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Populist parties that do not do well at the polls have to face an obvious contradiction: How can it be that the populists are the people’s only morally legitimate representatives and yet fail to gain overwhelming majorities at the ballot box? Populists do not all opt for what might seem the easiest way out of this contradiction—but plenty do when they, in effect, suggest that one should think less of a silent majority and more of a silenced majority. By definition, if the majority could express itself, the populists would always already be in power, but someone or something prevented the majority from making its voice heard. Put differently: populists more or less subtly suggest that they did not really lose an election at all but that corrupt elites manipulated the process behind the scenes. Donald Trump is an obvious example: when he left open whether he would accept an election victory by Hillary Clinton, he effectively called into question the integrity of the US election system.
In 2020 Trump realized the threat of denying the legitimacy of the election outright. Adopting what is often now called “the big lie,” he openly declared that the election had been stolen. A set of increasingly bizarre theories was put into circulation to back up this claim, involving lasers, satellites, and all kinds of other high-tech, more or less paranoid, fantasies to “explain” the outcome. As usual with such theories, as soon as one claim was debunked, a further claim was put in play to debunk the debunking. It was not inevitable that this process culminated in the insurrection on January 6, 2021. But it is important to see how the claims that animated the insurrection— including an appeal by Trump himself to what he called “the real people” on that day—have their own logic. People who are assumed to be un-American—because of their skin color or their supposedly un-American beliefs (such as European socialism)—by definition cannot decide an election outcome; only what Trump kept alluding to as weak people would let their country be taken from them like this.
Of course, not all criticisms of an election system are a sure sign of this populist logic. After all, there really are many good reasons to find fault with the system as it is, from campaign finance to the panoply of concrete measures that make it harder for many citizens to vote. Once again, such criticisms can be a sign of good democratic engagement. What is not compatible with democracy is the populist claim that comes down to saying, “Because we did not win, the system must be bad, and someone must have been manipulating things behind the scenes.” Even short of anything resembling January 6, populists tend systematically to undermine the trust of citizens in their institutions and thereby damage a given political culture; they also encourage conspiratorial thinking (nothing is what it seems, and, if in doubt, every political outcome not to one’s liking has a nefarious reason); and, not least, they make it less and less likely that a crucial feature of democracy remains intact: the willingness of losers to accept defeat (what political scientists sometimes call “losers’ consent”). After all, being a good loser in a democracy might not just be psychologically difficult; it also depends on complex institutional and individual preconditions. One has to have a sense that it continues to make sense to stick with the game as it is, because one has reasons to believe that next time around one might win; one has to feel a real incentive that it makes sense to go out there and persuade fellow citizens that they should make a different decision next time; and, not least, one has to be convinced that one is not completely disempowered in an opposition role.
Well-functioning democracies ensure such circumstances. What also matters, however, are the starting assumptions of the losers in question. Here it is highly relevant that in the course of his presidency Trump managed to a large degree to transform his party into an extended personality cult. This meant that everything revolved around an individual with, to put it bluntly, a necessarily limited time horizon; it also meant that programmatic commitments now mattered much less than the will of the leader. It was not an accident that the Republicans at their 2020 convention refused to issue a new platform; they simply recycled the old one, with the addendum that they would want whatever Trump wanted.
A political association of this kind relates to elections very differently than a proper political party with a long-term time horizon, one that is committed to what the political theorist Nancy Rosenblum has called “regulated rivalry”—a notion that includes accepting the rival as legitimate. Proper parties can “afford” to lose an election, because there can always be a different leader while the principles—and the long-term project of convincing fellow citizens of their attractiveness—stay intact. Hence it was also not entirely contingent that so many Republican followers started to accept Trump’s and his increasingly bizarre acolytes’ conspiracy theories: there was nothing else to fall back on, and something had to explain why the only real moral representative of the real people was being forced to vacate the White House.
As said at the outset, there is no iron law that all populists necessarily resort to conspiracy theories to explain away their failures. At the very least, though, they will be tempted to make a distinction between the morally and the empirically correct outcome of an election. Think of Hungarian far-right populist Viktor Orbán claiming after—to his mind, surprisingly and unexpectedly—losing the 2002 Hungarian elections that “the nation cannot be in opposition.” Or recall Andrés Manuel López Obrador arguing after his failed bid for the Mexican presidency in 2006 that “the victory of the right is morally impossible” and declaring himself the only “legitimate president of Mexico” after having rallied “the real people” on the streets of Mexico City (Bruhn 2012). Populists tend to play off sentiments of who should legitimately have won or the supposedly “morally correct outcome” against numbers—not recognizing that, in the end, numbers, and the process of correctly counting, are all we have in a democracy.
Populists thus consciously or unconsciously repeat an argument put forward by Carl Schmitt in the interwar period: Schmitt had suggested a fateful conceptual split between the “substance” of the people on the one hand and the empirical outcome of elections or opinion surveys on the other. As he put it:
The unanimous opinion of one hundred million private persons is neither the will of the people nor public opinion. The will of the people can be expressed just as well and perhaps better through acclamation, through something taken for granted, an obvious and unchallenged presence, than through the statistical apparatus that has been constructed with such meticulousness in the last fifty years. The stronger the power of democratic feeling, the more certain is the awareness that democracy is something other than a registration system for secret ballots. Compared to a democracy that is direct, not only in the technical sense but also in a vital sense, parliament appears an artificial machinery, produced by liberal reasoning, while dictatorial and Caesaristic methods not only can produce the acclamation of the people but can also be a direct expression of democratic substance and power. (Schmitt 1988, 16–17)
In the early twenty-first century, it is difficult to present oneself on the global stage as being officially committed to “dictatorial and Caesaristic methods.” But it is perfectly possible to perform the Schmittian maneuver of invoking an almost mysterious “real people” and play it off against the verified results of the “statistical apparatus.” One can also always claim that the statistical apparatus itself has been manipulated by sinister, corrupt forces. Especially those who have already made a name for themselves by breaking basic democratic norms (and, to boot, flouting conventional forms of political civility) have basically nothing to lose by invoking a conspiracy. That temptation will be compounded by not having a long-term political horizon (and no interest in party-building—or in any other real institution-building, for that matter). Trump is again the obvious example; Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro—clearly emulating the 45th US president by talking about fraud long before the actual presidential election—is another.
Jan-Werner Müller is the Roger Williams Straus Professor of Social Sciences at Princeton University. His recent books include What Is Populism? (2016) and Democracy Rules (2021).