Is Donald Trump a ‘populist’, the candidate of resentment and privilege or simply the final embodiment of the Crazy, the Crazy made flesh and coming amongst us, the Jesus who was foretold by Michele Bachmann’s John the Baptist. One of the great injuries Trump has already done to America and our collective dignity is that we are now forced to take him seriously in terms of understanding what he represents in political terms since he’s not going anywhere and only appears to be gaining strength.
Much of what has driven the GOP in the Obama era has been anxiety and resentment about losing out to rising forces in the American political-economy and culture – the decreasing white share of the national electorate (embodied by but also partly connected to Barack Obama’s election), changing social and cultural mores (support for LGBT rights) driven by Americans under the age of 35, a renascent and assertive women’s movement and the increasing defensiveness or even paranoia of organized wealth.
Trump brings all these together with better messaging and fewer apologies – which is the core of his political potency and why his electoral strength seems to cross many common ideological divisions. In Trump world there are winners and losers. And right now you’re a loser. And you should be ashamed of being a loser when Mexico and China and the illegal immigrants are winners. But Trump will show you how to be a winner again because he’s a winner. He’ll help you get back what’s yours – which is basically the textbook definition of the politics of resentment.
Most interesting to me is how Trump appears to be making a bid to rebrand the GOP as a white nationalist party, just with better marketing and better hair. Trump’s response to that anti-immigrant hate crime in Boston remains very telling and has not received enough attention. Today we see a similar response from his campaign manager to people chanting ‘white power’ at his big speech in Alabama. Said Corey Lewandowski: “I don’t know about the individual you’re talking about in Alabama. I know there were 30-plus thousand people in that stadium. They were very receptive to the message of ‘making America great again’ because they want to be proud to be Americans again.”
And on the Boston hate crime: “We would never condone violence. If that’s what happened in Boston, by no means would that be acceptable in any nature. However, we should not be ashamed to be Americans. We should be proud of our country, proud of our heritage, and continue to be the greatest country in the world.”
It’s really not too much to say that the Trump campaign is leaving the door wide open to people who see his immigrant bashing American greatness campaign in deeply racial terms, indeed even to ones who are so “passionate” that their passion could spill over into violence.
Another look at this question of populism and grievance is this piece by Jeet Heer in the new New Republic. It’s a good piece and I agree with most but not all of it. Jeet’s argument is that far from being a populist Trump is the candidate of aggrieved and threatened privilege. And the idea of thinking of populism in this curdled way, he argues, goes back to Richard Hofstadter’s incredibly influential post-war writing on the so-called ‘paranoid style’ in American politics. Hofstadter took the turn of the century Populist movement, which had had a generally good reputation among historians who saw it as a thoroughgoing critique of Gilded Age America by the have-nots and recast it as a largely irrational tendency in American politics shot through with bigotry and anti-Semitism.
This is a really interesting and thought-provoking piece. Like I said, there are various ways I disagree with it. But on balance, I think he’s right on the mark.
One exception to this is the news we see from over the weekend that Trump is railing against a tax code tilted toward the super rich and particularly toward hedge fun managers who he says are “getting away with murder.” That certainly sounds like what you might call a genuinely populist message.
What I draw from this is that the politics of grievance and resentment can pull in and appeal to people who are … well, genuinely and legitimately aggrieved. Indeed, at their best, that’s what campaigns like Trump’s do, feed off the grievances and anger of aggrieved elites but also appeal to people who are undeniably getting a bag shake from the system. At some level you have to do that since, by definition, there aren’t enough elites to build a majority political movement around.