As we continue to... grope for explanations for last Tuesday, the word, "populism," continues to bubble to the surface, just as it did with Brexit. It is kind of a bullshit label, if nothing else for its imprecision.
Is Trump a populist? That depends on how you define the term. Obviously. That's true for any label.
Etymologically, the term derives from the notion that the candidate/party/movement is set on the side of the populace, in opposition to an elite, as though the political system is a dichotomy. That dichotomous view of politics is shared ironically by both Karl Marx and Ayn Rand, who simply disagreed on whether the monied class was on the side of good or evil. Trump's policies are as beneficial to the non-elite, in that dualistic view, as any other Republican, unless we view trade protectionism as inherently more beneficial to the non-elite. Could one argue that? Yes, but trade protectionism also raises prices and hurts exports, so that necessitates an economic argument and shouldn't be granted the label of "populist" automatically. As for whether or not Trump's background makes him a man of the people, um...
Of course, there was an actual "populist movement." It was a late-19th Century movement built around farmers, the silver vs. gold thing, William Jennings Bryan, blah, blah, blah. Does Trump have any connection to that? Perhaps tangentially, in that he kept promising to revive doomed industries, but that's sort of like defining populism as either the leadership of lost causes or hucksterism.
When people say "populism" today, though, they frequently mean, "racism." It is kind of strange. The movements that get labeled "populist" are frequently vaguely "nationalist," which are frequently, well, ethno-nationalist, and so forth. The connection is tenuous, but not entirely accidental. The basis is the idea that the majority of the population is, by definition, well, a majority. Which minorities, then, are we talking about? Elites or racial and ethnic ones? (Or, as they are perceived by hardcore racists, is it all the same?) Hence the historical connection between "populism" and racism. Trump earned David Duke's endorsement, but as I have written before, the underlying politics of race are more complicated at the party level. Regardless, if you want to call someone a racist, just call him a racist. Fuck euphemisms.
Let's get down to brass tacks, though. Populism, at its core, is about reflecting the populace, if the term is to have any real meaning. The will of the people. Ain't no such thing, kids. Three people, 1, 2 and 3. Three options: A, B and C. How does each person rank them? Here are their preference orders. Person 1's first choice is A, then B, then C. Person 2's first choice is B, then C, then A. Person 3's first choice is C, then A, then B. Watch this, and then let your head spin.
How does the group rank A relative to B? The group prefers A to B because persons 1 and 3 both prefer A to B. Now, how does the group rank B relative to C? The group prefers B to C because persons 1 and 2 prefer B to C.
So, the group prefers A to B, and the group prefers B to C. The group should prefer A to C, right?
They don't. Persons 2 and 3 prefer C to A. Therefore, the group prefers C to A.
The group prefers A to B, B to C, and C to A. Yup. That's fucked up. The will of the people? No such thing. You can't reflect the will of the people when there ain't no such thing. No candidate can ever represent the nonexistent will of the people.
There's no such thing as a populist candidate. Populism is bullshit.