The voice of the people is the voice of God – Vox Populi, Vox Dei – words everyone used to mutter back when any reasonably educated person knew Latin – but a fairly commonplace idea. There are experts, and there are wild-eyed cranks, and venial politicians, and clever lawyers and those with this agenda or that – all out to get what they want – but there is the voice of the people, the common man. If you want the best answer to some vexing problem – something as close to the voice of God as possible – then what the sensible and well-informed public thinks is as close as you’re going to get. And even if the public is not all that sensible or well-informed, what they think matters more than anything else. It’s the wisdom of the people. It may be that God speaks through them.
Alternatively, the people might be full of crap. Or the voice of the people is ambiguous – they don’t speak as one – some want this and others want that. Add to that our populist politicians, who say they speak for the people. George Wallace – segregation now, segregation forever – was a populist politician, but that was because he hated big government, at least the one in Washington, and told the common man, the little guy, that he didn’t have to put up with those folks up there telling him how to treat “those” people. But those who believed in segregation now and segregation forever were outnumbered. The sensible and well-informed general public was outraged by what was happening in the South in the early sixties. The voice of the people wasn’t ambiguous. Wallace was the voice of a sliver of the people. He spoke for the common man, the little guy, if that guy lived in the South or in white suburbs elsewhere. The voice of the people was something else entirely.
Sarah Palin ran into the same problem back in October 2008:
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin apologized yesterday for implying that some parts of the country are more American than others, even as similar comments by two Republican congressmen were causing a backlash that threatened their chances for reelection.
In an interview on CNN, Palin said comments she made last week in North Carolina praising small towns as “the real America” and the “pro-America areas of this great nation” were not intended to suggest that other parts of the country are less patriotic or less American.
“If that’s the way it has come across, I apologize,” she told CNN’s Drew Griffin.
If you are going to speak for the people, the Real Americans, you ought to know who they are – some of them live in cities, and even in Hollywood – but there was another guy in North Carolina saying that “liberals hate real Americans that work and accomplish and achieve and believe in God.” There was something in the air. What Sarah Palin said was badly put, but she was one of many – she just happened to get caught. She was an easy target, but populism can be tricky.
Populism can also be effective. That’s why, this summer, we have two populists who are leaving all others in the dust, as the Los Angeles Times’ Kathleen Hennessey notes here:
If Donald Trump were running against Bernie Sanders in the general election next year, Americans would face a choice between an unabashed capitalist and an enthusiastic socialist. One candidate would rail against the power of the “billionaire class,” while the other once said that “part of the beauty of me is that I am very rich.”
On many levels, the contrast between the two candidates in this hypothetical – and highly unlikely matchup would be stark. But it’s what they have in common that’s made them the men with the momentum this summer.
Both Trump the real estate tycoon, and Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont, are tapping into anti-establishment, pro-outsider sentiment that is emerging as a potent force early in the campaign cycle. Years of dissatisfaction with Washington leaders, along with a thirst for authenticity in politics, are leading voters to at least contemplate something different this year – dramatically different.
Voters want their voices to be heard, so they love a populist candidate:
Both campaigns acknowledge – albeit somewhat reluctantly – that they share common undercurrents.
“On the one hand, I find the comparison preposterous,” said Tad Devine, a longtime Democratic strategist and Sanders advisor. Aside from some similar-sounding populist rhetoric on trade and on campaign finance, the two men’s views are “diametrically opposed.”
“On the other hand, I understand why people are looking for some commonality to what’s going on. I think they’re both candidates who are cutting through the typical back-and-forth of politics. … There’s this recognition on the part of voters that this is a guy who says exactly what he’s thinking at the moment.” …
Trump, speaking this week on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” also noted the similarities.
“He’s struck a nerve on the other side and I’ve struck, I think, an even bigger nerve on the Republican side, the conservative side. It’s amazing,” he said.
The Washington Post’s Paul Waldman isn’t so sure about that:
Both parties are drawn to populist appeals, but they come in different variants. The Democratic version tends to be both performative and substantive – they’ll rail against the top one percent, but also offer policy ideas like upper-income tax increases and minimum wage hikes that are intended to serve the interests of regular people. Democratic populism says that the problem is largely about power: who has it, who doesn’t, and on whose behalf it’s wielded.
Republican populism, on the other hand, is aimed against “elites” that are decidedly not economic. It’s the egghead professors, the Hollywood liberals, the government bureaucrats whom they tell their voters to resent and despise. And part of that argument is that despite what those know-it-all experts would have you believe, all our problems have simple and easy solutions. All you need is “common sense” to know how we should reform our health care system, fix the VA, or control undocumented immigration. Understanding how government works isn’t just unnecessary, it’s actually a hindrance to getting things done.
There may be no candidate who has ever sung this tune with quite the verve Trump does, but he’s following in a long tradition.
It’s the same old story:
Ronald Reagan used to say, “there are no easy answers, but there are simple answers” – all it takes is the courage to embrace them. George W. Bush trusted his gut more than his head, and saw a world where there are only good guys and bad guys; once you know who’s who, the path forward is clear and only a wuss would worry about the unintended consequences that might arise from things like invading foreign countries.
In its somewhat less extreme version, this belief in the simple truths that only regular folks can see is what drives the common belief that whatever’s wrong in Washington can be solved by bringing in someone from outside Washington. So Ted Cruz proudly trumpets the fact that all of his colleagues in the Senate think he’s a jerk. And Scott Walker criticizes his own party’s congressional leaders, saying, “We were told if Republicans got the majority there’d be a bill on the president’s desk to repeal ObamaCare. It is August. Where is that bill? Where was that vote?”
Well, the answer is that there’s this thing called a filibuster, which Democrats used to stop that bill from getting to the president’s desk, where it would have been vetoed anyway (the real problem is that those leaders promised their constituents something they knew they could never deliver). But in this particular populist critique, the way institutions work is irrelevant, and a straight-talking, straight-shooting Washington outsider can come in and clean the whole place up wielding nothing more than the force of his will, some common sense, and good old fashioned American gumption.
Waldman can’t believe people fall for this nonsense:
If the Obama years have taught us anything, it’s that policy problems are – guess what – complicated. Understanding policy doesn’t get you all the way to solutions – you need a set of values that guides you and creativity in imagining change, among other things – but you can’t do without that understanding, at a minimum. Yet a significant chunk of voters continues to believe that everything is simple and easy, no matter how many times reality tells them otherwise.
Well, that’s populism for you. The people can be full of crap, but in this item by Jeet Heer in the New Republic, Heer questions the whole idea of populism:
Baffled by Donald Trump’s popularity, some observers have sought to make sense of it with a familiar – and often misused – political label. “Trump is not really a Republican, he’s a populist,” historian Geoffrey Kabaservice told the Guardian. Sarah Palin, who herself often been described as a populist, wrote of the xenophobic real-estate magnate, “Trump has tapped into America’s great populist tradition by speaking to concerns of working class voters.” And countless journalists have applied the P-word to Trump.
What is a populist, precisely? Is it someone who understands or represents ordinary people? Someone who speaks truth to power? Or who simply speaks the truth, unvarnished?
The term is a notoriously slippery one, yet there is no reason it should ever be applied to Trump.
The term just doesn’t fit:
The British scholar Peter Wiles, in a much-quoted 1969 definition encapsulated populism as the belief that “virtue resides in the simple people, who are the overwhelming majority, and in their collective traditions.” Trump’s entire style, his gaudy bragging about his own wealth and achievements, is the opposite of the traditional populist celebration of ordinary humble people. Throughout Trump’s rhetoric runs the theme that wisdom is not to be found in ordinary people but in the leadership skills of Trump himself, who alone has the brains to squash the losers and make America great.
Moreover, as Daniel Drezner notes in The Washington Post, there’s little reason to think that Trump’s positions are popular ones outside the Republican base. Trump has called for the mass expulsion of undocumented immigrations and a reduction of the number of legal immigrants. Anti-immigrant nativism has been in a long-term secular decline since the early 1990s. In 1995, 65 percent of Americans told Gallup that the level of immigration should be decreased. By 2015, in a poll asking the same question, only 34 percent said immigration should go down (as against 65 percent who wanted to maintain the same level or increased).
As The New York Times reported on the weekend, Trump’s actual supporters come from a broad demographic swath of the Republican Party. “He leads among moderates and college-educated voters, despite a populist and anti-immigrant message thought to resonate most with conservatives and less-affluent voters,” the Times noted. College-educated Republicans hardly constitute a populist constituency, so there is good reason to think Trump’s putative populism deserves another label.
Heer has that label:
Rather than a populist, Trump is the voice of aggrieved privilege – of those who already are doing well but feel threatened by social change from below, whether in the form of Hispanic immigrants or uppity women (hence the loud applause he got at the first GOP debate when he derided “political correctness”). Far from being a defender of the little people against the elites, Trump plays to the anxiety of those who fear that their status is being challenged by people they regard as their social inferiors. That’s why the word “loser” is such a big part of his vocabulary.
Trump is not the first authoritarian bigot to be mislabeled a populist. In truth, the term almost always gets misused to describe movements that are all about persevering (and enhancing) hierarchy, not about creating a more egalitarian society.
That’s why Joe McCarthy’s anticommunist vendetta in the early fifties wasn’t, as some say, a populist uprising against those know-it-all-egghead-traitors in our government:
McCarthy’s locus of support was the traditional Republican Party base of business owners, particularly those in small and medium-sized cities. McCarthy appealed to the business elite because his anti-communist crusade promised to roll back the New Deal and newly empowered labor unions. He, no less than Donald Trump, was the voice of aggrieved privilege, not the champion of the common person.
What’s true of McCarthyism is also true of subsequent movements and figures like the John Birch Society, David Duke, Sarah Palin, the Tea Party movement and Donald Trump. As Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons noted in their 2000 book Right Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort, the Birch Society uses “populist rhetoric” but “Birchites distrust the idea of the sovereignty of the people and stress that the United States is a republic, not a democracy… Birchites want to replace the ‘bad’ elites with ‘good’ elites–presumably their allies.” Among the big backers of the Birch Society was the Koch family, who later underwrote the Tea Party movement. Members of the Tea Party, often described as populist, tend to be wealthier and better educated than most Americans, as well as being predominately white.
We need to call this something else:
These are not mass movements of the people hoping to make a more democratic society. Rather they are political factions of authoritarian bigotry, backed by the rich, and designed to protect aggrieved privilege. Trump is best described not as a populist but as an authoritarian bigot, a quality best seen in his callous response to the news that two men evoked his name when they beat up a homeless Mexican man. “I will say that people who are following me are very passionate,” he said. “They love this country and they want this country to be great again.”
Josh Marshall sees that too:
Much of what has driven the GOP in the Obama era has been anxiety and resentment about losing out to rising forces in the American political-economy and culture – the decreasing white share of the national electorate (embodied by but also partly connected to Barack Obama’s election), changing social and cultural mores (support for LGBT rights) driven by Americans under the age of 35, a renascent and assertive women’s movement and the increasing defensiveness or even paranoia of organized wealth.
Trump brings all these together with better messaging and fewer apologies – which is the core of his political potency and why his electoral strength seems to cross many common ideological divisions. In Trump world there are winners and losers. And right now you’re a loser. And you should be ashamed of being a loser when Mexico and China and the illegal immigrants are winners. But Trump will show you how to be a winner again because he’s a winner. He’ll help you get back what’s yours – which is basically the textbook definition of the politics of resentment.
But that has implications:
Trump appears to be making a bid to rebrand the GOP as a white nationalist party, just with better marketing and better hair. Trump’s response to that anti-immigrant hate crime in Boston remains very telling and has not received enough attention. Today we see a similar response from his campaign manager to people chanting ‘white power’ at his big speech in Alabama. Said Corey Lewandowski – “I don’t know about the individual you’re talking about in Alabama. I know there were 30-plus thousand people in that stadium. They were very receptive to the message of ‘making America great again’ because they want to be proud to be Americans again.”
And on the Boston hate crime: “We would never condone violence. If that’s what happened in Boston, by no means would that be acceptable in any nature. However, we should not be ashamed to be Americans. We should be proud of our country, proud of our heritage, and continue to be the greatest country in the world.”
It’s really not too much to say that the Trump campaign is leaving the door wide open to people who see his immigrant bashing American greatness campaign in deeply racial terms, indeed even to ones who are so “passionate” that their passion could spill over into violence.
This is frightening, almost:
One exception to this is the news we see from over the weekend that Trump is railing against a tax code tilted toward the super-rich and particularly toward hedge fund managers who he says are “getting away with murder.” That certainly sounds like what you might call a genuinely populist message.
What I draw from this is that the politics of grievance and resentment can pull in and appeal to people who are … well, genuinely and legitimately aggrieved. Indeed, at their best, that’s what campaigns like Trump’s do, feed off the grievances and anger of aggrieved elites but also appeal to people who are undeniably getting a bag shake from the system. At some level you have to do that since, by definition, there aren’t enough elites to build a majority political movement around.
Yes, populism is tricky, but a few weeks earlier David Brooks had said this:
The times are perfect for Donald Trump. He’s an outsider, which appeals to the alienated. He’s confrontational, which appeals to the frustrated. And, in a unique 21st-century wrinkle, he’s a narcissist who thinks he can solve every problem, which appeals to people who in challenging times don’t feel confident in their understanding of their surroundings and who crave leaders who seem to be.
Cool, but there’s Joyce E. A. Russell, vice dean at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business and director of its Executive Coaching and Leadership Development Program, and a licensed industrial and organizational psychologist, who says this:
We often think about the magnetic and attractive side of charisma – the person with strong oral communication skills who exudes presence and positivity. He or she has strong self-esteem and projects confidence. These are all wonderful attributes. We know that charismatic leaders can draw us in to listen to their message. But there can be a “dark side” of charisma in which the charismatic person primarily uses charm to manipulate others. Leaders who have a dark side may be narcissistic leaders.
And they have these traits:
They have a very high need for attention and admiration and show less concern for others.
They have excessive love and admiration of themselves and an inflated sense of self-worth.
They look at themselves with undue favor, self-love, conceit, pride and vanity.
They lack empathy for others, especially since they are so preoccupied with themselves.
They may act immaturely (for example, use inappropriate humor or gestures) to draw attention to themselves.
They may act in grandiose or exhibitionistic ways.
They like being the center of attention.
They don’t think anyone has the right to criticize them and they complain about criticism (that they are being “picked on”).
If they fail at something, they blame others.
They don’t take most rules seriously because they make their own rules.
They may interrupt others and hog conversations.
They believe that if they ruled the world, it would be a much better place.
In the business world that means this:
Research has shown that narcissism can limit people from bringing dissenting but valuable ideas to the table; create enemies and alienate key followers, leading to excessive turnover and reducing productivity; and blind leaders to the real issues and dangers.
In the political world it means the same thing, and it’s not populism. It’s just popular, with those who wish they were rich enough to grab anything they want and tell everyone else to fuck off. Donald Trump provides the fantasy. Rita Rudner – “Someday I want to be rich. Some people get so rich they lose all respect for humanity. That’s how rich I want to be.” It’s like that. And it isn’t populism.