Donald Trump’s presidency has undeniably reignited academic interest in understanding the populist phenomenon and its political implications. Trump is frequently considered to be a stark departure from status quo politics, in favor of a radical right populism. Yet, the Trump presidency and populist theory itself poses a key contradiction, namely a populist paradox. I will propose a critical framework to understand populism as a mechanism of political power by the liberal state. In What is Populism? Jan-Werner Müller identifies a contradictory nature to populism, as it often perpetuates the same political problems that the populist politics sought to replace. How could populist ideology, which is lauded as recognizing the systematic failures of the liberal state, also be a mechanism for its continued control? This paradox requires a theoretical framework to explain and unpack its implications. The seminal work of political philosopher Michel Foucault has immense explanatory power for this paradox when utilized as a conceptual framework.
From this analysis, I conclude the following: populism ideology functions as a democratic justification for the maintenance of status-quo politics, which ultimately reproduces state power. I intend to develop a theoretical contribution to radical right populism studies, especially in regards to Trumpism in the United States. Interpreting Foucault’s state power theories, this article applies the key concepts of power-knowledge, domination, and governmentality to populism studies.