The Language of Authoritarian Populism

November 1, 2021   •   By Wynn Coates

AMONG ALL THE rest of his legacy, Donald Trump incited what might best be described as a distinctive linguistic turn in American political culture — a qualitative shift in the language of power.

He not only “dominated public discourse to a degree […] unmatched by any president since FDR,” as Ed Kilgore put it, but he also pioneered the use of effective new forms of political speech. As if overnight, a style and substance of linguistic warfare once considered nonsensical, dangerously destructive, or otherwise incapable of generating any measurable popular consent was rendered logical and compelling to millions.

Yet as much as Trump’s critics have agreed on the efficacy of his linguistic war, they’ve reached no such consensus on exactly why and how it worked.

For centrists, the consent Trump enjoyed was the consequence of his pathological willingness to lie for personal gain — the effect of a man who spent a lifetime painting “alternative realities.” As Republican strategist Steve Schmidt put it, “[I]n the 240th year of the independence of the United States — in three states, by 78,000 votes — the American people, by a fluke, elected an imbecilic former reality TV show host and con man.”

Simply put, Trump’s words worked because enough people believed them, making Trumpism — a movement uniquely lubricated by language — a deception of the American people.

As such, while centrists have always enthusiastically joined their progressive counterparts in classifying Trump as an “authoritarian,” they’ve been conspicuously silent on authoritarianism as a social condition. Trump “has an illiberal and autocratic disposition and personality,” Schmidt argues, reflecting moderates’ tendency to focus on the psychology, rather than sociology, of authoritarianism.

This individuation of authoritarianism is perhaps most revealingly expressed in centrists’ not infrequent inference that Trump wasn’t an “actual” authoritarian but simply played one. As Hillary Clinton has put it, Trump is a “wannabe authoritarian” — a characterization reflecting pundits’ frequent misuse of Anne Applebaum’s description of Trumpism as “performative authoritarianism.”

Admittedly, it’s a view that the haste and thoroughness of Trump’s rapid rise and linguistic influence appeared to validate; after all, it seems reasonable to think, what could possibly explain such a rapid transformation in national political culture but an anomalous personality cult, greased by relentless dissembling and disinformation?

A closer look at the characteristics of Trump’s rise and influence, however, points in a very different direction: not toward an aberrational authoritarian detour in the political life of the nation but the rapid acceleration of a disturbing historical continuity — one whose origins lie at the center, rather than the extremities, of American political culture.

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In his 1979 essay “The Great Moving Right Show,” British theorist Stuart Hall described the origins and tactics of a then-nascent New Right in Britain, later realized in the rise of Margaret Thatcher (and shortly thereafter in the United States with Ronald Reagan). An expert in the mechanics of ideology, Hall termed it “authoritarian populism.” A “going concern” since the late 1960s, he wrote, “it no longer looks like […] a short-term shift in the balance of forces” but a growing feature of Western democracy.

In unsettlingly familiar terms, Hall argued that “unlike classical fascism,” authoritarian populism entails “a striking weakening of democratic forms and initiatives, but not their suspension.” As such, its character is distinguished by the ability “to construct around itself an active popular consent.” It was an authoritarianism crafted for a modern democratic context — the kind that squeaks into existence because 40 percent of the country doesn’t recognize it as authoritarianism to begin with.

But it’s Hall’s description of how this popular consent is cultivated that makes his essay a truly eerie read in the Trump era, reflecting as it does the very characteristics that have come to mark Trumpism as a distinct political development: the sheer volume of language that lubricates it and the cynical objective toward which this linguistic barrage is directed. While Hall, a political theorist, never addressed the linguistic profile of authoritarian populism specifically, his description of the movement offers a number of clues — ones particularly relevant to its later (current), more obviously authoritarian stages.

As Hall put it, authoritarian populism is characterized by its pursuit of a “profound restructuring of the state and the ideological discourses” aimed at the development of “new political configurations and ‘philosophies’” that point “to a new result” — to a “new sort of ‘settlement.’” Simply put, it’s a movement whose popular consent rests on the “ideological work” to which it devotes much of its energy; through relentless linguistic work, the mental frameworks, concepts, categories, imagery of thought, and systems of representation we use to make sense of how society works are fundamentally reshaped.

Importantly, however, Hall warned against reducing the success of this choking fog of linguistic ritual and rhetorical performativity to that of a con. Doing so would suggest that authoritarian populists’ obsession with language is simply to construct convincing “alternative” realities, as if free of connections to any material reality or history.

To the contrary, Hall wrote, “the strength of its intervention” — the reason for the success of this linguistic assault, in other words — “lies partly in the radicalism of its commitment to break the mould” of the prevailing political bloc. That is, authoritarian populism’s viability as a distinctively linguistic political movement depends not on the ability to convince voters of a reality that doesn’t exist, exactly, but to validate and broaden their distrust in and contempt for one that does.

Of course, Trump’s use of language as a historic sort of transgressive mold-breaking is exactly what makes him unique — and the likely face of a fully matured authoritarian populist movement 40 years after the “Great Communicator” mastered the use of word pictures to convince an anxious country that “government is not the solution to our problem” but “the problem” itself.

But Trumpism’s qualification as an authoritarian populist movement is evidenced by more than just the behavioral characteristics that Hall identified as marking its nascent origins. Its success also reflects what Hall identified as authoritarian populism’s underlying cause or impetus — its origin: the conduct of the prevailing political faction whose “mould” authoritarian populists like Thatcher and Reagan were so single-mindedly committed to breaking — indeed whose movements depended on it.

And that faction is what we today most commonly refer to as “centrism” (i.e., “moderates”) — or under Trump, “the establishment.”

Of course, much has changed since 1979, and these aren’t the labels Hall used. There is, however, a historically identifiable thread of centrist-like politics extending through the postwar era. Reflecting this recognition, Hall aptly described it as a “political formation” (not party-specific) and set about describing its familiar habit: while outwardly committed to working in people’s interests — indeed, to the cause of social democracy — their neurotic ideological compulsion to signal moderation by balancing competing interests (namely capital) ends up disciplining the working people for whom they claim to stand and incrementally undermining social democracy.

More recognizably — its consequences now impossible to disguise — it’s the kind of politics and media that after decades of gesticulating on “moderation” and the threat of “extreme” politics, delivers a country defined by, among other things, its grotesque economic and racial inequality.

In short, Hall said, authoritarian populism “does not appear out of thin air” but flourishes on the very real material failures of the center-left (what he called “social democracy”) and “the moderate wing of its own party.”

And here — despite leaving the topic of language unaddressed — Hall’s comment seems custom-made to rebut the centrist penchant for describing the success of Trump’s language as the consequence of his lies and manipulation. The “success and effectivity” of authoritarian populism, he wrote, “does not lie in its capacity to dupe unsuspecting folk” — it’s not in any honest sense a con — “but in the way it addresses real problems, real and lived experiences, real contradictions,” however distorted and lie-replete these representations may be.

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Not unsurprisingly, Bernie Sanders’s unique ability to undercut Trump was rooted in precisely this recognition; he refused to dismiss Trump supporters as having been tricked or conned, asking them instead to consider better solutions to the problems they saw, for which Trump offered none. In doing so, Sanders not only confirmed that something significant is wrong, but that its source is the bipartisan center of American political culture rather than its partisan extremes (real or conjured).

To the extent that centrists have been willing to explain Trump’s rise as an expression of something bigger (rather than individuating his rise as a con man), however, they’ve typically cast him as the latest face of an increasingly extreme Republican Party — a view that conveniently casts suspicion away from the center and naturalizes the rise of right-wing extremism as part of a fundamentally irremediable “ebb and flow.”

But the new settlement eventually consolidated under Reagan was not the progenitor of the extremism that now typifies the modern Republican Party, at least not directly. To the contrary, the policy ideals and political practices that defined Reaganomics, like Thatcherism, were those that eventually came to comprise the relatively narrow spectrum of bipartisan responsible opinion now known as centrism (consolidated on this side of the Atlantic under Bill Clinton).

While Trump is an authoritarian populist, in other words, he is no neo-Reagan; rather, like the modern right-wing radicalism on whose shoulders he stands, Trump is a reaction to the mainstreaming of Reagan’s pernicious settlement — a response to the social effects of a political ideology that has for nearly four decades reigned under the bipartisan banner of “moderation.” Of course, however, despite purporting to stand against this neoliberal settlement (in part by obscuring Reagan’s role as its progenitor), Trumpism accelerates all of its most destructive economic and anti-democratic political characteristics; after decades of normalizing the edict that “government is the problem” (and proving it), for example, can we really claim surprise when a presidential candidate ascends on branding the media “the enemy of the people”?

With all of this in mind, centrists’ tendency to quarantine the meaning of Trump’s rise — whether by depicting it as a con or as the product of Republican extremism — is hardly mystifying. More than just a moral hazard, the rise of undisguised authoritarianism in the world’s oldest democracy was deeply politically incriminating — difficult to explain without implicating themselves.

But what about the speed and thoroughness of the country’s authoritarian turn under Trump? Doesn’t this support centrists’ view that he singularly caused it or that it is the outcome of recent years’ politics (some Republicans) rather than recent decades’ politics (all centrists)? As Chris Hedges has suggested, the hastiness of a country’s authoritarian descent doesn’t somehow preclude what we might call deep causes:

A society can change so quickly because the underlying structures are rotten. There is the patina or the veneer of a functioning system, but the foundations of it are so decayed that they can’t take the stress. That was true in the Weimar Republic in Germany, before the Nazis took full control. That was true in Yugoslavia before the civil war and ethnic violence. It is true here in the United States too.

This is the nature of what might best be described as pregnant social conditions — ones primed for the democratic rise of authoritarianism; long gestating, their inevitable birth transpires seemingly instantaneously at the hands of the right authoritarian figure, which can never quite be anticipated.

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But Hall’s 1979 depiction of authoritarian populism as a movement whose viability depends on its “commitment of break the mould” of centrist responsible opinion anticipates more than the likelihood of its future variant, Trumpism, being characterized by a high volume or intensity of language use; it also points to a compelling explanation for what may be the most perplexing stylistic quality of Trump’s linguistic excess — a ubiquitous marker of his enduring influence on political culture, eagerly emulated by his acolytes.

I’m referring here to Trump’s characteristically disjointed, incohesive, and fragmented manner of speaking; this includes his tendency to go off on wild non sequiturs, mix metaphors, abandon ideas mid-sentence, connect unrelated issues, take many sides of issues, speak obliquely, conjure the politicization of unusual things, and tone-toggle. Yet, perplexingly, it’s worked. Like a rhetorical Rube Goldberg machine, Trump’s cacophonous and cartoonishly self-contradictory discourse somehow managed to lubricate the completion of tasks that half the country would think impossible had they not witnessed it.

At first glance, the suggestion that this of all things could be examined to tell us about anything other than his erratic personal style and pathology appears to strain credulity. And indeed, the felt truth of this is precisely why centrists have so often leaned on it to make the case that Trump was not a “real” authoritarian, but an authoritarian personality. Ham-fisted, chaotic, and incoherent, he didn’t have a clean, lucid ideological message like the archetypal authoritarian we imagined.

Hall, however, licenses a very different explanation for the emergence and perplexing success of this peculiar linguistic form — a now permanent feature of far-right rhetoric.

In large part because the popular consent that authoritarian populists enjoy is so hopelessly dependent on the failures of the dominant centrist faction — on breaking the mold — the kind of electoral constituency they cultivate doesn’t reflect that of a normal, healthy political opposition. Authoritarian populism must, Hall argued, assemble “a new ‘historical bloc.’” As political economist Bob Jessop ably puts it, authoritarian populism succeeds as “an alliance of disparate forces” under a “self-contradictory” program — not, in other words, as a common unit, as implied by what many have come to refer to as a “Trump base.”

It’s a chilling thought. Characteristic of Trump’s 2016 electoral success, after all, was its utter incongruence: the rich and super-rich (obviously), a unique coalition of white voters including white women, more minority voters than Romney, every voting-age racist and xenophobe, Evangelicals, and the famed two-time Obama-voting working-class Midwesterners that put him over the edge in the electoral college. And, after everything, he received over 10 million more votes in 2020 than in 2016.

In short, Trump’s unconventional rhetorical form is an adaptation to the practical barrier he needed to overcome to gain power as an authoritarian: assembling a demographically broad constituency rooted in resentment and antipathy for the purveyors of centrist responsible opinion. Trump’s fragmented, rococo rhetoric is more than just personal style or pathology, then — it’s the argot of late-stage authoritarian populism, a linguistic style perfectly attuned to the composite rot that Hedges identifies, aimed at speaking to diverse, intersecting grievances, legitimate and baseless alike.

United only in grievance, the normal political imperative of persuasive ideological coherence is slackened — and with it, the utility of the familiar verbal structures we associate with communicating consistent positions. It’s not really about them anyway, as Hall observed. What mattered to supporters was hearing their grievances being given a forceful voice, and by someone too powerful (a president) to be contained by centrist elites. This fragmented dynamic also made it easier for supporters to overlook some of the things Trump said and did that they were less keen to endorse or even disagreed with — a clemency that his oblique phraseology and busy rhetorical churn made easier to extend.

With all of this in mind, it’s no small irony that what centrists had long considered the biggest liability of the “33-percent president” — his chronic marginality as a political figure — was in fact the method of his electoral success: the edgework of authoritarian populism. In this sense, Trump was just committing to something the Republican Party has been dabbling with for quite some time: the strategy of minority rule.

And while many fully recognize this, I think our general confusion at Trumpism’s strength as a movement — at the way it seems to defy political gravity — mostly stems from the fact that many haven’t yet processed how profound an effect this full-throated embrace has on the dynamics of the electoral constituency it must cultivate and the tactics employed to do so; that is, authoritarian populism succeeds on different rules than a normal opposition.

Not to be overlooked, this view of the mechanics of Trumpism also has the important consequence of troubling centrists’ constant deferral to race to “explain” Trump’s rise — another of their misleading truisms, intended only to obfuscate the depth of the problem Trump’s rise represented and the role they played in it: saying that Trump won because of racism is not the same thing as saying that Trump could not have won without it.

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It’s not all bad news, of course. Recent signs point in an equally historic and promising direction. For one thing, the credibility of American political centrism has never been more embattled. In a revolution every bit as fast-moving and thoroughgoing as Trumpism, a progressive left has destabilized centrists’ ideological grip on the sayable — on what for four decades constituted the conditions for rational political discourse.

Consequently, centrists, rather than the “radical” left, are increasingly viewed as the source of “extremism” and polarization, as calls for bipartisanship have become recognizable for what they’ve always been: a way to escape, rather than embrace, public opinion. This was made painfully clear, for example, in Joe Manchin’s effort to secure Republican votes for the American Rescue Plan by altering it in ways that made it less popular with the American people.

Yet the path ahead remains a perilous one. The democratic rise of authoritarianism was always a symptom, and the conditions that incubated Trump’s rise remain to animate another like him, or worse. Recognizing that the death of centrism is the Achilles’ heel of authoritarian populism, however, is key to preventing this eventuality.

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Wynn Coates is a graduate student in anthropology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada.

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Featured image: “Donald Trump” by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Image has been cropped.