When the Tea Party first rose up in the 2010 midterm election, the last vestiges of left-wing populist agitation which had influenced the political landscape from the late-1800s through the mid-1900s seemed poised to emerge on the right. Fast forward through half a decade of right-wing anti-establishmentarianism fighting in vain against party elites and their inexplicable inability to stand up to the Democrats’ agenda despite controlling Congress and the wholesale rebirth of populism seems inevitable.
Donald Trump is often branded a populist leader, and indeed, he has many of the characteristics of a William Jennings Bryan or an Ignatius Donnelly (and some of the nativist policies, too). But, despite using many elements of populist messaging and playing to a sense of agitation and inefficaciousness which has become one of the defining characteristics of the culture of the right, he has never really formally assumed this mantle.
His success on Nov. 8th would be historically significant as it would mark the first time populism has succeeded in a national general election. But, it would be a mistake to conflate the candidate with the base.
Trump is not really a populist. Sure, he speaks of contracts with the people and paints the global elites as the nefarious takers in an “use versus them” conspiracy which transcends political divides. But, he’s also an industrialist, which is anathema to populism.
Now, there is a distinction to be made between the populism which political scientists discuss and the populist fervor which infects the electorate from time to time.
The first is perhaps summed up best by historian Richard Hofstadter in his excellent book The Age of Reform. Political populism is a movement defined as much by its advocacy for the expansion of federal regulatory oversight powers and economic reforms which separate commercial and investment banks as by the very specific set of beliefs that define its members. It is equal parts reform and agitation, the latter typically driving the former. The essential characteristics of populist agitation, to paraphrase Hofstadter, include the belief that history is a conspiracy, that the two-party system is inherently bad, that rich plutocrats benefit themselves at the expense of normal works, that the end is coming as a result of innovation which the elites use to promote themselves at the expense of the everyman and rampant anti-Semitism, xenophobia and nativism.
There is an absolutist dichotomy, based on the inherent morality of the people and the inherent underhandedness of the elites, which is fundamental to the advancement of these characteristics.
Elements of Trump’s most staunch supporters, though not all, adhere to many of them. The more distasteful elements of populism, such as nationalism, can be found from the last vestiges of the original populist movement from white supremacists.
This is not to say that all Trump supporters are racist, nor that Trump himself is. But the very fact that these elements support Trump, and blend with his supporters on other issues, is fascinating. It suggests that the populist sentiments which are driving some of the Trump fervor are not actually reflected by Trump personally.
There is some degree of dissonance between political populism which the more extreme elements of the polity are expressing in their support of Trump and the more vernacular definition of populism, which is simply a more vague expression of unhappiness with political leaders. It is this latter sentiment Trump taps into.
The end result is that a Trump victory could mean a populist victory by a candidate who is not actually a populist. Trump speaks in vague generalities which play on emotional fears. The rebelliousness of his campaign is tied to a general belief in the need for fundamental reform, not in specific reforms like the institution of a progressive income tax or of a bimetallic standard, issues which defined 19th century political populism.
These nuances, however, are lost, which is appropriate really, since populism is reactionary, not deliberative. But they nevertheless represent yet one more fascinating subversion of the standard fare for electoral politics to an election that has been anything but normal.