Unpopular Populists and the Authenticity Trap

Former President Donald Trump. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The great thing about silent majorities is the silence. 

This is true for me personally, since I don’t have to hear them bellyaching all the time. I like the electorate like the Olympics: Intensely—but briefly—heard from every other year, and not much in between. But, of course, I am not a populist. Indeed, I have dangerously curmudgeon-like tendencies.

If I were a populist, though, the silence of silent majorities would be great for the opposite reason. Since we can only guess at the wishes of the mute masses, it falls to their self-appointed representatives to tell us what deep waters run beneath the still surface of popular opinion. Being a voice for the voiceless means you never have to shut up unless you lose an election, and, as we know too well these days, sometimes not even then. 

Populism is a political style characterized by the grievances of a group that sees itself as marginalized or victimized by powerful factions in society, so potentially, pretty much anybody. Pleasure boat owners? Aye aye! Holders of advanced degrees from elite schools? Go to the head of the class! Vegan dairy enthusiasts? Pour it on! All you need is something to be mad about and a way to define the population of the oppressed. But it’s not enough to say that you and a small claque of like-minded citizens agree. You need to claim that it’s not small at all, but only seems that way because, duh, they’re silent. 

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