Campaigning for a Republican congressional candidate in the hotly contested June 2017 special election outside of Atlanta, Agriculture Secretary and former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue tried to sum up the appeal of President Donald J. Trump: “The president is a true populist. He cares for the little people …”
Take his words literally and at a surface level we have a compact and concise definition of American populism: caring for the little people, the people who work hard and believe they built America but feel they have no voice. “I am your voice,” a defiant Donald Trump assured his supporters in his 2016 convention speech, sealing his populist political persona.
So is that what American populism is all about?
Hark back to the original populists of the 1890s and they saw themselves exactly the same way, as champions of common Americans left behind by distant, powerful interests that were driving — and profiting from — economic dislocation and change.
These populists channeled the fears and frustrations of Southern and Midwestern farmers who were straining to keep up in an increasingly industrialized and national economy — and growing more and more resentful toward an emerging modern culture that no longer venerated the yeomen and instead celebrated the captains of industry.
So they advocated an expansion of government’s power to regulate capitalism and ease the debt burden of the little people, and they lashed out at banks, railroads, utilities and cities, seeing them all as corrupt influences that were undermining not only their livelihood but their way of life.
But as much as populism was borne out of the economic and cultural dispossession of little people, rarely do we associate it with a particular subset of little people for whom populists seldom speak: ethnic minorities and African-Americans — who, arguably, are and have been the most economically and culturally dispossessed of all Americans, and who can certainly make an equal claim that they built this country and never got credit for it.
In fact the original populists were largely inhospitable if not hostile to the millions of blacks and immigrants living in America at the time, reflecting the worldview of their Southern and Midwestern base and an abiding nativism that permeated much of the movement.
So despite a political agenda aimed at comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, the original populism only flattered itself by claiming to be a movement for all the “little people.” It was chiefly a white man’s crusade built on real and imagined grievances and real and imagined enemies.
The same can be said about today’s populism as channeled through Donald Trump and the fervent and near religious devotion of his supporters.
The question is what more drives this populist impulse beyond an aggrieved cohort of self-proclaimed “little people” angry at the big, powerful and impersonal forces that to them are undermining their American Valhalla.
A key factor in understanding American populists is their drive to regain a lost status they once held but no longer claim in our economy and culture.
Behavioral economics teaches us that people are far more motivated to avoid a loss than acquire a gain — and invest far more emotion to prevent a loss than benefit from a gain — which suggests that politicians who promise to reaffirm the status of erstwhile dominant constituencies will gain far more enthusiastic support than those who simply promise new and bigger programs to help people pursue their American dream.
And that was precisely the magic behind Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign: he promised his supporters that the only way to “make America great again” was by restoring their status as the ones who made America great in the first place — which is exactly how they see themselves.
In particular, white working-class Americans — Donald Trump’s base — were a constituency ripe for this message. To them, they were the real heroes of post-World War II America, the ones who made our prosperity and pre-eminence possible. Theirs is a narrative of an American century built by smokestack industries and sturdy white men with a blue-collar, lunch-pail ethic that would come to define the middle class of the post-war years.
White men especially saw their role as special. They were the breadwinners, the unrivaled heads of families, the ones America called upon to keep us prosperous and safe. Popular culture and politicians celebrated them as the good, virtuous, hard-working souls on whose broad shoulders America became great. That they may have benefited from the racial and gender discrimination of those years is immaterial to how they saw themselves. They played by the rules and they earned it.
But then those seemingly bedrock blue-collar jobs began to disappear. What was once a dominant manufacturing sector that in the 1950s accounted for nearly a third of all employment has declined to fewer than 10 percent of all jobs today — and with it the decent middle-class livelihood that came from these jobs. As The New York Times observed in 2016, “Anyone younger than 35 has never lived in a world where more than 1 in 5 jobs were in factories.”
Nor was it merely the loss of jobs. It was also the loss of prestige that came with the membership in the working class. In our post-industrial knowledge economy today, we celebrate brains over brawn, the creative class over the working class, the bespectacled geek who constructs algorithms over the hard hat who constructs their high tech campuses.
Politicians may troll the white working class for votes, but except for an occasional art deco version of working-class heroes and their machines, our cultural arbiters have deemed them benighted and even bigoted throwbacks to a rusted out, less enlightened era. Much as farmers of the earlier populist moment resented their own loss of status as our culture drifted away from the agrarian ideal, today’s white working-class men stew over their diminishing place in the contemporary American pantheon.
But populism has always been about more than a loss of jobs, status and prestige. It’s also about who they blame for that loss. And typically they train their fire on those they view as elites.
Notwithstanding the threads of nativism and xenophobia woven into the early populist rhetoric, their targets were clear: monopolies, banks, industrialists and those who controlled the levers of capital in America. To them, they traced their loss of livelihood and status directly to the economic barons who constituted the elites of their time.
But today’s populists — with the notable exception of the Bernie Sanders wing — don’t rage against the capitalist elites and corporate boards and CEOs and financiers for outsourcing their jobs, closing their plants, squeezing their incomes and soaking up much of the nation’s wealth.
Rather, they aim their anger at those who they believe have deprived them of their cultural capital. To them, it’s the liberal, intellectual and media elites that have redefined who and what America values. On the cultural pedestal is now a rainbow flag, not the American flag. The masculinity of old is now declassé. We elevate diversity and multiculturalism, not the hard hat, cop and white picket fence.
In the white working-class worldview, these elites have hijacked what Sarah Palin once called the “real America” — through globalization that stole their jobs, dispensations and benefits for those that haven’t earned it, and a politically correct hierarchy that privileges gays, minorities, immigrants and now the transgendered, but not the white working class even though, to them, they’re the ones who built the country and deserve respect.
From their perspective, all these elites seem to hand them is disdain and condescension. So they see themselves, in the words of President Trump, as the “forgotten Americans.”
Trump understood all of that from the very beginning of his campaign. Sporting his trademark “Make America Great Again” red baseball cap signaling white working-class solidarity, he vowed to stomp on the elites that his supporters believed were putting them down.
He may have promised them a return of their manufacturing jobs, but he did so with a wink and a nod as both he and they knew that these jobs weren’t really coming back. Instead, the real vindication he offered was a cultural revival and a supersized serving of respect — as well as the satisfaction of sticking it to their politically correct, patronizing foes.
That a billionaire would assume the mantle of pitchfork populism may seem like a political and cultural oxymoron, but Trump is far more like his supporters than appearances suggest. Like them, the cultural arbiters and Manhattan elites never let him inside the club. They may have accepted his money, but they scorned him as garish and gaudy, undeserving of their attention. Now, like a true populist, he’s dishing it back.
Such is the populist impulse that governs America today.