Donald Trump and the Long Tradition of American Populism

Donald Trump
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gives a thumbs-up to supporters as he is driven away following a campaign town hall meeting in Derry, New Hampshire, on August 19. Brian Snyder/Reuters

Updated | Most political observers readily agree that the soaring Donald Trump crusade has tapped into a restive populist mood but hardly anyone knows what populism is, or why on earth a megalomaniacal billionaire has emerged as its latest standard-bearer.

The Beltway definition of populism is disdainful. When it’s affixed to unexpected movements like the Trump insurgency, it seems to mean little more than a prolonged public tantrum. Looking back at recent pundit-diagnosed outbreaks of the populist bacillus, one sees it dubiously attached to causes as different as the drawling “Two Americas” stump speeches of John Edwards, and the America First culture-war candidacies of Pat Buchanan. Going further back, historians and pundits have spied populism everywhere from the racist shade of George Wallace and other stiff-necked Southern segregationists, to the red-baiting career of Joseph McCarthy, to the redistributionist reign of Huey Long in New Deal Louisiana. Still further back, populism has been detected in such 19th-century figures as its great Gilded Age avatar William Jennings Bryan and Andrew Jackson.

It’s tempting to dismiss populism as an epithet deployed by the power elite—a label that members of our political class slap on something popular that they also deem threatening. But there’s more to it than that. The populist movement of the late 19th century, for instance, was grounded in economic grievances, with leaders like Bryan seeking to unite the nation’s producing classes—farmers, small-town businessmen and urban workers—who thought they could overthrow the industrial age’s regime of market cartels, debt peonage and degraded wage labor.

But populism, during the farmers’ revolt of the 1890s, was also a cultural insurgency—a kind of self-administered political wake for the beleaguered middle American Protestant soul, newly adrift in an urbanized, capitalist nation of immigrant laborers and international bankers, and yearning for the folk egalitarianism of an idealized Jeffersonian republic. This is how populism has come to double as a synonym for modern cultural conservatism. Historian Richard Hofstadter famously branded the Gilded Age agrarian uprising as a precursor to McCarthyism: an outpouring of economic resentments that gave aggrieved farmers license to scapegoat any and all available elites—Jewish bankers, British titans of industry, American robber barons—for their declining cultural influence. 

Trump is an unlikely populist because he subscribes to so few positions associated with the cultural side of conservative populist revolt. Before his plunge into the 2016 race, he hadn’t taken a hard-line stance against gay marriage and reproductive rights; and as a twice-divorced, one-time Manhattan playboy, he’s anything but a poster boy for family values. While all the Republican candidates denounce Obamacare, including Trump, and all have their own market-based alternatives to the Affordable Care Act, Trump is the most liberal sounding. On the pundit altar of Morning Joe he praised single-payer Canada as a system that works but said America needs a private health insurance. “You can’t have a guy that has no money, that’s sick, and he can’t go see a doctor, he can’t go see a hospital,” Trump recently told conservative radio talk show host John Fredericks. Trump added that even if his position costs him support in the GOP primaries, “you have to take care of poor people.”

And yet GOP primary voters have flocked to the early Trump boom. A recent CNN poll indicates that 53 percent of GOP voters feel their views aren’t represented well in Washington—virtually double the 27 percent of Democrats agreeing with that idea. (Never mind that the federal government that so rankles Republican voters is now overrun with Republican leaders—populists often lay into their ideology with the greatest enthusiasm.) Among those saying they want Trump to continue his primary run, CNN also found, are “those seen as the core of the GOP primary electorate: 58 percent of white evangelicals, 58 percent of conservatives and 57 percent of Tea Party supporters.”

2015-08-20T000333Z_522649568_GF10000176927_RTRMADP_3_USA-ELECTION-TRUMP Donald Trump takes the stage for the campaign town hall meeting in Derry, New Hampshire, August 19. Brian Snyder/Reuters

Students of the American populist tradition say Trump is filling in an emerging issues vacuum on the right—and for the declining appeal of longstanding culture-war crusades among the GOP faithful. The GOP’s great unifying issue over the past few election cycles—the demand to repeal the Affordable Care Act—is showing signs of wear. Presidential hopefuls continue to pay lip service to the ACA’s repeal, but the law’s run of Supreme Court victories—together with gradually increasing public support for some of its key provisions—means that the bid to kill Obamacare is unlikely to generate much new energy on the right. Obamacare’s repeal is “dead as an issue,” says Georgetown University historian Michael Kazin, author of The Populist Persuasion (1998) and the 2007 Bryan biography A Godly Hero. “So here you have someone like Trump coming along to say, well, here’s an issue.”

That issue has been immigration, with Trump making his infamous remarks about Mexican immigrants raping women, dealing drugs and plundering American jobs—populist-style cultural scapegoating with a capital S. But there’s something more than simple white resentment at play here. In reviving the old populist cause of economic nationalism, Trump has struck a chord among a pinched conservative working-class electorate that knows free trade and globalization are not about to boost their wages, or bring their pensions back. He’s also tapped into the protectionist outlook of America’s older labor movement, which historically supported restrictions on immigration because of its downward pull on wages.

“Progressives insist that mass immigration doesn’t lower wages,” says Michael Lind, co-founder of the New America Foundation and the author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States (2013). “But up until the decline of the labor wing of the Democrats in the 1990s, labor took the opposite view. If you are an American or European populist, and you don't trust benevolent government to manipulate tax credits or make transfer payments to give you a middle class income, then creating a tighter labor market by restricting immigration and also by protectionism makes sense, given your interests. It is not necessarily crazy.”

Beyond economic self-interest, though, there’s also the traditional populist crusade against entrenched elites in the political establishment, the media-gatekeepers and any other prominent figure Trump happens to regard as “stupid.” He has so far masterfully exploited a broad animus against self-infatuated elites across the media and political landscape—even as he loudly advertises his own ultra-elite membership in America’s owning class.

2015-08-19T221331Z_952506422_GF10000176875_RTRMADP_3_USA-ELECTION-TRUMP The Gallagher family carries cutouts of Trump. Brian Snyder/Reuters

But any seeming contradiction is nothing new in a conservative movement that’s long venerated unregulated free enterprise; cultural populism will always neatly square the circle of economic inequality on the right. The Trump surge is happening, according to Buchanan, because Trump is effectively “plugging into nationalism, with both the illegal-immigration issue and the idea that we need a tough deal maker to negotiate with the Chinese and Mexican governments, and America is in decline, and I will make her 'great again.' And the fact that the elite media and his opponents are piling on, demanding he get out of the race for his 'rapists' and McCain comments, has caused the Tea Party types and populist right, who usually are the ones being called all the names, to rally to his defense.”

The cultural populist tradition cuts both ways, however—as the insurgent economic populist candidate Bernie Sanders has lately learned to his chagrin in the early stages of the Democratic race. Sanders’s economics-first appeals have landed unevenly on the left, most noticeably among African-American activists who argue that his aggressive anti-Wall Street platform downplays key issues such as the rash of recent killings of black citizens in police custody. This pushback has had the effect of broadly tarring Sanders—who boasts a very liberal record on civil-rights issues—with the impression that he’s running as a trigger-happy scapegoater of minorities in the Trump mold. Indeed, our populist impulses are so unmoored from formal party allegiances at this point that Buchanan can recognize Sanders—a self-described Socialist—as something of a brother-in-arms: Unlike the nationalist cultural crusader Trump, Buchanan notes, “Sanders is more in the economic populist mold.” In a recent WorldNet Daily column, Buchanan likened Sanders to the famous 1890s populist orator Mary Elizabeth Lease, who rallied farmers to her own anti-Wall Street crusade by urging them to “raise less corn and more hell.” (Needless to say, a Buchanan semi-endorsement wouldn’t help Sanders regain much traction among #BlackLivesMatter protesters.)

Still, just as Trump’s cultural populism has caught GOP elites off guard, Sanders’s economic brand of populist revolt continues to find eager supporters among a Democratic base disenchanted with party leaders’ half-measures against the runaway growth of wealth inequality. Sanders is in a dead heat with Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire—and polls also have him consistently beating any GOP nominee in head-to-head matchups.

Of course, establishment candidates like Clinton and Jeb Bush may prevail over the long haul. Then again, there could be something much more unsettling, and long-lasting, in the air during this presidential cycle. The United States has, after all, weathered a crippling recession with virtually no meaningful shift in the basic terms of economic policy-making—one reason why, even amid a gradually improving jobs picture, Trump and Sanders have, while employing sweepingly divergent rhetorical appeals in radically different settings, managed to woo workers who now feel relegated to the status of economic outsiders.

For Lind, the Trump and Sanders campaigns are the surface tremors of a much deeper distemper—the end of a generation in which donor-friendly centrist Democrats have sold short their party’s white working-class constituency as Republicans had finessed economic inequality with the more pliable and readily managed grievances of the culture wars. As these strategies have reached their sell-by dates, Lind argues, a more robust economic populism may be taking shape on the American electoral scene—and it won’t lack for establishment targets in today’s Washington: “You see stirrings of this with Trump's and [GOP candidate Mike] Huckabee's defense of Social Security and Medicare. The truth is that the attack on entitlements, popular with the donor class of both parties, is electoral poison. When he called recently for ‘phasing out’ Medicare, Jeb Bush proved himself as out of touch as his brother, who tried to partially privatize Social Security.”

Seen from this vantage, the parallel Trump and Sanders uprisings are more than simply a summer delirium, a big nay-saying plague on all the houses of power. The disconnect between party elites and their populist constituencies is, instead, of a piece with a mounting sense that all the institutions presiding over our shaky mood of consensus—from the financial sector to the higher-education establishment to the mainstream media—are crumbling. GOP voters know that business-as-usual tasseled-loafer campaign conservatism in the Romney vein won’t produce an electoral majority, or lasting working-class prosperity. Likewise, their Democratic counterparts, smarting from an Obama “change” platform that yielded no prosecutions of Wall Street malefactors in the wake of the 2008 meltdown, while racking up no less than three former investment bankers as White House chiefs-of-staff, understand that Hillary Clinton, who is assiduously courting major donors, and who looked blithely on as her husband embarked on our age’s most ruinous course of financial deregulation, is an unlikely tribune for the working-class. You don’t have to sign on with the Trump and Sanders crusades in all their particulars to see that in today’s money-driven, elite-dominated political scene, more and more ordinary voters feel legitimately left out—and fed up.

Correction: This article originally incorrectly said that the Republican presidential candidates planned to expand Obamacare. While they've proposed alternatives to the president's plan, this is not the case.