A political pigeonhole for Trump
Commentators on the Trump phenomenon tend to stress its uniqueness. They dwell on President Trump’s personal idiosyncrasies, and both the oddity of his policy positions and their mercurial transformations over time. The overall impression we are given is that Trump is historically unprecedented.
But a very different interpretation is both plausible and illuminating. According to this interpretation, Trump actually belongs to an old, well-known American political tradition. It is a tradition that originated in the late 19th century and produced a succession of influential popular movements, all of which displayed a common political approach that is now called “populism.”
Populism tends to be sidelined in discussions of American politics because of the dominance of the two-party system. If a political movement isn’t Democratic or Republican, we throw it in the bin marked “third-party” and think no more about it. Our two-party obsession also leads us to classify all political movements according to where they fit on the conservative-liberal continuum. Populism doesn’t occupy a clear position on that continuum, so it falls outside the categories usually invoked in political argument.
What is populism? John Judis, who has written an insightful book on the subject, says that populism is not so much a political ideology, as a political narrative within which ordinary people, who are law-abiding, hard-working and deserving, are seen to be systematically wronged by an elite group, which is powerful, arrogant, and tyrannical. Those ordinary, downtrodden folk then rise up and confront their oppressors, righting the wrongs and restoring democracy.
It is true that there is no “populist” point on the conservative-liberal spectrum, but individual populists can certainly be located there. Left-wing populists, according to Judis, tend to frame their narrative as involving just the people versus the elite.
Rightwing populists like to add a third element. For them, the righteous ordinary people are often sandwiched between the tyrannical elite above, and a group below that receives undeserved benefits from the elite, such as Afro-Americans, immigrants or the poor. Nonetheless, many populists are a puzzling mix of left, right, and centrist inclinations, and defy placement on the left-right spectrum.
Historically, the term “populism” was coined by a political movement of the 1890s, the Peoples Party. That movement grew out of a coalition of farm organizations, the Farmer Alliances, and a worker’s group called the Knights of Labor. There had been a sharp drop in agricultural prices during the 1870s and 1880s that forced most farmers into debt.
The railroads refused to lower their freight charges, and there was an influx of low-wage immigrants who began to work on large, company-owned farms. The Knights of Labor, on the other hand, struggled to promote unionization in order to make possible a decent life for blue-collar workers.
In 1892, these groups joined to became The Peoples Party. They charged that the country was being run by “plutocrats” and challenged the prevailing elite’s assumption that laissez-faire capitalism should guide government policies. The Peoples Party did well in the election of 1894, then William Jennings Bryan adopted many of its political positions, the Knights of Labor disintegrated, and the party evaporated.
Another prominent populist of the left-wing variety was Louisiana’s Huey Long. He was governor of his state in 1928, then senator, and backed Roosevelt in the election of 1932. But Roosevelt failed to help the poor, and Long was their champion. FDR’s administration served the interests of “Mr. Morgan” and “Mr. Rockefeller,” according to Long.
In 1934, Long formed the Share our Wealth Society and made extravagant proposals to correct Roosevelt’s failures. He suggested imposing a cap on family wealth and annual income and redistributing the resulting federal income to assure that the poor could live decent lives.
Democrats feared that if Long ran against Roosevelt in 1936, he would get enough votes to deny their candidate victory. As a result, in 1935, Roosevelt introduced what is called the “second New Deal,” which actually addressed the plight of the poor. Long never challenged Roosevelt in an election; he was assassinated later that same year.
More recent populists include George Wallace, who, in the late 1960s, famously called upon the ordinary (white) people of the south to rise up and oppose Washington’s tyrannical imposition of integration. (Yet on issues not involving race, he was a centrist.) Wallace was instrumental in turning the south against the Democrats in subsequent years.
Ross Perot was a populist with a leftist leaning who, in 1992 and 1996, challenged the pervasive neo-liberalism of the major parties, famously opposing NAFTA. Perot regarded the existing party establishments as corrupt and dominated by corporate money.
Also in the 1990s, Pat Buchanan, a rightwing populist, attacked the corporate world, globalization, Wall Street and foreign entanglements. After Buchanan, there was the Tea Party, and the Occupy movement, both populist, but on opposite sides of the political spectrum.
And then, finally, in the 2016 presidential contest, we found ourselves with a leftwing populist in the person of Bernie Sanders, a right-wing populist (nominally a Republican) in Donald Trump, a spate of more-or-less traditional Republicans, and one lone representative of the liberal establishment, Hilary Clinton.
Judis thinks that what we learn from previous populist movements in this country is that when a populist politician gains a significant following, there is probably some underlying assumption of the establishment that needs to be questioned. Trump and Sanders seem to bear out that observation.
In hindsight, the failure of both major parties to do anything about the outrageous disparity between the rich and the poor and address the plight of the working class — largely because of their commitment to the neo-liberal doctrines of finance capitalism, deregulation, free trade and globalization — turned out to be the political lesson of 2016.
And it turns out that there is something distinctive about Trump after all. He may be an ignoramus with a personality disorder, but he is, arguably, only the third populist to become president.
Leonard Hitchcock of Pocatello is an alumnus of the University of Iowa and did graduate work at Claremont Graduate University and the University of California, San Diego. He taught philosophy in California and Arizona for 15 years. In 1985, after earning a library degree, he was hired by Idaho State University. He retired from ISU’s Oboler Library in 2006.