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Donald Trump: The Populist Political Superhero

This is a guest post by Andrea Schneiker (University of Siegen, Germany). It based on her recent article ‘Telling the Story of the Superhero and the Anti-Politician as President: Donald Trump’s Branding on Twitter’ in Political Studies Review which is available here.

With heads of states such as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Donald Trump, populism has climbed into the driver’s seat of powerful states. While much has been written on populism, and populist foreign policy in particular, we still know little about populist leadership. If one defining principle of populism is its anti-elitism, how can populists such as Donald Trump maintain the illusion of not belonging to the ruling elite, once they become heads of state? The figure of the superhero can help us to answer this question. By adopting the image of a superhero, populist leaders can pretend to be ordinary citizens while at the same time ruling the country. Donald Trump is the prime example of such a ‘populist political superhero’. In the following and based on an analysis of Donald Trump’s tweets — posted on his account @realDonaldTrump between March 2016 and January 2019 — I will briefly explain the characteristics of the superhero that make it a perfect fit for populist leadership, and highlight the consequences of such populist leadership for democracy and for foreign policy.

Instagram post by Donald Trump Jr. from 21 October 2017 (© Donald Trump Jr. 2017, displayed here under fair use)

Just like Spiderman, Superman or James Bond, the superhero marketed by Donald Trump is an ordinary citizen who, in case of an emergency, uses his superpowers to save others, in this case: the United States of America. To portray himself as an ordinary citizen, Donald Trump not only presents himself as a proud husband and father, but also regularly claims that he is close to everyday citizens and understands the problems and needs of ordinary Americans. For example, he tweets that he knows what they are worried about—namely, ‘rising crime, failing schools and vanishing jobs’ (1 August 2016). Furthermore, in line with the figure of the superhero, Donald Trump claims that he is the only one who can solve and respond to these problems and needs. No matter whether it is about national security, economy, or tax laws, Donald Trump proposes that he is the only one who can fix even existential problems.

According to Donald Trump, the need for a superhero to solve the problems of ordinary Americans and the nation as such arises from the inability of politicians to do so. Hence, the populist superhero is necessarily an anti-politician. Consequently, it is no surprise that Donald Trump uses words such as ‘politician’ and ‘politics’ in a derogatory way. He presents ‘politicians’ as by definition apart from the people, as an elite class, as the establishment. He portrays his rival politicians as incompetent, unable to solve problems, and as untrustworthy – supposedly his complete opposite. This strategy was not limited to his presidential campaign in which he, for example, criticized his rival Hillary Rodham Clinton (HRC) for ‘never [having] created a job in her life’ (20 October 2016) and declared that ‘Owned by Wall St and Politicians, HRC is not with you.’ (1 October 2016). Donald Trump continues to blame politicians for their incompetence after he became President. In November 2018, for example, he tweeted ‘Of course we should have captured Osama Bin Laden long before we did. I pointed him out in my book just BEFORE the attack on the World Trade Center. President Clinton famously missed his shot.’ (19 November 2018).

Yet, in contrast to superheroes such as Superman, the populist superhero Donald Trump cannot operate in secrecy or in disguise. In order to differentiate himself from his competitors and politicians, Donald Trump has to convince the audience (his electorate), that he is better suited than anyone else to deliver on this promises, i.e. to solve problems. Hence, Donald Trump needs the world to know that he, and only he, can fix and has fixed a situation. Otherwise, he could not use his alleged exceptional problem-solving capacity as a unique selling point.

Twitter as communication channel fits perfectly the requirements of such populist leadership. It is fairly anti-elitist in that it is easily accessible as wireless technology allows for a tweet to be posted and read from almost anywhere at any time. On the one hand, Twitter provides a platform that Donald Trump can use to tell the world whatever he has done or plans to do. On the other hand, in order to know about what Donald Trump is doing, people do not have to listen to press conferences or read the newspaper – they just need to access Twitter. People can also ‘follow’ Donald Trump or even address him directly by using his @username reference – @realDonaldTrump. All these features create the impression of proximity between Donald Trump and ordinary citizens.

Yet, this is just an illusion, because this type of populist leadership, and the use of Twitter to communicate it, denigrate democratic politics. The populist political superhero reflects an understanding of political decision-making as an authoritative setting of ‘the truth’ by one supposedly competent individual, instead of through a deliberative process based on pluralistic ideas and interests. Furthermore, claims that current problems such as lacking job opportunities are the fault of incompetent politicians (rather than complex political decision-making and interdependencies in a globalised world) arguably oversimplify the issue. Such simplifications can be posted on Twitter without having to engage in a dialogue and without taking into account different opinions. In contrast to, for example, press conferences, Twitter allows Donald Trump to evade critical comments and debates, because questions and comments can remain unanswered. Twitter even, at least in theory, allows for blocking individual users and their comments.

Populist leadership in terms of a superhero is not only consequential for domestic politics. It also has effects on the international level, because it leads to a rejection of multilateralism. The latter generally requires some sort of power restraint and willingness to make compromise based on agreed-upon rules that equally apply to all participating states. Hence, multilateral forms of decision-making are incompatible with the requirements of the superhero – they do not allow Donald Trump to present himself as the one and only problem-solver. In multilateral settings, Donald Trump is just one head of state among many others. Therefore, he prefers bilateral negotiations or what he calls ‘deals’. These allow him to show the world that he is in control of the process, for example by continuously updating the public via Twitter on the state of the negotiations. Thereby, Donald Trump can also present himself as the only person being able to negotiate agreements with other states. This becomes apparent when looking at the US’ relations with North Korea or at the trade negotiations with China. Regarding the latter, Donald Trump for example tweeted that ‘President Xi and I […] are the only two people who can bring about massive and very positive change, on trade and far beyond’ (3 December 2018) and that ‘No final deal will be made until my friend President Xi, and I, meet in the near future to discuss and agree on some of the long standing and more difficult points.’ (31 January 2019).

Overall, the figure of the populist superhero not only explains how populists can continue to pretend to be separate from the elite even after ascending to power; it also reveals populists’ disregard of democratic decision-making processes at the domestic level and for multilateral agreements on the international level.

Andrea Schneiker (schneiker@sozialwissenschaften.uni-siegen.de) is assistant professor (‘Juniorprofessorin’) in Political Science/International Relations at the University of Siegen, Germany. Her research focuses on Global Governance, Peace and Conflict Studies, and Political Communications. She is author and co-editor of several books, including ‘Researching Non-state Actors in International Security’ (Routledge 2017, co-edited with Andreas Kruck) and ‘Humanitarian NGOs, (In)Security and Identity’ (Routledge 2015). She tweets at @ASchneiker.