Trump and the Two Sides of Populism
November 9, 2016
The 2016 election and the rise of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump can be explained by growing inequality and the nature of populist movements. Understanding this creates potential for serious radical change.
The architects of our economy — both Republicans and Democrats — shouldn’t be surprised that there is backlash after decades of shifting most of our economy’s income and wealth gains to a small segment of wealthy people and global corporations. An unequal economy gives rise to a polarized politics.
Supporters of both Sanders and Trump agree that the rules of the economy have been “rigged,” that the status quo is unacceptable for probably 70 percent of the population. With Clinton pegged the status quo candidate, Trump became the candidate of disruption and change.
The election of 2016 was a wake up call but also evidence of a deeper realignment around inequality issues–one with lessons and possibilities for a progressive populist movement.
This is relevant because many of the changes that Trump wants to implement –tax cuts for the wealthy, deportations, corporate-friendly deregulation –won’t fix the underlying drivers of inequality.
President Trump will not succeed in raising real wages, reversing declining home ownership, or reducing student debt, leaving those concerns unaddressed. Repealing Obamacare with no alternative will leave millions without health coverage. Issue organizing and progressive candidates that can effectively address these concerns will win victories and help realign our politics.
Inequality and Populism
Inequality and economic insecurity give rise to both progressive populism and regressive populism. The Bernie Sanders campaign embodied progressive populism with its focus on how the rules of the economy are rigged for the benefit of billionaires and a couple hundred transnational corporations.
The regressive populism of Trump acknowledges people’s economic insecurity, but directs its grievances toward scapegoats, such as new immigrants, people of color, and religious minorities. It believes the rules are rigged to benefit “elites” but also outsider groups.
Regressive populism is fundamentally a deflection, sometimes encouraged by wealthy elites, to shift populist rage away from the real holders of power onto less powerful groups. Similar to the historic role of anti-semitism, deflection politics exacerbates differences in race and ethnicity that are underground in more equitable times.
The 2016 election was shaped by over three decades of accelerating inequality of income, wealth and opportunity.
We can see the populist moments throughout U.S. history. The dislocations of the industrial age and the extreme inequalities of the first Gilded Age, between 1890 to 1915, gave rise to movements of radical rural populism and progressive urban reformers –but also saw the festering of regressive populist strains, such as the KKK and anti-immigrant movements.
The 2016 election was shaped by over three decades of accelerating inequality of income, wealth and opportunity. The seeds of Donald Trump were planted in the late 1970s and starting in 1981 with the rise of Ronald Reagan and a shift in the rules governing the economy to benefit wealth holders at the expense of wage earners. The corporate free trade agenda under both Republicans and Democrats –and the failure to do more than tinker with the rule changes accelerating inequality –enabled inequalities to grow.
In the decades prior to this era of inequality, 1947 and 1977, the rules of the economy were focused on expanding middle class opportunity. We taxed the wealthy and invested in massive public infrastructure projects and wealth-building subsidies to expand the middle class. The initial beneficiaries were primarily white households –as subsidies for higher education and low-interest mortgages were racially discriminatory. But the wider benefits of public investment in infrastructure –as well as the fruits of empire –lifted wages for all segments of U.S. society, including black and Latino workers, through the 1960s and 1970s.
Since then, the rules have been changed to benefit global corporations and the wealthy at the expense of wage earners, workers and local communities. Whole rural communities and urban industrial corridors were made into, as Chris Hedges called them, “sacrifice zones” where livelihoods were destroyed.
Understanding the Hidden Injuries of Class
Sociologist Arlie Hochschild suggests a number of lessons that will be useful as we work to build a progressive populist majority. One challenge is to “scale the empathy wall” to understand the underlying hidden injuries of class behind the Trump and Tea Party movements.
In her new book, Strangers In Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, she goes on a “journey to the heart of our political divide.” As writer Margaret Wheatley wisely observed, “You can’t hate someone whose story you know.”
“You can’t hate someone whose story you know.”
Hochschild spent five years embedded with Louisiana Tea Party activists, interviewing them and making friends as they became involved in the Trump campaign. Hochschild posits a “deep story” to explain the worldview of her tea party friends to those of us in other regions. Here’s a summary adapted from a review I wrote of Hochschild’s book:
Imagine that you are standing in a line of people that rises up over a hillside. On the other side of the hill is the American Dream. You work hard, sometimes in dangerous work. You lead a moral life, honoring family, country, community and God and make sacrifices, such as serving in the military. You are waiting patiently, but the line is stalling, even moving backward at times. When you look forward, you see people cutting in line. Some of them are new immigrants and people of color.
At the head of line, waving in the line-cutters, is Barack Obama and the liberal coastal elites. While calling you a racist, they side with the line-cutters. You are not a racist –you have worked all your life along side African-Americans and Latinos –more than most northern liberals. But you resent it when people cut in line. And you don’t like it when liberals insult you because of your Christianity, commitment to marriage, and Southern culture. All this makes you feel like you are a stranger in your own land.
What the Tea Party and Donald Trump have to offer is they at least see you. You are not invisible. And they invoke memories of a time when you weren’t a stranger in your own land. They don’t dismiss you as racists and rednecks.
When Hillary Clinton characterized Trump supporters as “deplorables,” they knew those were the things that liberal elites secretly say behind closed doors.
Reweaving a Political Populist Movement
In the coming years, Donald Trump will almost certainly fail to address the underlying concerns of the non-wealthy voters who elected him. This will create openings and possibilities. There are three implications for progressive populist movements.
Lesson 1: Get the Line Moving Again –Shared Prosperity Politics
Over three decades of stagnant wages and sluggish growth in rural and small town America have fueled the regressive populist moment.
One solution is to get the stalled-out line moving again by raising wages, expanding opportunities, savings, wealth creation, and homeownership. We can create state and local examples of this if opportunities at the national level are blocked.
Change will require building progressive populist coalitions between rural and urban workers to press for investment and fair trade policies that don’t further undercut wage growth. The Trump base is divided over taxes, but taxing the wealthy and investing in infrastructure (and the jobs this will create), expanded homeownership, debt-free education are ways to win allies in the Trump constituency –and get the line moving for everyone.
Lesson 2: Facing Race in Our Movement
There are deep divisions of race exposed in these election results. We should stand unified against racism and attacks on communities of color. We also must engage the white working class base of the Trump vote and explain that they aren’t the only ones waiting in line. There are millions of Black, Latino and Native American workers who have also waiting patiently for the line to move (some for centuries) who share their values and aspirations, but have been similarly betrayed by three decades of neoliberal economic policies that have inflated the wealth of the 1 percent and undercut wages. The economic meltdown of 2008 roughed up many white working class households, but it was devastating in communities of color.
The resentments about “line-cutters” won’t entirely disappear, but it will diminish if prosperity is better shared. Racist attitudes are part of the equation, fueled by immigration and cultural changes that will not go away. But as long as people rightfully feel the economy is a rigged game and they are the losers, the demagogic politicians will continue to focus on the “line cutters” instead of the rule riggers in the powerful 1 percent.
Lesson 3: Stop Insulting White Working Class
As we become more politically segregated along regional and residential lines, we create myths about one another. If you are still asking the question, “Why do so many of those people vote against their economic interests?” then you should do some of your own listening and research.
As Joe Bageant wrote in his insightful book, Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War, most liberals are clueless as to how to engage with white working class communities. Liberals feel put off by religiosity or that fact that rural people like to hunt. They presume people are too racist, dumb or manipulated by the Koch brothers to vote for their real economic class interests, rather than taking the time to understand the deeper economic, cultural and identity reasons why people might distrust the Democratic party establishment and their liberal agenda.
Politicians like Bernie Sanders and filmmaker Michael Moore understand the experience of white, working class and rural people.
As LeAnn Hall and George Goehl wrote,
We commit ourselves to win back the hearts and minds of our brothers and sisters who have been distracted by a campaign of fear and hate. We need to listen to our brothers and sisters in communities across the country who feel left out and forgotten, and come together around our shared interests: building strong local economies where families flourish, protecting the land and water that nourishes us, and ensuring that the nation respects the equality and dignity of every human being.
A key pillar of the work is empathy, of listening and building relationships, and organizing around common causes. There is no place for smug judgment in building this movement. Opportunities will emerge to knit together a progressive populist coalition that “gets the line moving” for working class whites and people of color who have been historically excluded.