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The Intersectionality of Populism & Nationalism

Exploring the dynamic relationship between populism and nationalism provides a multifaceted yet nuanced definition. Historians, political scientists, and theorists have argued that nationalism and populism are intertwined ideologies that are often present in the same movements throughout the contemporary geopolitical landscape. We argue that populism can be part of a nationalist movement but does not always accompany it, thus standing on its own. As populism highlights the we versus them mentality, nationalism illuminates how a political and national unit should be one and the same. As we navigate answering the proposed question, we will outline the relationship between both movements, explain how populism rises through economic, societal, and political conditions, and the identity-group populist movements of Donald Trump in the United States of America as well as Viktor Orbán in Hungary.

To understand the relationship between populism and nationalism, we must first define and outline each movement. According to Cas Mudde in The Populist Zeitgeist, populism is “…an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite,’ and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people” (Mudde 543) This distinct political movement is the thinly-centered ideology that is often combined with other political ideologies, such as nationalism and emphasizes a we versus them mentality. Nationalism, alternatively, is “a theory of political legitimacy, which requires that ethnic boundaries should not cut across political ones, and in particular, that ethnic boundaries within a given state – a contingency already formally excluded by the principle in its general formulation – should not separate the power-holders from the rest” (Gellner 1) As nationalist movements tend to center around the identity of a singular country, those leading the movement will lean toward the idea that a particular nation or ethnic group is elite or superior.

While populism and nationalism are defined as two separate political ideologies, their intersectionality is sometimes very tight and consistent. In a populist movement, the leaders will utilize nationalist rhetoric to garner support for their movement through its appeal to belonging to the nation and its engrained identity. Underlining that there is only one identity and only one valid opinion. In comparison, those leading a nationalist movement may implement a populist strategy to challenge the political establishment or elites and hope to mobilize the electorate to support their campaign. Furthermore, nationalist movements underline a country’s superiority and precedence over others. However, we must acknowledge the counterargument that those perpetuating a nationalist ideology can succeed and move forward without populism folded into the movement.

For populism to take root and grow into a mainstream movement in a country, specific economic, societal, and political conditions must be at play. In some cases, an economic downturn can lend itself to the success that populist rhetoric can have within a society. Following World War I and during the Great Depression in Germany, Adolf Hitler used populist ideology to help further his rise to power by playing into a failed economy under the current government. In his speeches, Hitler continually peddled the “...alleged financial mismanagement in Germany...” that plagued the country during the thirteen years of economic downturn while promising to “...clean up the ‘party gang’ as soon as he came to power” (Ullrich 302-303). Through his positioning, he was able to create a we versus them mentality by highlighting the current government as the failed elites and providing a contrasting idealistic economic future that new leadership could bring to Germany. Alternatively, as Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Kaltwasser point out in Populism in Europe and the Americas: Threat or Corrective for Democracy, there are times when unfavorable economic conditions are not present. They outline that in the 2008 financial crisis that swept the world, populism can rise under favorable economic conditions, as evident in several European countries during this era of financial uncertainty.

While economic conditions can sometimes play a part in the alignment of a movement, societal conditions are active contributors to the ecosystem needed for the rise of populism. In Why Does Globalization Fuel Populism? Economic, Culture, and the Rise of Right-Wing Populism, author Dani Rodrik argues that “…culture and identity, have played an important role in driving up support for populist movements, particularly of the right-wing kind” (Rodrik 133). She outlines how a country’s national culture can play a part in exacerbating the effects of globalization. In addition to the complex feelings concerning globalization, several other issues can contribute to the discontent within the electorate and help influence a populist ideology, including the growing economic inequality between the wealthy and poor, increased fear of terrorism or border security concerns, and an intensification in cultural anxieties around the quickly changing racial demographics or public opinion of a country.

Providing a furthered nuance to the rise of populism, in countries where the status quo political system is perceived to have failed the electorate due to their actions or inaction, the prime conditions emerge for populist ideology to take hold in a successful yet succinct way. For the United States of America, “…a decade that featured…low public esteem of government, banks, and industry and greater popular distrust, discontent, and anger” paved the way for candidates like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump to rise to prominence (Schier and Eberly 12-13). High levels of distrust in the government structure allow the perfect storm for the manifestation of the want or perceived need to elect someone outside the current broken structure. The dissatisfaction with the status quo of government is also further outlined by the rise of Hitler in Germany. Following the end of World War I and into the Great Depression, Germans questioned their government’s actions both on the geopolitical stage and domestically, ultimately leading them to vote for a new governing body.

Through a look at modern history, identity-group populism is visible in the United States of America through the rise of Donald Trump and in Hungary under Viktor Orbán. With an analytical look at both leaders, it is easy to highlight the multiple similarities between their populist movements. Both candidates placed extreme emphasis on their country’s nationalist ideologies, allowing for thinly-centered populism to accompany their extreme movements. Additionally, they each focused on their candidacy on ethnic identity. For the United States, Trump focused on white Americans, while in Hungary, Orbán prioritized policies that promoted ethnic Hungarians. With their stance of nationalism and ethnic identity, anti-immigration became a vital pillar of both identity-group populist movements through the hardline stance targeting those of the Middle East, stricter border control, and construction of border walls. Trump and Orbàn’s movements also featured a commitment to conservative ideological values or culture. Each country’s leader highlighted the traditional family structure, traditional American or Hungarian values, and alignment with the Christian identity.

As we have argued and analyzed, the relationship between populism and nationalism is a complex intersectionality that has allowed populism to accompany other political ideologies due to its thinly-centered nature. Additionally, populism helps to underline the nationalist ideologies, though not always a part of the movement. In contemporary geopolitics, we have seen a rise in identity-group populism, with movements like that of Donald Trump in the United States of America and Viktor Orbán in Hungary. These identity-group populist movements contained multiple complementary qualities, and sometimes identical, such as emphasis on a country’s nationalist ideology, ethnic identity, anti-immigration, and commitment to conservative ideologies. However, we can surmise that populist movements are a product of the economic, societal, and political conditions plaguing each country’s constituents and contribute to creating the perfect ecosystem for the movement to take root.


Works Cited

Gellner, Ernest. Nations and Nationalism. Ithaca, NY, Cornell University Press, 2008.

Mudde, Cas. “The Populist Zeitgeist.” Government and Opposition, vol. 39, no. 4, Jan. 2004, pp. 541–63.

Rodrik, Dani. “Why Does Globalization Fuel Populism? Economics, Culture, and the Rise of Right-Wing Populism.” Annual Review of Economics, vol. 13, no. 1, Aug. 2021, pp. 133– 70.

Schier, Steven E., and Todd E. Eberly. How Trump Happened: A System Shock Decades in the Making. New York, NY, Rowman and Littlefield, 2020.

Ullrich, Volker. Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939. Translated by Jefferson Chase, London, England, The Bodley Head, 2016.


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