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Legitimacy as a zero-sum game: Presidential populism and the performative success of the unauthorized outsider


Despite the fact that US presidential candidates commonly position themselves as Washington outsiders, this broadly populist positioning has thus far been significantly undertheorized. On the one hand, scholars of political representation have explored how politicians connect with political audiences; on the other, populism research has focused on the construction, mainstreaming and appeal of populist performances. A detailed theorization of the paradoxical performative operation by which self-styled political outsiders come to be more effective in connecting with political audiences than accomplished politicians has yet to be undertaken. This article explores the performativity of outsider positioning, paying particular attention to its effect on perceptions of legitimacy. The article investigates legitimacy as a complex and paradoxical performative phenomenon that involves multiple competing sources of agency. The case is made that, by discouraging the perception of the political system as a unified whole, populist-style performances by mainstream politicians undermine institutional legitimacy. In a way that is at odds at odds with the cooperative demands inherent in the US federal government, these performances encourage the perception that the self-styled outsider is engaged in a strictly competitive zero-sum game with the institutional structure and its representatives.

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Correspondence to Julia Peetz.

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Peetz, J. Legitimacy as a zero-sum game: Presidential populism and the performative success of the unauthorized outsider. Contemp Polit Theory 19, 642–662 (2020).

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  • legitimacy
  • performance
  • performativity
  • populism
  • representation
  • US presidency