Power to the people: What happens when populists take office?

This post was originally published on the 6th of January, but for unknown reasons disappeared from the DBP blog. It makes its re-appearance in its original form, which will hopefully be of relevance – even as political commentators’ opinions concerning Trump are turning from bewilderment to bemusement: 

On the 20th of January 2017, Donald Trump will be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States. Many political commentators’ main issue with Trump’s imminent presidency is that they simply do not know what to make of it. Not only did the vast majority of commentators fail to predict his election victory, they are also at a loss in terms of foreseeing what Trump will do with it: What can we expect of this business tycoon turned champion of the people? How will his populist slogans pan out in political practice?

The question is not only what Trump will do, but how he will do it; will Trump seek to circumvent the hallowed principles of checks and balances by populist means? And if yes, will he succeed? While there are certain indications that these questions might be answered in the affirmative, the aim of this post is not to speculate about the intentions of Mr. Trump nor to seek to predict the outcomes of his plans. Instead, I turn to an existing example of what happens when populists are elected, namely the case of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy.

Obviously, there are many substantial differences between the politics of Grillo and Trump, just as leading a movement that obtained roughly 25% of the votes in the most recent Italian general election and having been elected to the position that is often referred to as the most powerful one on the planet hardly amounts to the same thing. Yet, Grillo has pointed to an important similarity between the two:

The mainstream media has often spoken of Pannocchia [Italian slang for Trump] in the same way they speak of our movement. Do you remember? They said that we were sexist, homophobic, demagogues, populists. They do not realize that millions of people no longer read their newspapers or watch their TVs. Trump capitalized on all this.

Here, Grillo establishes the point of comparison between Trump and his own movement as having to do with the ways in which both circumvent mainstream media and find new ways of connecting with the people. In broader terms, both Grillo and Trump have benefitted from a perceived rift between ‘the people’ and ‘the establishment’. Identifying and amplifying this rift is arguably the key to their – and other populists’ – successful mobilization of an electoral platform, but once elected, (how) can this platform be used for gaining actual political influence?

As a starting point for exploring this question, I will first provide a general definition and characterization of populism, then look closer into the populist reasoning of the Five Star Movement. Finally, I will turn to the issues of how the movement has fared after being elected and whether the Italian case offers any lessons in terms of the Trump presidency – and for populist incumbents, more generally.


The rise of populism

It has become common place to link such political events as the UK Brexit vote, the election of Donald Trump, and the establishment and electoral success of new parties and movements like Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, and the Five Star Movement in Italy, not to mention the continued increase in support for such right-wing parties as the Front National in France, the Danish People’s Party, and the Sweden Democrats, with a general rise of populism (Moffitt, 2016). But what is it that links all these events and actors together? What is populism?

Populism basically relies on the establishment of a dichotomous relationship between ‘the people’ and ‘the elite’. Based on this dichotomy, populists argue that current political institutions and procedures no longer serve (or never have served) the interest of the people as a whole, but instead are controlled by and cater to a small elite. In a final argumentative move, populists then propose to be able to serve the people better – in substantial as well as procedural terms. As Jan-Werner Müller (2016) observes, this argumentative strategy may be employed across the political spectrum. Thus, there really is nothing that unites the various populist voices, except their rhetorical style, which according to Müller always shares three traits: it expresses anti-establishment and anti-pluralist identity politics. That is, populists claim to be speaking against the powers that be on behalf of the people as a whole, constituting this people in the process.

Ernesto Laclau (2007) details the idea that populism amounts to a rhetorical style or a certain form of reasoning; one that relies on a universalizing construction of the category of ‘the people’ for its success. According to Laclau, such construction is a necessary condition of all politics, but populism is nevertheless particular in its establishment of ‘the people’ in opposition to ‘the establishment’ and, hence, its circumvention of the usual rules of representative democracy. Populists, in short, gain influence by rhetorically establishing a ‘public demand’, which they can subsequently claim to be impelled by.


On the street: Giving voice to the people

In continuation of the notion that populism does not have to do with a particular set of political views, but with a certain rhetorical style or form of reasoning, let us now look at the specific articulations of this form in the case of the Five Star Movement. Here, one point of particular interest is how the movement not only positions itself as the voice of the people, but also prefigures (Maeckelbergh, 2010) the reforms that it envisions for society at large. That is, the Five Star Movement already exhibits the political principles and practices that it believes will enable the voice of the people to become the voice of power.

Beppe Grillo in una recente immagine ANSA/ GIORGIO BENVENUTI

Three such prefiguring strategies stand out: first, the organization of so-called V-days (where V stands for vaffanculo, but also invokes the V for victory and vendetta) of protest and mobilization. These physical displays of protest in public squares mimic those of other social movements, most notably Occupy Wall Street, and signal that the sheer volume (in terms of the numbers of protesters, but also the actual loudness of the protests) is an argument in itself. Second, the use of online voting to not only elect the movement’s political candidates, but also to decide what these candidates’ political stances should be. This extensive use of new technologies as platforms for decision-making as well as for mobilization indicates commitment to direct democracy in the majoritarian rather than the pluralistic form. Finally, the commitment to non-cooperation with established parties; given that the movement aims to bring down the current system of political representation, it does not negotiate according to the rules of that system or with those who support it. Instead, if one wants to influence the movement, one has to join it.


In office: From protest to pragmatism?

As mentioned, the Five Star Movement has had significant electoral success, but it is nevertheless not in a position to govern Italy singlehandedly, meaning that especially the last of the three abovementioned strategies could prove an obstacle to rather than a lever of the movement’s influence. Online voting and urban protest, moreover, are not immediately compatible with parliamentary procedures for negotiation and deliberation.

Thus, Grillo and his companions continue to be successful when ‘the power of the people’ can be exercised directly, as most recently witnessed in the constitutional referendum held in December 2016; here, a clear majority of the voters rejected the proposed changes to the constitution, a result that has been widely interpreted as a victory for Grillo and a further boost for his movement. However, in the day-to-day dealings of the Italian parliament the 163 members of the Five Star Movement, who were elected to office in 2013, are having a harder time – to the disillusionment of the electorate as well as the elected.

The trials and tribulations of moving from a positon of immaculate protest towards a recognition of the murky necessities of pragmatism are detailed in a new Danish documentary, Tutti a casa. Power to the People, premiering on February 1st. By then we will also have heard Trump’s inauguration speech and witnessed his first acts as president, providing initial indications of where he is headed and how he plans to get there. While the political organization that Donald Trump prefigured in his particular articulation of populist reason is very different from that of the Five Star Movement, I venture to predict that Trump in the coming months and years will experience the same kinds of practical challenges and have to make the same kinds of pragmatic concessions as those undertaken by the Italian movement in its time in office.



Laclau, E. (2007): On Populist Reason. London: Verso Books.

Maeckelbergh, M. (2010): Doing is believing: Prefiguration as strategic practice in the alterglobalization movement. Social Movement Studies, 10(1): 1-20.

Moffitt, B. (2016): The Global Rise of Populism. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Müller, J.-W. (2016): What Is Populism? Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

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