Is The Donald a populist candidate? Our friend Glenn Reynolds argued in Sunday’s USA Today that the rise of Donald Trump is best understood as a populist event—“an indictment of the GOP establishment and, for that matter, of the American political establishment in general” and “a sign that large numbers of voters don’t feel represented by more mainstream politicians.”
Over at the Washington Post, Daniel Drezner, another friend, disputes Reynolds’ interpretation of Trump, arguing that though “there’s definitely something to this”, “on closer inspection this isn’t really a straightforward populist story, for two reasons.” The first is that “the policy preferences that Trump is pushing aren’t all that popular.” The second is that Trump, rather than emphasizing his solidarity with ordinary people, makes a point of flaunting his tremendous wealth and privilege at every possible opportunity in outrageous ways.
But Reynolds is right and Trump is very much a classic populist—in the following sense. Populism isn’t always about taking majority positions or cultivating economic solidarity with non-elites. In some populist movements, specific policy positions that don’t always or even often have majority support gain energy by hooking up with generalized dissatisfaction with elites and the status quo. Late 19th- and early 20th-century populism, from a policy standpoint, put a lot of stress on agrarian issues and crackpot economic ideas that, though there weren’t any opinion polls at the time, don’t seem to have had majority support. So while, as Drezner points out, hard-line immigration enforcement may not be particularly high on the agendas of a majority of voters, Trump can use the issue to signal his contempt for the establishment—and voters pay more attention to the tune than to the lyrics.
As for Drezner’s argument that Trump’s wealth and Ivy League credentials weaken his populist bona fides: Rich and successful men, from Catiline to Andrew Jackson to Ross Perot, have presented themselves as populists from time immemorial. The Donald’s high-flying, bombastic style, with its tasteless and vulgar flaunting of exactly the kind of wealth that populism resents, looks superficially like it ought to drive hoi polloi away. That’s not how it works. Populism is often a political tool for members of the elite who, for one reason or another, can’t make it to the top through conventional methods and have to play an outside game to realize their ambitions; elitists and men of the people have both played the populist card over the centuries.
Some populists, like William Jennings Bryan, make a point of staying close to the people they sprang from. Some politicians build mass support by ostentatious simplicity; think of Gandhi in India. That is roughly the path that Scott Walker is taking, loincloth and Hindu mysticism aside. Some politicians appeal to popular constituencies by advocating for their economic interests, at least apparently. This was the path of Huey “Every Man A King” Long in Louisiana. It was also the strategy President Harry Truman took in 1948 when he warned working Americans against Republican plans to destroy the trade union movement and the New Deal welfare state.
But Trump offers a different kind of “representation.” By flouting PC norms, reducing opponents and journalists to sputtering outrage as he trashes the conventions of political discourse, and dismissing his critics with airy put-downs, he is living the life that—at least some of the time—a lot of people wish they had either the courage or the resources to live. In this sense he’s not unlike Italy’s bad boy Silvio Berlusconi, who accumulated tremendous popular support by flaunting his refusal to abide by conventional rules of behavior.
For voters who’ve come to believe that both parties are owned and operated by the kind of people who pay Hillary Clinton hundreds of thousands of dollars to make platitudinous speeches, who believe that the system is rigged and will never be reformed, that the candidates offering “real solutions to real problems” are fooling either themselves or, more probably, you, Trump at least offers the satisfaction of making the other rat bastards and pompous PC elites squirm. He laughs at them and makes them look small; he defies their hatred and revels in their pursed-lip disapproval. By incurring the hatred of the chattering classes, he seems to some voters to be signaling both that he hates the empty showmanship of the capital as much as they do and that, by making himself the enemy of the self-determined arbiters of the rules of the political game, he is throwing himself on the support of the American people.
Trump is a sham, of course, but for many Americans in 2015 the whole political process is a sham. Trump, however, is an entertaining sham, and some voters think that if the establishment is going to screw you no matter what you do, you might as well vote for the funny one.
So it doesn’t matter that Trump’s positions (insofar as he has taken any) are unpopular, or that he is so obviously and outrageously a member of the economic elite that has so many Americans riled up this year—indeed, it may help him. Donald Trump is living large, which is how many Americans wish they could live.
In part, also, Trump’s popularity is the result of harmless good fun; our two-year presidential electoral cycle is a ridiculous spectacle and the reporters and pundits who discuss the horse race in such diligent detail are chasing will o’ the wisps and wasting time. Many of the people who answer the polls that get analyzed to death in long, thumb sucker pieces aren’t thinking seriously about how they will vote more than a year from now. You can also tell a pollster that you plan to vote for Trump simply, as George Wallace used to put it back in 1968, to “send them a message.” Trump offers average Americans the chance to pull the Establishment’s chain, and then watch the wonks and the pundits jerk and squeal. This is a lot of fun for the tens of millions of people out there who think the whole political class consists of high-minded incompetents and unprincipled parasites.
Nihilistic populism, that is, can also be a powerful phenomenon.