US presidential candidate Donald Trump has been widely dubbed a “populist politician”. Populism is an ideology which holds that good citizens are being misled by a small, ineffective elite. It’s the dogma underpinning Trump’s fight against the “establishment”. Other contemporary populist politicians include Bernie Sanders, Nigel Farage and “Britain’s Donald Trump” Boris Johnson, who almost deserves the comparison on the basis of his hair alone. Something sets Donald Trump apart from any of these: his supporters.
Populist politicians are largely figureheads representing an anti-establishment sentiment that exists independent of them. Nigel Farage didn’t create Euroscepticism, but he resonated with the Eurosceptic movement and became a bastion for Brexit. Supporters of a populist politician are therefore not going to change their viewpoints and principles even if the politician does. They may even exaggerate such an instance into a betrayal. For example, the “Bernie or Bust” contingent of Bernie Sanders supporters disrupted the DNC and refused to support Hillary Clinton even after Sanders endorsed her for Democratic candidate.
But this doesn’t hold true for Donald Trump. Trump has repeatedly changed his plans for a Muslim ban, a military strategy to defeat ISIS, immigration and gun control. He chewed out Clinton for voting for the Iraq invasion, but doesn’t “care” that running mate Mike Pence did the same because “it’s a long time ago, and he voted that way and they were also misled.” In some cases, Trump has even gone as far as to deny his previous statements. “Maybe [Japan] would in fact be better off if they defend themselves from North Korea … including with nukes, yes, including with nukes” said Trump in March. However, in June he asserted that Clinton was saying “such lies about my foreign policy, that they said I want Japan to get nuclear weapons. Give me a break.” And despite all of this, his ardent supporters stand behind him.
It’s not just his policies. Trump’s very personality seems too changeable and malleable. Earlier this month, he switched from attempting to assuage a distressed mother at a rally when her baby started crying to humiliating her and lashing out at her within minutes. The same crowd applauded and laughed at both his initial support and his mean-spirited follow-up.
It’s hard to say why that crowd ― and the rest of the Trump supporters ― applaud at both statement and contradiction. Perhaps Trump’s lack of clear and focused policies makes his backtracking easier to swallow. Perhaps it’s because he paints his own incompetency as the fault of the very establishment he’s fighting against, like blaming Clinton for his Japanese nukes error. Perhaps he is simply such a charismatic showman that his supporters will follow him like sheep, no matter what he says.