Central to most analyses of populism is the idea that populism articulates the world of politics around a polar opposition between the people and an elite or power bloc that is seen as blocking popular sovereignty. In some versions this elite is seen as aligned with an out-group — immigrants, for example, or a minority ethnic group — which is also understood as hostile to the values and interests of the people; this is partly what distinguishes right-wing from left-wing populism. In Laclau’s classic discussion of populism (2005), populist politics arises when ordinary politics based on negotiation among diverse interests in society — based on what he calls the ‘logic of difference’ corresponding, in one form at least, to Manin’s party democracy — breaks down, and parties and other institutions are no longer able to satisfy popular demands. Politics then shifts to the ‘logic of equivalence’, in which diverse grievances and demands come to be seen as all equivalently representing the oppression of the people by the elite.
Because these grievances and demands are diverse, populist movements rely heavily on ‘empty signifiers’, in Lacalu’s terms (see also Yilmaz 2016), symbols that lack particular referents and thus can represent the diversity of specific demands and of ‘the people’ as a whole. Very often, this symbolic role is served above all by the figure of the personalised leader. Personalised, charismatic leadership may not be characteristic of populist politics in all cases; we can probably say that certain social movements — Occupy Wall Street, for example — are populist movements without any such leader. Nevertheless, populist movements that persist and that come to power typically are organised around a leader who is seen as representing ‘the people’. These leaders typically are outsiders, not connected with the established political parties and without a history of participation in the process of bargaining among elites (Levitsky & Loxton 2013), though again there is some variation, as, for example, established political leaders may sometimes adopt elements of the populist style of politics. Populist movements therefore depend heavily on the ability of the leader to maintain a direct connection with the mass public that represents the base of the movement, and for this the media are essential.
Populism and mediatisation
Trump got elected. But TV became president.
James Poniewozic (2019, 240)
Berlusconi is not just the owner of television channels, he is television.
Paolo Mancini (2011, 21)
Up to a point, the standard narrative about the mediatisation of politics certainly applies to the rise of populist leaders like Trump. Trump rose to power, despite the hostility of the existing organisation of the Republican Party, by building a relationship with voters through the media. He became a public figure as a media celebrity, building his public presence by cultivating a relationship with tabloid newspapers in New York and with television, becoming the star of the reality television programme, The Apprentice, and a regular on Fox News. During the primaries, he succeeded by dominating the media agenda, hogging the spotlight to push past a large field of more traditional Republican politicians; then, during the general election campaign, he constantly drew attention to himself with controversial statements which not only made him the centre of the story even on media generally hostile to him (Mahler 2017; Watts & Rothschild 2017) but also had the important effect of focusing coverage in the traditional media on the primary issues around which Trump’s appeal was based, particularly immigration and conflicts with Islam/Muslims (Faris et al. 2017). This pattern is seen widely with other successful populist leaders: they rise to power to a significant extent by attracting media attention, performing well in front of television cameras; know how to create a persona that resonates with codes of popular culture; speak colloquial language and identify themselves with the aspirations of ordinary people; understand the importance of symbolism; and understand what draws audience attention, which often involves transgressive behavior and the generation of conflict. The ability to grab media attention is almost always an element in the rise of populist leaders, across a wide range of global contexts. Mancini’s (2011) account of Berlusconi’s rise in Italy; Peri’s (2004) of the rise of Netanyahu in Israel; and accounts of the rise of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, who agreed to give up a coup attempt in 1992 in return for the right to make a television address to the nation, tell closely parallel stories of mastery of the idiom of popular media, particularly of television.
In a broader sense, we could also say that media, particularly but not exclusively commercial television, played a key role in preparing the cultural ground for the emergence of populist leaders (Manucci 2017). News media have become more ‘populist’, in a loose sense of the word, over the years, emphasising the point of view of ordinary people more extensively, presenting themselves, as Djerff-Pierre (2000, 257) shows for the (relatively restrained) case of Swedish television, as a ‘representative/ombudsman of the public’ against elites and institutions; personalising and emphasising subjectivity and emotion; and blurring boundaries between news and popular culture (Baym 2010). They have also taken a more adversarial stance towards elites and presented both those elites and established institutions in more negative terms.
Some media advanced much more specifically populist agendas, in the sense of the term that is usually used in discussing politics: that is, they have articulated a view of the world centred around, as Klein (2000) puts it in relation to the German Bild-Zeitung (see also Kramer 2014), a narrative of the people versus the power bloc. In the US case, Trump’s populist appeal can be traced back as far as the 1960s New York Daily News (Pressman 2019) and was really articulated in its present form by Fox News before Trump came along and rode it into political office — but we will have to come back to the role of Fox, because it is in part there that we have to begin to confront some of the contradictions of applying the traditional understanding of the médiatisation of politics to populism. In the case of Venezuela, years before Hugo Chavez came to power,
the media began to echo the frustrations of the population, becoming more active in the reporting of denuncias of corruption. The majority of media corporations assumed an open position to all kinds of information, denuncias [roughly, accusations] or analyses that confronted [the political] leadership, marking the beginning of a battle that pitted the media against the government, the institutions of the state, the political parties, and ultimately the ruling class.
(Tulio Hernández, quoted in Samet 2019, 125)
Poniewozic (2019), in his account of Trump and television, makes a broader argument about the way in which television, not merely through news reporting but in its entertainment programming, prepared the way for rise of Trump as a transgressive character.