The election of Donald Trump as President of the UnitedStates and the success of Brexit in the EU referendum campaign in the United Kingdom are the most prominent examples of a populist disruption of the status quo in international politics. Nationalist populism mobilizes a nativist, homogenized concept of the ‘people’ against ‘corrupt elites’, which challenges liberal democracy. I argues that this process of political mobilization operates primarily through the discursive domain of (in)security. This research contributes to and advances a growing literature on populism in International Relations (IR) by focusing on the interlinkage of populist rhetoric and security discourses and its impact on voter mobilization and the legitimation of policy. Its underlying premise is that through appeals to sentiments of political resentment, socio-cultural anxiety, and socio-economic insecurity, nationalist populism constructs an alternative security imaginary.
The Populist Security Imaginary: An Analytical Framework
Conceptually located at the intersection of critical security studies, communication studies, and political psychology, the analytical framework informing this research combines insights from ontological security studies on the perception of security threats and self-identity with research on blame attribution and collective narcissism in nationalist populism. It examines how security discourses connected with an intended target audience of white working class and non-college educated voters in the American heartland through appeals to political resentment, socio-cultural anxiety, and socio-economic insecurity, and how this populist security imaginary informed Trump's policy choices, in particular in the areas of immigration policy and border security, foreign and security policy, and the consequences for partisan polarization and violent extremism.
'Enemies of the People': Identity and Ontological Security in Populist Rhetoric
Through amplifying partisan polarization and relying on a core antagonistic logic, populism shrinks the idea of the national Self to be protected to match up with its homogenized and reductionist identification of the ‘people’. In Trump’s alternative imagination of the American nation, the white working class appeared as the sole relevant carrier of political sovereignty.
Populist blame attribution and the projection of ‘enemies of the American people’, at the same time, rely on an identifiable set of security narratives, most importantly, the key construct of a valorous populist 'hero', who saves and redeems the nation in its moment of existential crisis and impending surrender and defeat by reclaiming power for the people from the villainous elites that have betrayed it.
Beyond the negative Othering of internal and external ‘enemies of the people’, however, the language of security also constitutes a positive affirmation and affective bond between populist and audiences. This is facilitated primarily through a populist vernacular that reassures the ‘people’ that the populist speaker is one of them, and stands by their side in articulating their ontological fears and anxieties, as well as their nostalgic hopes for the reclamation of past greatness.