Trump and American Populism

Michael Kazin, Foreign Affairs, Oct. 6, 2016

Old Whine, New Bottles


Trump has tapped into a deep vein of distress and resentment among millions of white working- and middle-class Americans.


Pundits often speak of “left-wing” and “right-wing” populists. But those labels don’t capture the most meaningful distinction. The first type of American populist directs his or her ire exclusively upward: at corporate elites and their enablers in government who have allegedly betrayed the interests of the men and women who do the nation’s essential work. These populists embrace a conception of “the people” based on class and avoid identifying themselves as supporters or opponents of any particular ethnic group or religion. They belong to a broadly liberal current in American political life; they advance a version of “civic nationalism,” which the historian Gary Gerstle defines as the “belief in the fundamental equality of all human beings, in every individual’s inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and in a democratic government that derives its legitimacy from the people’s consent.”

Adherents of the second American populist tradition—the one to which Trump belongs—also blame elites in big business and government for under­mining the common folk’s economic interests and political liberties. But this tradition’s definition of “the people” is narrower and more ethnically restrictive. For most of U.S. history, it meant only citizens of European heritage—“real Americans,” whose ethnicity alone afforded them a claim to share in the country’s bounty. Typically, this breed of populist alleges that there is a nefarious alliance between evil forces on high and the unworthy, dark-skinned poor below—a cabal that imperils the interests and values of the patriotic (white) majority in the middle. The suspicion of an unwritten pact between top and bottom derives from a belief in what Gerstle calls “racial nationalism,” a conception of “America in ethnoracial terms, as a people held together by common blood and skin color and by an inherited fitness for self-government.”


Populism has long been a contested and ambiguous concept. Scholars debate whether it is a creed, a style, a political strategy, a marketing ploy, or some com­bination of the above. Populists are praised as defenders of the values and needs of the hard-working majority and condemned as demagogues who prey on the ignorance of the uneducated.


Senator Bernie Sanders has inherited this tradition of populist rhetoric. During the 2016 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, he railed against “the billionaire class” for betraying the promise of American democracy and demanded a $15-an-hour minimum wage, Medicare for all, and other progressive economic reforms. Sanders calls himself a socialist and has hailed his supporters as the vanguard of a “political revolution.” Yet all he actually advocated was an expanded welfare state, akin to that which has long thrived in Scandinavia.


Trump’s rise has demonstrated the enduring appeal of the racial-nationalist strain of American populism.


In the 1920s, another predecessor of Trump-style populism rose, fell, and left its mark on U.S. politics: the Ku Klux Klan. Half a century earlier, the federal government had stamped out the first incarnation of the KKK, which used terror to try to stop black men and women in the Reconstruction South from exercising their newly won freedoms. In 1915, the Methodist preacher William Simmons launched the second iteration of the group. The second Klan attracted members from all over the nation. And they not only sought to stop African Americans from exercising their constitutional rights under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. In the 1920s, they also charged that powerful liquor interests were conspiring with Catholic and Jewish bootleggers to undermine another part of the Constitution: the recently ratified Eighteenth Amendment, which prohibited the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages. “The enemy liquor gang—angry, vindictive, unpatriotic—is seeking the overthrow of the highest authority in the land,” claimed The Baptist Observer, a pro-Klan newspaper in Indiana, in 1924. “They can count on the hoodlums, the crooks, the vice-joints, the whiskey-loving aliens, and the indifferent citizen to help them win. . . . Can they count on you?” Like Kearney’s party, the second KKK soon collapsed. But with nearly five million members at its peak in the mid-1920s, the Klan and its political allies helped push Congress to pass strict annual quotas limiting immigrants from eastern and southern Europe to a few hundred per nation in 1924. Congress revoked this blatantly discriminatory system only in 1965.

Like these earlier demagogues, Trump also condemns the global elite for promoting “open borders,” which supposedly allow immigrants to take jobs away from U.S. workers and drive down their living standards. The Republican nominee has been quite specific about which groups pose the greatest danger. He has accused Mexicans of bringing crime, drugs, and rape to an otherwise peaceful, law-abiding nation and Muslim immigrants of favoring “horrendous attacks by people that believe only in jihad, and have no sense of reason or respect for human life”—a stark truth that the “politically correct” Obama administration has supposedly ignored.


American populists have tended to focus most of their attention on domestic policy. But foreign policy is also a target. Trump, for example, has condemned international alliances, such as NATO, and populists from both traditions have long worried about nefarious foreign influences on the country.


In 1940, the America First Committee, an isolationist pressure group, issued a similar warning against U.S. intervention in World War II. The group boasted some 800,000 members and stitched together a broad coalition: conservative businessmen, some socialists, a student detachment that included the future writer Gore Vidal (then in high school) and the future president Gerald Ford (then at Yale Law School). It also enjoyed the support of a number of prominent Americans, Walt Disney and the architect Frank Lloyd Wright among them. But on September 11, 1941, its most famous spokesperson, the celebrated aviator Charles Lindbergh, took the antiwar, anti-elitist message a step too far. “The three most important groups who have been pressing this country toward war are the British, the Jewish, and the Roosevelt administration,” he charged in a nationally broadcast speech. “Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government.” By then, Hitler’s conquest of most of Europe had put America First on the defensive; Lindbergh’s anti-Semitic slurs accelerated its downfall. The group quickly disbanded after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor three months later.

In recent decades, however, several prominent figures on the populist right have revived America First’s brand of rhetoric, although most avoid overt anti-Semitism. In the early 1990s, Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Coalition (a lobbying group for conservative Christians), warned darkly of a globalist cabal that threatened American sovereignty. “The one-worlders of the . . . money trust,” he warned, “have financed the one-worlders of the Kremlin.” A few years later, the conservative political commentator Pat Buchanan proposed building a “sea wall” to stop immigrants from “sweeping over our southern border.” In 2003, he accused neoconservatives of plotting the U.S. invasion of Iraq in order to build a “new world order.” This year, Buchanan has defended the reputation of the America First Committee and cheered Trump’s run for the White House. For his part, the Republican nominee vowed, in a major address last April: “‘America First’ will be the major and overriding theme of my administration.” He has even led crowds in chants of the slogan, while feigning indifference toward its dark provenance.


Although Trump’s rise has demonstrated the enduring appeal of the racial-nationalist strain of American populism, his campaign is missing one crucial element. It lacks a relatively coherent, emotionally rousing description of “the people” whom Trump claims to represent.


While vowing to “make America great again,” however, Trump has offered only vague, nostalgic clichés about which Americans will help him accomplish that mighty feat. His speeches and campaign website employ such boilerplate terms as “working families,” “our middle class,” and, of course, “the American people”—a stark contrast to the vividness of his attacks, whether on Mexicans and Muslims or his political rivals (“little Marco,” “lyin’ Ted,” “low-energy Jeb,” and “crooked Hillary”).

In Trump’s defense, it has become increasingly difficult for populists—or any other breed of U.S. politician—to define a virtuous majority more precisely or evocatively. Since the 1960s, the United States has become an ever more multicultural nation. No one who seriously hopes to become president can afford to talk about “the people” in ways that clearly exclude anyone who isn’t white and Christian. Even Trump, in the later months of his campaign, has tried to reach out, in a limited and somewhat awkward fashion, to African American and Latino citizens. Meanwhile, the group that populists in the racial-nationalist tradition have historically praised as the heart and soul of the United States—the white working class—has become a shrinking minority.


In the past, populists’ more robust concepts of their base helped them build enduring coalitions—ones that could govern, not just campaign. By invoking identities that voters embraced—“producers,” “white laborers,” “Christian Americans,” or President Richard Nixon’s “silent majority”—populists roused them to vote for their party and not merely against the alternatives on offer. Neither Democrats nor Republicans have been able to formulate such an appeal today, and that failing is both a cause and an effect of the public’s distaste for both major parties. It may be impossible to come up with a credible definition of “the people” that can mobilize the dizzying plurality of classes, genders, and ethnic identities that coexist, often unhappily, in the United States today. But ambitious populists will probably not stop trying to concoct one.


Yet it would be foolish to ignore the anxieties and anger of those who have flocked to Trump with a passion they have shown for no other presidential candidate in decades. According to a recent study by the political scientist Justin Gest, 65 percent of white Americans—about two-fifths of the population—would be open to voting for a party that stood for “stopping mass immigration, providing American jobs to American workers, preserving America’s Christian heritage, and stopping the threat of Islam.” These men and women believe that most politicians ignore or patronize them, and they feel abandoned by a mass culture that prizes the monied, the cosmopolitan, and the racially diverse. They represent roughly the same percentage of their country as do the French who currently back the National Front and only about ten percent less than the British who voted for a British exit from the EU.

At its best, populism provides a language that can strengthen democracy, not imperil it.


Populism has had an unruly past. Racists and would-be authoritarians have exploited its appeal, as have more tolerant foes of plutocracy. But Americans have found no more powerful way to demand that their political elites live up to the ideals of equal opportunity and democratic rule to which they pay lip service during campaign seasons. Populism can be dangerous, but it may also be necessary. As the historian C. Vann Woodward wrote in 1959 in response to intellectuals who disparaged populism, “One must expect and even hope that there will be future upheavals to shock the seats of power and privilege and furnish the periodic therapy that seems necessary to the health of our democracy.”

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