Referencing his FirstView article for the European Journal of International Security (EJIS), Thorsten Wojczewski examines populism in contemporary politics and international relations.

The spectre of populism looms large in contemporary politics and international relations. Across the globe, parties, leaders and movements have risen to power that claim to represent ‘the people’ against a corrupt and out-of-touch elite. By accusing the elite of putting its power privileges and special interests over the interests of the ‘common’ people, populists like Donald Trump mark the political establishment as ‘enemies of the people’.

The conjuring up of threats and dangers characterizes the rhetoric of many populists and the growing appeal of populist discourses in many world regions has made them important actors in the articulation of security issues. Against this backdrop, the article sheds light on the nexus between populism and security and examines how populists speak about, practice and utilize security for their populist politics. While existing research often refers to populism in the context of security, it tends to relegate – what is considered the conceptual core of populism – the elite/people antagonism to the background and associate populism with nationalism, far-right politics or the securitization of migration and borders, whereby the actual role and significance of populism and the populist notion of ‘the people’ remain largely unclear.

The article brings the populism and Critical Security Studies (CSS) literature into dialogue to illuminate how (in)security is constructed by populists and to study the effects of these (in)security constructions. Drawing on securitization theory and poststructuralism in particular, it discusses how populist discourses construct ‘the people’ as a referent object that is threatened and the form and implications of this populist securitization process. The article argues that key elements of securitization theory such as the definition of security in existential terms, the oppositional logic of security and the call for emergency politics are in keeping with populist politics. This, in turn, provides important insights into how populist discourses can use the logic of securitization to divide society into two seemingly antagonistic and homogenous blocs and stage the populist actor as the ‘true’ representative of ‘the people’. Accordingly, the article identifies three features of populist securitization processes: (1)dramatization and fear-mongering by conjuring up and maintaining the sense of existential dangers to ‘the people’; (2)simplification and scapegoating by designating a particular actor as the single cause of a security problem and ‘the people’ as collective victim; (3)propagation of a state of emergency, requiring a suspension of normal politics and the endorsement of the populist actor as the only one who can secure ‘the people’.

While showing that securitization theory can capture important elements of the nexus between populism and security, the article also draws attention to the absence of a proper theorization of the construction of the referent object and agent of security, whereby securitization theory can run the risk of essentializing and reifying populist claims. By building on and critiquing existing poststructuralist readings of securitization theory, the article shows how a poststructuralist perspective can address the theory’s weaknesses and contests, in this context, the common conjunction of securitization theory and poststructuralism in the literature. Following a poststructuralist theorization of collective identity formation through different modes of Othering, the article argues that the populist actor, the people and the establishment are no pre-discursive subjects but formed in the moment when different unfulfilled societal demands are placed in a common opposition to the establishment and the populist actor asserts itself as the representative of this popular will. Accordingly, a populist securitization is conceptualized as a discursive practice that propagates a politics of fear, urgency and exceptionality in order to mobilize ‘the people’ against a ‘dangerous’ elite and normalize this antagonistic divide of society.

The article develops and illustrates its arguments with a case study on the (de-)securitization moves in the populist discourse of Donald Trump and demonstrates how security policy serves as an important site for the discursive (re)production of the Trumpenvolk. Like other right-wing populists, Trump shaped a discourse that constructs and claims to represent ‘the people’ by placing them into a common opposition to ‘corrupt’ elites and dangerous foreign ‘Others’ that are accused of depriving the sovereign people of their identity, jobs, values, rights and safety. This antagonistic divide between ‘the people’ and ‘the elite’ can be constructed in different sectors of security but follows two basic patterns: either the elite is accused of failing to securitize a particular issue that is perceived as a threat by a significant portion of society or it is accused of launching securitizations that pose a threat to ‘the people’ and have thus made ‘the people’ insecure. The article shows how the Trumpian discourse constructs the elite/people antagonism in the societal, political, military, economic and environmental sectors of security.

By pitting ‘the people’ against ‘the entire corrupt Washington establishment’, Trump contests not only the official security discourse but also the authority of the political establishment to securitize issues. While Trump is as wealthy businessman and even more so as president part of the establishment and thus speaks from a privileged subject position, he sought to contest the role of elites in securitization processes by designating the establishment as security threat and appealing to the common-sense of ‘ordinary’ people rather than the institutional power, expertise and authority of typical securitizing actors. Though Trump’s challenge to the elitist nature of securitization remains limited, he pointed to a disconnect between ‘the people’ and the power elite and articulated – for example, in his critique of neoliberal globalism – the experiences and perceptions of referent objects of security who have no, or limited, possibilities of articulating security problems. While this critique of an ‘elitist’ security agenda points to the emancipatory potential of populism, the Trumpian discourse exposes, through its underlying nativism, its regressive and reactionary dimension by designating a particular segment of US society as the ‘real’ people.

– Thorsten Wojczewski, King’s College London

– Wojczewski’s #FirstView EJIS article is now available free of charge until the end of April 2020.

– His research interests include Populism, Foreign Policy Analysis, Poststructuralist Discourse Theory, Critical Security Studies, World Order and International Relations Theory. He is the author of India’s Foreign Policy Discourse and its Conceptions of World Order: The Quest for Power and Identity (Routledge, 2018).

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