- Hans Noel
Impeachment fits Trump's populist strategy perfectly.
Donald Trump’s electoral appeal is populist.
It is populist in the specific sense in which Cas Mudde and Cristobal Rovira Kaltwasser defined it in their Populism: A Very Short Introduction. For them, populist appeals invoke a conflict between “the people” and “the elites.”
“The people” refers to the common people, the regular, overlooked, ordinary people. In the United States, these are the “real Americans.” The kind who gather in rural diners. It is not always explicit, but for many they are usually white, and at the very least they would never kneel during the national anthem. “The elites,” on the other hand, are the powerful forces who rule society. The rich. The influential. Hollywood. The media. Cosmopolitan, folks in big cities on the coasts. Pointy-headed academics. The kind who make up the “swamp.” Again, not always explicit, but for some they are non-white and often Jewish.
In this framework, the role of the populist leader is to champion the people against the elites. The leader may be rich themselves, but they are on the side of the people and represent the will of the people. The leader loses elections only because the elites thwart this will, and when they win elections, the populist leader embodies the popular will. Small-r republican checks on the power of the leader are simply attempts to subvert the popular will.
This is the argument that dominated Trump’s 2016 campaign and his rallies since election. It also will dominate his 2020 campaign.
And being impeached is perfect fodder for this campaign.
This has been the playbook for Republicans’ defense of the president. The elites (Democrats) have been out to get the president from day one. In doing so, they subvert the will of the people. This is why they continue to invoke the 6.3 million voters who support the president.
One possible difficulty for successful populist leaders is that once they are in power, it is hard to rail against the institutions that they now themselves control. But impeachment gives Trump the perfect way to do so.
Many have said that if Trump is not removed by the Senate, he will consider this vindication. But in a real way, being impeached itself is vindication. It shows that the elite does view him as a threat, and that they have not been vanquished. I don’t think Trump wants to be impeached, but he will use it.
This does not mean, necessarily, that impeachment was a tactical blunder for Democrats. Trump would have used this rhetoric regardless. Meanwhile, the Democrats’ campaign strategy will be in part to depict Trump as corrupt and authoritarian, unfit for his office. His reaction to impeachment gives them a lot of fodder for that argument. And there are principled reasons to decide to impeach.
But the impeachment does make stark the strategy Trump will use in 2020. Trump’s rhetoric is often described as airing his grievances. It’s more. He wants to make his grievances your grievances, and this is the perfect one to do that with .