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Donald Trump is an unlikely populist. The Republican nominee for U.S. president inherited a fortune, boasts about his wealth and his many properties, shuttles between his exclusive resorts and luxury hotels, and has adopted an economic plan that would, among other things, slash tax rates for rich people like himself. But a politician does not have to live among people of modest means, or even tout policies that would boost their incomes, to articulate their grievances and gain their support. Win or lose, Trump has tapped into a deep vein of distress and resentment among millions of white working- and middle-class Americans.
Trump is hardly the first politician to bash elites and champion the interests of ordinary people. Two different, often competing populist traditions have long thrived in the United States. 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.”
Both types of American populists have, from time to time, gained political influence. Their outbursts are not random. They arise in response to real grievances: an economic system that favors the rich, fear of losing jobs to new immigrants, and politicians who care more about their own advancement than the well-being of the majority. Ultimately, the only way to blunt their appeal is to take those problems seriously.
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.
But the term “populist” used to have a more precise meaning. In the 1890s, journalists who knew their Latin coined the word to describe a large third party, the Populist, or People’s, Party, which powerfully articulated the progressive, civic-nationalist strain of American populism. The People’s Party sought to free the political system from the grip of “the money power.” Its activists, most of whom came from the South and the West, hailed the common interests of rural and urban labor and blasted monopolies in industry and high finance for impoverishing the masses. “We seek to restore the Government of the Republic to the hands of the ‘plain people’ with whom it originated,” thundered Ignatius Donnelly, a novelist and former Republican congressman, in his keynote speech at the party’s founding convention in Omaha in 1892. The new party sought to expand the power of the central government to serve those “plain people” and to humble their exploiters. That same year, James Weaver, the Populist nominee for president, won 22 electoral votes, and the party seemed poised to take control of several states in the South and the Great Plains. But four years later, at a divided national convention, a majority of delegates backed the Democratic nominee, William Jennings Bryan, who embraced some of the party’s main proposals, such as a flexible money supply based on silver as well as gold. When Bryan, “the Great Commoner,” lost the 1896 election, the third party declined rapidly. Its fate, like that of most third parties, was like that of a bee, as the historian Richard Hofstadter wrote in 1955. Once it had stung the political establishment, it died.
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.
The other strain of populism—the racial-nationalist sort—emerged at about the same time as the People’s Party. Both sprang from the same sense of alarm during the Gilded Age about widening inequality between unregulated corporations and investment houses and ordinary workers and small farmers. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the champions of this strain of thought used xenophobic appeals to lobby Congress to bar all Chinese and most Japanese laborers from immigrating to the United States. Working- and middle-class white Americans, some of whom belonged to struggling labor unions, led this movement and made up the bulk of its adherents. “Our moneyed men . . . have rallied under the banner of the millionaire, the banker, and the land monopolist, the railroad king and the false politician, to effect their purpose,” proclaimed Denis Kearney, a small businessman from San Francisco with a gift for incendiary rhetoric who founded the Workingmen’s Party of California (WPC) in 1877. Kearney charged that a “bloated aristocracy . . . rakes the slums of Asia to find the meanest slave on earth—the Chinese coolie—and imports him here to meet the free American in the labor market, and still further widen the breach between the rich and the poor, still further to degrade white labor.”
Trump’s rise has demonstrated the enduring appeal of the racial-nationalist strain of American populism.
Brandishing the slogan “The Chinese Must Go!” and demanding an eight-hour workday and public works jobs for the unemployed, the party grew rapidly. Only a few white labor activists objected to its racist rhetoric. The WPC won control of San Francisco and several smaller cities and played a major role in rewriting California’s constitution to exclude the Chinese and set up a commission to regulate the Central Pacific Railroad, a titanic force in the state’s economy. Soon, however, the WPC was torn apart by internal conflicts: Kearney’s faction wanted to keep up its attack on the Chinese “menace,” but many labor unionists wanted to focus on demands for a shorter workday, government jobs for the unemployed, and higher taxes on the rich.
Yet populist activists and politicians in Kearney’s mold did achieve a major victory. In 1882, they convinced Congress to pass the Chinese Exclusion Act—the first law in U.S. history to bar members of a specific nationality from entering the country. Two decades later, activists in the California labor movement spearheaded a fresh campaign to pressure Congress to ban all Japanese immigration. Their primary motivation echoes the threat that Trump sees coming from Muslim nations today: Japanese immigrants, many white workers alleged, were spies for their country’s emperor who were planning attacks on the United States. The Japanese “have the cunning of the fox and the ferocity of a bloodthirsty hyena,” wrote Olaf Tveitmoe, a San Francisco union official, who was himself an immigrant from Norway, in 1908. During World War II, such attitudes helped legitimize the federal government’s forced relocation of some 112,000 Japanese Americans, most of whom were U.S. citizens.
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 its 1892 platform, for example, the People’s Party warned that a “vast conspiracy against mankind” in favor of the gold standard had “been organized on two continents” and was “rapidly taking possession of the world.” Of the two strains, however, populists in the racial-nationalist tradition have always been the most hostile to international engagement. In the mid-1930s, Father Charles Coughlin, “the radio priest,” urged his huge broadcast audience to defeat ratification of a treaty President Franklin Roosevelt had signed that would have allowed the United States to participate in the World Court at The Hague. That court, Coughlin charged, was a tool of the same “international bankers” who had supposedly dragged the nation into the slaughter of World War I. The resulting torrent of fear-driven mail cowed enough senators to deny Roosevelt the two-thirds majority he needed.
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.
This is a recent absence in the history of American populism. The People’s Party and its allies applauded the moral superiority of “the producing classes,” who “created all wealth” with their muscles and brains. Their virtuous majority included industrial wage earners, small farmers, and altruistic professionals such as teachers and physicians. For prohibitionists who backed the KKK, “the people” were the teetotaling white evangelical Christians who had the spiritual fortitude to protect their families and their nation from the scourge of the “liquor traffic.” Conservatives such as Senator Barry Goldwater and President Ronald Reagan asserted that they were speaking for the “taxpayers”—an updated version of the “producers” of old. In his 1968 presidential campaign, the third-party candidate George Wallace even described the people he claimed to represent by naming their occupations: “the bus driver, the truck driver, the beautician, the fireman, the policeman, and the steelworker, the plumber, and the communications worker, and the oil worker and the little businessman.”
Like these earlier demagogues, Trump also condemns the global elite for promoting “open borders.”
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.
Yet progressive populists have also failed to solve this rhetorical challenge. Sanders made a remarkable run for the Democratic nomination this year. But like Trump, he was much clearer about the elite he despised—in his case, “the billionaire class”—than about who exactly would contribute to and benefit from his self-proclaimed revolution. Perhaps a candidate who drew his most ardent support from young Americans of all classes and races could not have defined his “people” more precisely, even had he wanted to.
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.
Trump will struggle to win the White House. Despite the manifest weaknesses of Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee—including a lack of public trust and an awkward speaking style—her opponent has earned a reputation for vicious harangues against minority groups and individuals rather than statesmanlike conduct or creative policies. For much of his campaign, his slogan might as well have been “Make America Hate Again.” Such negativity has seldom been a sound strategy for winning the presidency in a nation where most people pride themselves, perhaps naively, on their optimism and openness. And overt racial nationalism is no longer acceptable in national campaigns.
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.
But so long as neither of the two main U.S. parties addresses their concerns in a serious and empathetic way—by severely limiting undocumented immigration and providing secure employment at decent wages—they will likely remain open to politicians who do make such an effort, however ill informed he or she might be. If he loses, Trump may never run for political office again. The tradition of populism he has exploited, however, will endure.
At its best, populism provides a language that can strengthen democracy, not imperil it. The People’s Party helped usher in many of the progressive reforms, such as the income tax and corporate regulation, that made the United States a more humane society in the twentieth century. Democrats comfortable with using populist appeals, from Bryan to FDR, did much to create the liberal capitalist order that, despite its flaws, few contemporary Americans want to dismantle. Even some populist orators who railed against immigrants generated support for laws, such as the eight-hour workday, that, in the end, helped all wage earners in the country, regardless of their place of birth.
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.”