Since Donald Trump dined with fellow business tycoon Mitt Romney on “young garlic soup with thyme and sautéed frog legs” and tapped former Goldman Sachs banker Steven Mnuchin (just one of the many financial elites circling the Trump transition team) to run the U.S. Treasury, many journalists have revived an old attack on the President-elect: he is not a populist but a garden-variety plutocrat, and his supporters who believed he was anything else were played for suckers.
This argument may well end up being vindicated. No one—probably not even Trump himself—knows whether this will be an administration that mostly bows to the old-school GOP elite, or whether it will turn out to be something more innovative and unpredictable (either in a benign or destructive way). But the “not a populist” critique is at best premature and at worst destructive to the Trump resistance effort, because it risks dismissing a core source of the President-elect’s perpetually underestimated appeal.
Simplistic proclamations that Trump’s working-class supporters were duped because he continues to act like and associate with members of the super-rich involve three basic oversights. First, as Walter Russell Mead noted last August, “rich and successful men, from Catiline to Andrew Jackson to Ross Perot, have presented themselves as populists from time immemorial.” While Trump’s populism rests in part on issue-based appeals, it is most pronounced in his political and rhetorical style: “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.” And, crucially, through social media ingenuity, he is offering his supporters a front-row view of the entire spectacle.
During the primaries, Ross Douthat highlighted a related point: “Trump’s appeal is oddly like that of Franklin Roosevelt, in the sense that he’s a rich, well-connected figure—a rich New Yorker, at that—who’s campaigning as a traitor to his class.” Roosevelt’s closest advisers weren’t, for the most part, fellow plutocrats, but rather boutique Ivy League academics—hardly the salt of the earth.
This gets at a second point, about the social disconnect between journalists and Trump’s electoral base. While most journalists would consider an administration packed with pro-redistribution academic technocrats to be more authentically “populist” than one with strong influence from business leaders, many white working-class voters may not see it that way. As Joan C. Williams noted in the Harvard Business Review:
One little-known element of that gap is that the white working class (WWC) resents professionals but admires the rich. Class migrants (white-collar professionals born to blue-collar families) report that “professional people were generally suspect” and that managers are college kids “who don’t know shit about how to do anything but are full of ideas about how I have to do my job,” said Alfred Lubrano in Limbo. Barbara Ehrenreich recalled in 1990 that her blue-collar dad “could not say the word doctor without the virtual prefix quack. Lawyers were shysters…and professors were without exception phonies.” Annette Lareau found tremendous resentment against teachers, who were perceived as condescending and unhelpful.
Rather than a soak-the-rich free-for-all, Jacksonians tend to support a “reciprocal” welfare state that favors earned benefits, looks skeptically upon non-workers, and allows capitalists to enjoy the fruits of their success, provided it is seen as justly earned. Meanwhile, as the philosopher Robert Nozick famously argued, the strongest resentment of the economic elite in America often derives not from the working class but from intellectuals (“wordsmiths,” he called them), who know they are smarter than capitalists but are less lavishly rewarded.
Finally, even to the extent that many of Trump’s hires do represent the hated elite, his decision to bring them into his orbit might enhance rather than compromise his populist message. Here, once again, the vast divide between the journalistic and Trumpian outlooks is worth remembering. Journalists and editors see offering someone a job as a sign of respect or approval. But in Donald Trump’s zero-sum, adversarial view of the world, “hiring” someone might be less a signal of approval than an act of subordination. After all, Trump has rarely shown deference to the people he works with. Parading potential administration picks around like game show contestants and then putting them under his command represents, in a sense, the performative submission of the ruling class. In the eyes of many of his supporters, Trump’s decision to put bankers and establishmentarians under his command extends his symbolic conquest of the American elite.
Once again, it may turn out that Donald Trump actually governs much like any other establishment Republican would, but with some added symbolic but ultimately inconsequential gestures of working-class solidarity, like the one he just pulled off in Indiana. But as Josh Barro points out, it is still important that Trump critics looking to counter his administration and police its inevitable abuses understand the real nature of his populism, rather than conjuring up some imagined version that vindicates their pre-existing assumptions and so is easier to dismiss.