Technology and its Role in Populism
Donald Trump’s presidency altered US politics, but now society must ask itself why. Separate from any particular political persuasion, policy prescription, or body politic, populism is a campaign strategy centered around making a specific voter base feel oppressed by the political establishment. We can learn a lot about populism from what we see in movies. The films Bob Roberts, and “The Waldo Moment,” following populist political campaigns, represent society’s reaction to populism across time, and access to technology. Together, they support the idea that technology fuels the rise of populism in the US by propagating misinformation, smear campaigns, and anti-establishment movements. Populism has long been an influential political strategy, but modern-day Trumpism is the most successful populist movement that the US has ever seen.
In 1992, America emerged from the Reagan administration who found success in his patriotic, and anti-drug stances. While appealing to his base, he alienated many who grew fearful of populism.
Representing this fear, in Bob Roberts (1992), a mockumentary about a Pennsylvania Senate race. Citizens feel alienated by the qualified, yet esoteric incumbent; a stark contrast to Roberts, a crowd-pleasing folk singer with Reagan-inspired objectives and zero policy prescriptions, who is elected. Roberts’ songs are reminiscent of country artists from that era such as Merle Haggard who helped propagate Reagan’s populism. His blend of music and politics was effective, but technology proved far more so. The recent widespread use of social media platforms has contributed to populism by incentivizing frequent, shocking, and entertaining public outreach; examples of which are Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Trump.
In “The Waldo Moment” (2013) a blue animated bear gains public consideration for bashing parliamentary candidates on live television. He begins an anti-establishment movement based in radical transparency of his lack of qualification.
Social media helps Waldo to propagate his political message. Waldo is transparent in having no policy, and in debates, chooses to focus attention on his opponents’ lack of moral integrity. When politicians attack Waldo online, this gives him publicity and entrenches voters.
The populism seen during the Reagan administration echoes still. In 2008, Sarah Palin ran for vice president with a campaign centered around post-truths, the legacy of which, in conjunction with Reaganism, is Trump.
Donald Trump, reality television star and 45th president of the United States, utilized similar strategies seen in Bob Roberts and The Waldo Moment. Like Roberts’, Trump rallies were a performance. While Roberts runs his like a concert, Trump ran them like a standup show. Both forms of entertainment-style rally create a more accessible environment for even politically disinclined supporters to engage. Like Waldo, Trump was shocking, spent most of his debate time on personal attacks, and benefitted from media attention all broadening public engagement and spreading anti-establishment rhetoric. Furthermore, Trump’s most effective tool in the success of his populist movement was Twitter. In seconds, he would distribute commentary to millions of followers giving him influence.
Technology expands populism by propagating misinformation, smear campaigns, and anti-democratic sentiment. Now society must decide whether to support this expansion.
Gabriel Dawson is a student of International Relations at Linfield University. At this small liberal arts school, he is exposed to many diverse perspectives which has helped foster a passion for ideologically pluralistic analysis of political topics. He is an Elliot Alexander Scholar and an employee of the Political Science Department.