We Can Never End Populism. But Here's How to Send it Back to Its Cave

James Paek is a One Young World Ambassador representing the United States. Having South Korean heritage, he has a keen interest in politics and human rights issues in North Korea and the US.

The views expressed in this article reflect those of the author, not One Young World.


I’m sorry, but I may have lured you here with the promise of talking about populism. I am, in fact, going to talk about President Trump and his border wall. But stay with me for one minute and I promise to show you how his ever-louder demands for the Wall are, indeed, sending very clear messages about the health of populism in America today. And don’t be fooled by the title of this speech. While it’s true that we can never end populism, it’s also true that we can remove its bite. Declaw it. Put it back in its cave where it belongs. I’m here to show you how.

So let’s begin with President Trump and see what he’s been up to lately. As the most vocal and visible proponent of populism, it only makes sense to focus on him. Because if he can’t make populism work, then maybe nobody can.

Trump is still waving the flag for populism

So, despite predictions of self-destruction by political analysts everywhere, President Trump is still going strong, pushing his populist agenda. And in the face of all his stunning violations of trust, he has not compromised his ideology one bit. He has not reached across the divide to meet politicians halfway. He has not softened his divisive speech. And most recently, he has not backed down on The Wall issue. Rather than compromise, he has, in fact, doubled down on what we can only call populism. Populism, an ideology that pits the so-called ‘common man’ against an elite.

We can safely equate Trumpism With populism

If you’ve never heard of populism and you Google the definition, you’ll probably find phrases and ideas that seem familiar. That’s because it’s quite possible that the Trump campaign and the Trump administration used those phrases and ideas — almost to the letter — when they wrote their playbook.

“a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups”  (Oxford Dictionary). HELLO, DISENFRANCHISED RURAL WHITE  MALES

“Populists typically present “the elite” as comprising the political, economic, cultural, and media establishment“(Wikipedia). HELLO, MEDIA-BASHING TRUMP AND TRUMP SUPPORTERS

Trump’s messaging signals the health of populism

But what if, instead of a sign of the strengthening of populism, President Trump’s unflagging demands for a border wall were a sign of weakness? What if, amid the darkness that a growing populist movement has brought, there were actually signs of things going the opposite way for populist leaders around the world? And what if, with this heartening message in mind, people everywhere could overcome the spread of authoritarianism?

Doubling down on the wall is a sign of weakness

President Trump is digging in hard on the wall because it’s his last stand against logic, reason, and how the majority of people feel today in America. After losing seats in recent midterm elections, populist leaders are on the defensive. They are retreating, taking a last stand, back into their most basic principles. Trump’s main campaign issue was the wall, and now, after so many defeats, it’s all that remains to grasp onto. It’s a tough approach that forces supporters to rally the populist cry or get off the populist train. Hard-core Trump supporters are incredibly excited over this wall. Now, they’re rallying once again in a final last stand. It’s a sure sign of weakness, the way soldiers will dig in even in the face of defeat, when there’s no way out.

But populism won’t ever die.

Here’s why populism won’t go away for good.

There will always be a section of the population that’s dissatisfied. Underrepresented. Scared. Paranoid. Populist leaders seek to rally these groups by speaking to their fears. They promise to please the voters without giving any rational consideration to the greater good or for the best course of action.

Because populist leaders are playing on voters’ emotions, they can be accused of seduction. What they’re really doing, instead of appealing to reason and a logical discussion of today’s issues, is exploiting the vulnerabilities of their base supporters.

Populism can happen anywhere along the spectrum of politics, from the far right to the far left. It just so happens that right now, populism speaks to the fears of the conservative right. Immigration, terrorism, and global competition for commerce markets all work to drive people inwards, many toward populism.

So there will always be populism.  The willingness of people to trust demagogues ebbs and flows. It’s the willingness of people to have their deepest fears exploited.

So how do we stop it from spreading? Easy. Now that we know that populists exploit fears, the answer is clear.

Here’s How to Stop Populism From Spreading

We think. We calm down and we think. We educate ourselves. We stop believing fake news. We learn to recognize when someone is playing us. We don’t let people exploit us by twisting our emotions and using that collective anger and emotion for their own good.

Populism will always be there, lurking in our subconscious, just like any negative emotions. But like we’re taught to do with negative emotions, we can also choose a brighter path. We can choose reason. We can choose not to be selfish. We can choose to make a better world, not a more terrible one. We can choose not to believe boldface lies and we can choose not to let tyranny take root.