Journalists Are Calling It a ‘Populist’ Inauguration Speech, But What Does That Really Mean?

A lot of different things.

Do we know what we’re talking about when we talk about populism? In the exchange between writer and reader, does the one’s use of the phrase match the other’s perception of the phrase?

It’s a problematic term, one whose dictionary definitions (“a member of a political party claiming to represent the common people”/”a believer in the rights, wisdom, or virtues of the common people,” per Merriam-Webster) give it a positive sheen. And that’s how it’s generally received, this term that sounds like it’s all about the people.

But populism contains multitudes, some of which applies to a pleasant sounding, of-and-for-the-people world, some of which applies to authoritarians shoring up their own power by playing to the basest fears and prejudices of the public. Here is the Economist in December, describing some contemporary instances of populism in action:

DONALD TRUMP, the populist American president-elect, wants to deport undocumented immigrants. Podemos, the populist Spanish party, wants to give immigrants voting rights. Geert Wilders, the populist Dutch politician, wants to eliminate hate-speech laws. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the populist Polish politician, pushed for a law making it illegal to use the phrase “Polish death camps”. Evo Morales, Bolivia’s populist president, has expanded indigenous farmers’ rights to grow coca. Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines’ populist president, has ordered his police to execute suspected drug dealers. Populists may be militarists, pacifists, admirers of Che Guevara or of Ayn Rand; they may be tree-hugging pipeline opponents or drill-baby-drill climate-change deniers.

“What makes them all ‘populists’, and does the word actually mean anything?,” Matt Steinglass goes on too ask. Indeed.

Despite all the contrasting, contradictory worlds incapsulated within the term, it was the descriptor of choice, as it was during his campaign, for print and TV journalists when they discussed President Trump’s inauguration speech.

“Populist and nationalist,” said ABC’s Tom Llamas. “Radically, purely populist,” said CNN’s Jake Tapper. “This is populism, and it’s never been as purely distilled I thought as it was…this morning,” said Fox News’ Tucker Carlson.

The print headlines followed suit.

The Daily Beast: Donald Trump Rails Against ‘American Carnage’ in Populist Inaugural Speech

ProPublica: Trump Hits Populist Note in Inaugural Address

The LA Times: Donald Trump delivers short, populist inaugural address

The Atlantic: ‘America First’: Donald Trump’s Populist Inaugural Address. (The Atlantic also had a piece arguing Trump’s populism is a lie.)

And when the term wasn’t popping up in the headlines, it was in the body of those pieces.

We, all of us, will have to be careful with language, more careful, certainly, than we have been. Just look at the short-lived utility of the term fake news, ownership of which has changed hands from those who mean intentionally made-up facts to those who mean poorly reported stories to those who mean stories that conflict with their worldview.

There is a certain minimalist appeal in finding and using words that encompass an idea that would otherwise take entire sentences to get across. But when the nuance of meaning is lost, when a phrase is used so often it creates a public perception that is mismatched to reality, it’s a problem worse than the one solved by keeping down your word count.