligence) make much less effective fodder for political mobilization.
Populists on the left, like their conservative counterparts, appeal to bitter sentiments of fear and resentment to rouse and consolidate public support. The self-described “democratic socialist” Senator Bernie Sanders, who earned the votes of millions of Americans in the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries, is the left’s leading example of this phenomenon.