American Populism

Political opinion writers are still wrestling with the question of how did we get to Trump. I suspect that we will be reading pieces like this one from David Brooks for the rest of our lives. Conservatives are especially interested in the narrative. How did the party of family values, free trade, and a muscular foreign policy elect a philandering, protectionist man with an incoherent (and often disengaged) foreign policy? In other words, what happened to us? Brooks suggests that there have been long rumblings that the people craved something like this and looks back to Pat Buchannan and his mentor, the craven Sam Francis.

When you look at today’s world through the prism of Francis’ work, a few things seem clear: Trump is not a one-time phenomenon; the populist tide has been rising for years. His base sticks with him through scandal because it’s not just about him; it’s a movement defined against the so-called ruling class. Congressional Republicans get all tangled on health care and other issues because they don’t understand their voters. Finally, Trump may not be the culmination, but merely a way station toward an even purer populism.

Some of this is correct. Trump’s base sticks with him because he is the great outsider raging against the corrupt machine. And Congressional Republicans are totally lost because they don’t understand their voters. But Brooks ignores the elephant in the room– what caused this?– and instead, chalks it up to a bubbling up of anti-elite feelings from American society.

Brooks misidentifies the cause here. The GOP and rightwing media created this monster. They’ve mocked liberals as “elites” (usually meaning cultural elites) for the last thirty years. Somehow, they failed to anticipate being flanked within their own movement. First, the Tea Party happened. People like Jim Jordan flanked the “establishment” Republicans and tried to control the party agenda from a strict “never compromise” far-right social and economic position. No taxes. No regulations. No social safety-net. It didn’t take long for the racists, nationalists, and anti-globalist kooks to realize they too could capitalize on this movement. Suddenly, being for free trade (a staple of conservative politics since the mid-1940s) made one a cuckold RINO. Support for projecting international strength was pie-in-the-sky thinking more in line with liberal tree-hugging than sound, “conservative” thought.

This rising tide of populism wasn’t a grassroots effort. It is the culmination of decades of top-down preaching from the media and leading politicians. And it isn’t just a problem on the right. The left has engaged in the same narrative, if in much more muted tones, too. Republicans and big business (the economic elites) are to blame for off-shoring and the rising inequality of wages (please ignore how cozy the Democrats have been to the same policies!).*

Historically speaking, none of this is terribly new or surprising. Andrew Jackson, one of Trump’s self-professed favorite historical figures, used the label of ‘elite” to demean and defeat John Quincy Adams. He played up his commonness– Andrew Jackson was incredibly wealthy and lived on one of the nations largest plantations– as opposed to the out of touch dynastic elite that Adams was portrayed as. Jackson is still considered a hero of the common man despite doing very little for them outside of pandering talk. This is the first line of his biography on

More nearly than any of his predecessors, Andrew Jackson was elected by popular vote; as President he sought to act as the direct representative of the common man.

This representative of the common man did more to undermine the power of Congress– the people directly elected to represent the common man– than any President before him (and arguably any of them save FDR). He threatened to hang his former Vice President over tariffs and the notion of nullification and state’s rights. No one cared. Jackson remains the champion of the common man in the popular imagination.

So too with Trump. Lives in a gilded penthouse? That just shows how successful he is and that he is unafraid of being criticized for his audacious (or atrocious) tastes and personal success. Advocates policies that are beneficial to wealth elites– in particular, people like Trump himself? Good for him. He’s looking out for himself just like we would. Disregards the courts and our system of laws? Those are corrupt tools of the elites anyway. Demagogues like Jackson and Trump are immune from criticism to their supporters since part of their appeal is that they thumb their noses at the “elites” in the media or politics, rendering their criticisms little more than sour grapes in the eyes of their adoring fans.

It is undeniable that Americans on both sides of the political spectrum seem fed up with the system. The continued popularity of Bernie Sanders and the inability of mainstream Republicans to capitalize on their control of the three branches of government (they still haven’t passed a single piece of meaningful legislation or made progress on any of their longstanding political goals) or rein in the erstwhile and wildly unpopular President shows how much power these movements have over the withered bodies of our political parties. The popular narrative is that populism has been bubbling up organically on both sides as our parties have been slow to respond to the challenges of life in the post-Cold War era. This narrative is plainly false.

At no point in our past has so much changed been accomplished/survived with so little conflict or loss. We’ve seen our entire economy shift from being focused on heavy industry and natural resource extraction to a technology, service, and information focus. Compare this to the shift from agriculture and light industry in the late 19th century. Our inequality pales in comparison. There isn’t widespread homelessness (other than for our mentally ill, which is a whole separate story). Children don’t starve to death or go work 10 hour days in appalling conditions to get by. The elderly haven’t been left to die or become an unmanageable burden for their children. We’ve come out of this economic shift pretty darn well compared to literally every other major shift in human history. And we did so because the lessons our elites in government, business, and academia learned from those prior shifts, big and small, helped us navigate this change. It hasn’t been perfect. I’m from northwest Ohio. I’ve seen the destruction of communities and the sense of hopelessness this change has left in some places firsthand. But we didn’t fight a war to solve this. We didn’t lose generations of capital to a global depression caused by it. We were not left homeless and hungry by it.

Nor has cultural change been contentious by historical standards. While social media enlarges our voices and puts the daily struggles in our faces 24/7, what is happening today is far less dangerous than what we’ve lived through before. No Civil War is being fought. There are not organized lynch parties. The National Gaurd isn’t opening fire on crowds of college students. Even the most odious law enforcement leader isn’t so brazen as to pull a Bull Connor on BLM protesters. Gay marriage seemed like an impossible dream even 15 years ago. It was passed and implemented in relative peace. The backlash has been small and trifling (wedding cakes, photographers, and craft stores primarily). We are arguing about transgendered bathrooms. Go tell someone from 2001 that we’d have large national conversations about transgendered bathroom policies in fifteen years. Far from living in the most oppressive time, we live in a time of great change.

Ah! This cultural change is what is driving populism. Maybe on the Trump side, but this is not popular with most of America. There may be synergy between certain fanatical segments of the religious right and the racist right (the people Francis and later Trump most deeply appeal to) in their desire to recreate an imaginary white, “Christian,” western European utopian American that never existed, but for most Americans, this is a non-starter. It isn’t what motivated large swaths of Americans to vote Trump or Sanders. It just motivates a disgusting core of the cancer that is American populism.

If there is truth to the widely accepted notion that people in America crave a populist movement at this point, it isn’t is because “the elites” have forgotten the common man. It is because we’ve fed them a steady diet of “everything is horrible” from every conceivable angle for most of my lifetime. A conservative friend expressed distress over the horrible state of the world to me a few days ago. She’s largely disconnected from the political world after Trump won the GOP nomination, so her commentary was centered on fairly “normal” local, regional, national interest stories. I did a quick search to find something positive to show her. Scrolling through the news on science, health, and education (areas where we are demonstrably moving forward in huge, positive ways on nearly a daily basis) on the WaPo, NYT, WSJ, and Fox News brought me nothing. Everything is negative. Be afraid of this finding. Fight this movement. Sneek a peek at the editorial pages. That thing we told you to fear– the liberal/conservative “elites” are going to force it on us.


I don’t think this is our new normal. Trump remains an anomaly. Before long, people will start to remember that things are not so dire. That life continues to be pretty good. And that those hated elites are not the boogeymen we make them out to be. This isn’t to say we have perfected human life. Problems exist and will continue to grow. We need to address the collapse of the middle class. The opioid epidemic is real and terrifying. Figuring out our role in the international community will always be rife with challenges and danger, along with opportunity and hope. And eventually, our media might evolve into something less dreadful. I don’t think the future of media is Alex Jones smashups of QVC with sensational news from a National Enquirer-Fox News hybrid. Nor have we set ourselves down the path of bizarre celebrity Presidents that leads to Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho. However, avoiding this future requires change. The great dying off of cable will help– the elimination of the 24-hour tv news cycle will be a boon to us all. But we as consumers need to change too. Grassroots didn’t cause this populist outburst, but it might well fix it. As long as people like Rush Limbaugh dominate the political media landscape, we will never be able to have reasonable conversations about politics. The no-holds-barred approach to politics he advocates, and these populist movements adopt, is anti-democratic. It literally breaks the system. Get outside your bubble. Start by finding one issue you have common ground with the other side on and work from there. Americans are not as divided as they seem. But that wouldn’t make for a very good show or a compelling reason to vote for me would it?





*I won’t pretend there is equivalence here– the right-wing news sources, especially if you consider the wildly popular websites like Bannonbart, are significantly worse. We should still fight this from every angle.

2 thoughts on “American Populism

  1. As a condition of my last job, I had to attend and “be active in” a church. So I sorted out its archives and found a fascinating 1964 newsletter from the National Council of Churches about the radical right. It reviewed a book called The Strange Tactics of Extremism by Harry and Bonaro Overstreet and a couple of other books (Danger on the Right, from the Anti-Defamation League, and The Christian Fright Peddlers by Brooks R. Walker). The details of radical right tactics in the 1950s and early ’60s are terrifyingly similar to the agenda of Trump and his supporters. I grew up being fed this then-fringe stuff. Now it is mainstream and commonly accepted and its adherents are exculpated even by those who are against it. I don’t know how this happened since nothing that has been feared for the past 65 years has come to pass, but I think that the mutual infiltration of religion and politics and the updating and normalization of the pro-slavery “spirituality of the church” doctrine thanks to people like Billy Graham is much to blame.


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