Some leftists have declared recently that Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is fundamentally “anti-political” rather than right wing. But the evidence they offer actually highlights the similarities between Trump and earlier right-wing populist candidates Patrick Buchanan and George Wallace. This debate also highlights the need to combat both Trump’s demagoguery and the political establishment he is railing against.
A revolt against the political class
Tad Tietze on the blog Left Flank and James Robertson in Socialist Worker (newspaper of the International Socialist Organization) both argue that Trump’s campaign is anti-political in the sense that it centers on attacking the political establishment while ignoring conventional ideological categories. Robertson and Tietze acknowledge that on immigration and Muslims, Trump has staked out more vitriolic positions than any other candidate, but they contend that Trump is actually to the left of the other Republican candidates on a wide range of issues. More specifically, writes Tietze,
“Trump argues for: protectionist trade policies as part of massively reinvigorating industrial production to create quality jobs;… more funding for schools and health services; replacing Obamacare with a system that brings the insurance companies to heel (until recently he’d even supported single-payer); and rebuilding crumbling infrastructure. It’s a fairly traditional populist, government-led pitch of growing the economy (and the government) out of its problems…”
Robertson offers further examples:
“Take, for instance, Trump's unexpectedly aggressive attack on the Bush presidency for lying about ‘weapons of mass destruction’ to justify the Iraq War. Or his recent call for the U.S. to play a more ‘neutral’ roe in the Israel/Palestine conflict--a sharp (and controversial) break with the staunchly pro-Israel GOP.
“On domestic issues, too, Trump has been a volatile candidate. Upon the death of Antonin Scalia, he distanced himself from the judge’s attack on affirmative action. Likewise, on abortion, Trump has consistently marked himself as a moderate (relative to his competitors, at least).”
This mix of positions, Tietze and Robertson argue, doesn’t make sense in ideological terms, but is consistent as expression of Trump’s central message: that the current political class is (in Tietze’s words) “inept, bought-off, beholden to corporate donors, and too ineffectual to take the decisive action needed to fix America’s problems.”
Tietze thinks that we shouldn't take Trump’s racist rhetoric too seriously. He claims it's simply Trump's way of showing up the political establishment’s weakness and “attracting attention by causing an uproar,” and that Trump “has started to soften his pitch” as his campaign has gotten stronger. Tietze argues further that “Trump’s strongest support is from GOP voters who self-identify as ‘moderate/liberal,’” and that it’s a mistake to interpret his popularity as “some kind of significant radicalisation on the Right,” as many leftists and others have done.
Robertson's version of the argument is more sophisticated. He acknowledges that Trump has exploited racist and nativist sentiments and that “there does appear to be a general correlation between support for Trump and racist attitudes.” He notes further that “a hardcore minority of the crowd [at Trump rallies] supports and even revels in racist violence” and that “certain groups on the radical right have seen in Trump’s campaign an opportunity to amplify their messages.” But in the end, he says, “Trump's anti-politics are not an add-on to his racist ideology. Rather, his racist outbursts supplement his anti-political campaign.” In his view, identifying Trump too closely with the far right “underestimates the malleability of his anti-political strategy,” which sometimes involves taking anti-racist positions, such as support for removing the Confederate battle flag from the South Carolina capitol building. It also risks “overstating the size and influence of the far right” in the U.S., which despite recent growth remains “marginalized and, on the whole, weak and fragmented.”
To Robertson, Trump’s ideological flexibility “highlights his lack of a social base. He has no significant institutional backing, no real roots in any broad social formations.” This “allows him to position himself in as most divisive a way as possible and so occupy the space of the ‘anti-establishment’ most effectively.” It also means that the “Trump phenomenon is doomed to be ephemeral” and has limited “capacity to fundamentally shift the political landscape.”
A backlash against noeliberalism
A related analysis comes from Thomas Frank, writing in The Guardian. Although Frank doesn’t use the term “anti-political” and doesn’t call Trump’s impact “ephemeral,” he agrees with Tietze and Robertson that racism isn’t the best way to explain Trump’s appeal. He argues that Trump’s popularity has more to do with his “left wing” ideas: such as calling for competitive bidding in the drug industry, criticizing arms industry lobbyists, and, above all, denouncing free trade — which seems irrational to the professional class but resonates for millions of working people hurt by deindustrialization:
“Many of Trump’s followers are bigots, no doubt, but many more are probably excited by the prospect of a president who seems to mean it when he denounces our trade agreements and promises to bring the hammer down on the CEO that fired you and wrecked your town, unlike Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.”
Frank cites a survey of white working-class voters in suburban Cleveland and Pittsburgh that was conducted by Working America, an AFL-CIO affiliate:
“Support for Donald Trump, the group found, ran strong among these people, even among self-identified Democrats, but not because they are all pining for a racist in the White House. Their favorite aspect of Trump was his ‘attitude,’ the blunt and forthright way he talks. As far as issues are concerned, ‘immigration’ placed third among the matters such voters care about, far behind their number one concern: ‘good jobs / the economy.’”
Frank has no illusions that Trump actually cares about workers, but argues that his criticisms of free trade “articulate the populist backlash against liberalism that has been building slowly for decades.” Reducing Trump’s appeal to the single issue of racism obscures this reality.
“We cannot admit that we liberals bear some of the blame for its emergence, for the frustration of the working-class millions, for their blighted cities and their downward spiraling lives. So much easier to scold them for their twisted racist souls, to close our eyes to the obvious reality of which Trumpism is just a crude and ugly expression: that neoliberalism has well and truly failed.”
Echoes of Buchanan and Wallace
These articles raise issues that need to be addressed. As Tietze, Robertson, and Frank contend, Trump’s message and popularity can’t be reduced to racism alone. The articles are helpful for focusing attention on Trump’s hostility to the political establishment and for detailing some of the ways he doesn’t sound like a conservative.
But it’s frustrating that all three of these authors write as if conservatism is the only kind of right-wing politics, and that all three of them treat Trump’s anti-establishment rhetoric as separate from, and at odds with, his racism. In reality, combining crude or distorted anti-elitism with scapegoating and attacks against oppressed communities is the very essence of right-wing populism. That’s not a new idea, and it’s certainly not a new phenomenon.
To take this further, the specific ways that Trump combines overtly right-wing and “moderate” or “liberal” positions closely track earlier right-wing populist presidential candidates, specifically Pat Buchanan and George Wallace. Both Buchanan and Wallace ran campaigns in which ethnoreligious bigotry and reasserting white dominance played a major role. But both of them combined this with anti-establishment positions which, in different ways, broke with conservative orthodoxy.
Buchanan (who ran in the Republican presidential primaries in 1992 and 1996, and on the Reform Party ticket in 2000) is a paleoconservative whose campaigns evoked the economic protectionism and military anti-interventionism of the Old Right. When Donald Trump criticizes free trade agreements, he sounds like Buchanan denouncing “the predatory traders of Europe and Asia” who threatened American industry and jobs. When Trump attacks the Bush administration for falsely claiming that Saddam Hussein had “weapons of mass destruction” or calls for the U.S. to play a more “neutral” role between Israel and Palestine, he sounds like Buchanan opposing the drive toward war with Iraq in 1990 and denouncing the United States’ close alliance with Israel. When Trump criticizes arms industry lobbyists, he sounds like Buchanan opposing “unfettered capitalism.”
Some rightists have recognized these parallels. Former Reagan budget staffer David Stockman writes,
“The Donald is tapping a nationalist/isolationist impulse that runs deep among a weary and economically precarious main street public. He is clever enough to articulate it in the bombast of what sounds like a crude trade protectionism. Yet if Pat Buchanan were to re-write his speech, it would be more erudite and explicit about the folly of the American Imperium, but the message would be the same.”
Justin Raimondo, an anti-interventionist libertarian who runs the website Antiwar.com and who supported Buchanan’s presidential campaigns, argues that “Trump represents a deadly challenge to the high command of the War Party – the neoconservatives who lied us into war in Iraq – and were called out for it by him.” Although Raimondo is not a Trump supporter, he believes that
“If Trump secures the nomination, the way is paved for transforming the GOP from the party of perpetual war to the party that honors the long-forgotten ‘isolationist’ Sen. Robert A. Taft… And if Trump actually wins the White House, the military-industrial complex is finished, along with the globalists who dominate foreign policy circles in Washington.”
George Wallace’s brand of right-wing populism was different. Although he ran in the Democratic presidential primaries three times, Wallace is better remembered for his 1968 run on the American Independent Party ticket. His 1968 campaign defended segregation but downplayed explicit racism; it denounced centralized government but — as part of Wallace’s appeal to working-class whites — embraced welfare state policies. Many of Donald Trump’s more “liberal” domestic positions, such as expanding education funding and rebuilding infrastructure, are like a muted version of what Wallace advocated 48 years ago, such as higher Social Security payments, universal access to medical care, and a guaranteed right to collective bargaining. Because of these positions, Wallace was called a liberal by Republican opponents, much as Trump is today.
Only if we ignore this history does it make sense to call Trump’s message “inconsistent,” “irrational,” or “chaotic.” Not all of Trump’s positions follow right-wing populist precedent, but most of them do, and even the outliers may follow a related logic. For example, Michelle Goldberg suggests that Trump’s refusal to demonize Planned Parenthood (he wants to defund it for performing abortions, yet points out that it helps millions of women with other health services) is reassuring to “downwardly mobile white voters who hear how terrible Planned Parenthood is… but who nevertheless rely on the organization for reproductive health care.” That’s an eminently rational approach to take if you want to build a right-wing populist campaign that stands apart from your conventional conservative rivals.
A right-wing realignment
A classic hallmark of right-wing populist movements is that they attract people in the middle echelons of the social hierarchy, who have genuine grievances against economic and political elites above them, but also want to defend their limited, relative privilege against challenges from oppressed groups below. Right-wing populism takes that mix of resentments and channels it in ways that reinforce oppression and hierarchy. This describes Trump’s campaign perfectly.
I can well believe that only a fraction of Trump’s supporters are drawn to his campaign because they they’re actively committed to racist ideology. And while a willingness to ignore racism is certainly a minimum requirement for supporting Trump, that’s not unusual. Millions of white Americans, including many Trump opponents, ignore racism all the time. So it’s true that Trump isn’t just tapping into some pre-existing white nationalist constituency — instead, he is building one. By melding anger against Washington politicians with hatred and fear of Mexicans, Muslims, and people of color in general; by identifying political honesty with open expressions of bigotry; by turning his rallies into events where racist and anti-leftist violence is treated as normal and good; and by giving his followers an iconoclastic leader to rally around, Trump is doing his part to reverse the white nationalist right’s weakness and fragmentation that Robertson finds so reassuring.
Against Robertson’s belief that Trump is just a “chaos candidate” who’s unlikely to build anything of lasting impact, I see Trump as the current focal point for an increasingly coherent and dangerous right-wing challenge to neoliberalism. Benjamin Studebaker argues persuasively that this is one after-effect of the 2008 economic crisis.
“Economic ideologies change when there is an economic disaster that is seen to discredit the prevailing ideology. The Great Depression discredited the classical economics practiced by right wingers like Calvin Coolidge, allowing for left wing policies that in the 1920s would have sounded insane to ordinary people. The stagflation in the '70s discredited the Keynesian egalitarianism of FDR and LBJ, allowing Ronald Reagan to implement right wing policies that would have been totally unthinkable to people living in the 1960s.
“I submit to you that the 2008 economic crisis and the stagnation that has followed have discredited the neoliberal economic ideology of Reagan and Clinton… for supporters of both parties, and that new policies and candidates are possible now that would have been totally unthinkable to people as recently as 10 years ago.”
Studebaker argues that neoliberalism has dominated both major parties since Jimmy Carter’s presidency in the 1970s, but now it’s being challenged from two sides: on one side Bernie Sanders’s “left egalitarianism” (essentially an updated version of the New Deal and the Great Society), on the other the “right nationalism” of both Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. And while neoliberals will likely keep control of the Democratic Party this year (via a Hillary Clinton nomination), Trump’s prospects to bring about a realignment of the Republican Party are all too strong.
What should we do?
As I’ve discussed here, here, and here, I think it’s a mistake to call Trump a fascist, but his campaign is emboldening the fascist far right, promoting open bigotry and violence, and intensifying the authoritarian and supremacist tendencies of the existing political order. In the likely contest between right nationalist Trump and neoliberal Clinton, Clinton is the less disastrous option, but she is closely identified with many of the disastrous policies that have fueled support for Trump in the first place. Arun Gupta, astute critic of what electoral politics does to movement building, takes a flexible approach to this dilemma that's worth quoting:
“If you live in a true swing state, cast a ballot for Clinton…. This is a tactical choice, not an endorsement of the odious Clintons. But if you don’t vote, I won’t condemn you, especially if you are in the streets opposing whoever assumes office in January 2017…. My energy, as always, is going into independent political action. While Trump is uniquely dangerous and must be stopped, the left needs to build a movement that has the support, flexibility, and creativity to make the work difficult of whichever barbaric party wins the presidential election.”
Sixteen years ago, in Right-Wing Populism in America, Chip Berlet and I called for a two-pronged strategy to deal with this kind of threat: broad alliances to expose and confront rightist scapegoating and violence, but also radical initiatives to attack the structural inequalities that right-wing populism exploits, and to challenge centrism and liberalism’s harmful and repressive policies. This same dual approach remains necessary today.
I support Chip’s urgent call for “organizing now to protect the people being demonized and scapegoated as targets of White rage,” and to “build broad and diverse local coalitions that tactically address local issues while strategically linking them to national struggles.” I also support Dave Zirin’s call on Facebook to “build a fighting left that challenges what Trump is giving voice to: white nationalism as a response to the crisis people feel in their lives.” As Zirin urges, “Every Trump rally should be protested and disrupted…. Repeat: Every Trump rally should be protested and disrupted.” The recent protest at a Trump rally in Chicago — spearheaded by black, Latino, and Muslim university students — won an important tactical victory when Trump cancelled the event rather than face his opponents.
But even forceful protests like Chicago are basically defensive, just one part of what’s needed. The other part is to cut off right-wing populism at the root. Tietze, Robertson, and Frank are correct that Trump’s campaign is fueled by rage at the neoliberal establishment, so if we want to cut off that support, we need to give people better ways to channel that rage, radical alternatives that speak to their reality. At the same time that we combat bigotry and scapegoating, we need to find ways to engage politically with the working- and middle-class whites who are currently being drawn to Trump’s campaign. Clare Bayard of the Catalyst Project wrote about this challenge two months ago, in a blog post about the Patriot movement occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in southeast Oregon:
“How do we scale up the scrappy efforts currently underway by grassroots organizations [such as the Rural Organizing Project, is a statewide community organizing project in Oregon] to meet the needs of impoverished, isolated rural communities, as well as working-class and poor urban communities? How do we diminish the appeal of groups like the 3%s, Oath Keepers, and other paramilitaries formations that are speaking to peoples’ fears and the hatred that has been manufactured over generations by people with an interest in distracting us all from whose hands are actually in our pockets? And compete with the real way they are speaking to the material needs of people who are struggling to get by and do not feel supported or valued?
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“What is the deep work of healing that needs to happen for the people whose humanity is in such distress that they rally with guns at mosques, and how can we seriously engage that work while also prioritizing protection for the people they stalk?”
I certainly don’t know the answers to Clare’s questions, although I expect there’s a lot to be learned from groups such as the Rural Organizing Project, as well as earlier examples such as the Young Patriots Organization, a radical group formed in 1968 Chicago mostly by poor whites from the South. But this issue is important: it is one of the most important challenges we face.
Originally posted: March 15, 2016 at Three Way Fight