In the Summer/Fall 2017 issue of Inroads, we took a wide-ranging look at populist movements in Europe. Except for Ronald Beiner’s investigation into the role of White House – now former – chief strategist Stephen Bannon and Gareth Morley’s analysis of Donald Trump’s Supreme Court appointee, Neil Gorsuch, we did not include the United States. Trump’s personality and the complex shifting allegiances in the White House, not to mention the U.S. constitutional division of power and rigid two-party system, make it hazardous to compare the place of populism in American politics with European movements.
However, developments since the issue came out in June make it clear that we cannot ignore the emergence of the particularly American brand of populism that Trump has aroused. Indeed, all the attention paid to Trump’s unique combination of bullying and lies leads to the mistaken impression that what are now commonly being called the Trumpites are his creation. One useful reminder from the Alabama Republican primary in September that rejected Trump’s “establishment” candidate in favour of the extremist Roy Moore is that the Trumpites are not Trump’s creation but rather a subculture in American politics that Trump brings to the surface.
The Trumpites constitute around a third of American voters, and more than three quarters of current Republican voters. Their support for Trump is little related to his policies, such as they are. Those who voted for him instrumentally because he promised them industrial jobs – especially in states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan that gave him the election – have drifted away. There are very few if indeed any Trump Democrats. Simply put, the Trumpites are not for anything; they are against: against people unlike themselves. They are practically all white, and the great majority have no college degree. Impervious to the relevant facts, they respond to a simple appeal: defeat those elitist un-American liberals who trample on everything patriotic because they want to turn the United States over to people not like themselves.
As New York Times columnist David Brooks describes it, there are two equally sized groups in the larger Republican constituency. Half are conservatives like himself, favouring openness to trade and diversity and small government. The other half are white racialists – their Republican Party is the white party. Trump draws in this latter group in coded and uncoded public statements: about fine people among white supremacists, the patriotic Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, those unpatriotic (black) professional football players, the biased Mexican judge, the ingrates in Puerto Rico …
In Europe, there is a comparable populist constiuency, but it is far smaller. In part this is a reflection of multiparty institutions. The populist vote, outside of this hard core, fluctuates depending on the issues of the day, since unlike the Trumpites, these potential populist voters are generally not excluded from the wider, mainstream political discussion. In European countries, moreover, with their more proportional electoral systems, in most cases mainstream parties cooperate to effectively exclude the populists from power.
The opposite is the case in the United States. The Trumpite third is overrepresented. It is concentrated in the red “flyover” states, which compared to the blue coastal states are generally low in population. We saw the effect of this in the electoral college vote in 2016 which gave Trump the presidency. Blue California’s 55 electoral votes amount to 1 per 713,636 population, while red Wyoming’s three electoral votes amount to 1 per 195,167 population. Both – like all other states – have two senators. Moreover, the red states are typically gerrymandered by Republican state legislatures to maximize Republican representation in the House, bolstered by various restrictions that make it harder for students and minorities to vote.
Republicans are thus in power in Washington, and, for the most part, the Trumpites control the Republican Party. A key asset for the party is Trump’s willingness to lend his name to a barrage of party appeals, such as an email in September that urged donors to help “drain the swamp.” Another message from Trump urged supporters to fight back against a “weak and self-serving political class.” This divisive message has proven very effective in filling the party’s coffers and thus strengthening Trump’s position.
Whatever their private thoughts, few elected Republicans are prepared to challenge Trump and his surrogates for fear of being denied renomination by Trump, who can communicate directly with his followers through the Twittersphere. While the elected Republicans pay attention to what journalists and intellectuals have to say on the issues in, at least, the conservative media, not so the Trumpites. On August 5 the Economist reported that about 15 per cent of Republicans surveyed preferred “Trump truths” over two leading conservative publications, the Weekly Standard and the National Review. And while 23 per cent said they trusted the Fox television news network more than Trump truths, 54 per cent preferred Trump over Fox. Moreover, the survey revealed that “Republicans now loathe mainstream media outlets so much that many say they would stoop to unconstitutional means to silence them.”
Politically, the Trumpites pose a problem for the GOP by bringing a group that the Republicans have been cultivating behind the scenes since Richard Nixon’s 1968 “southern strategy” into public focus. To keep a sufficient number of its libertarian and religious conservative supporters under the GOP umbrella, the party has to keep Trumpites out of the limelight. This has proven impossible with Trump around.
As the Trumpites come to constitute the hard core that support Trump no matter what, they will get more and more outraged by what they see as conspiracies by his – and their – opponents. Democrats become subjects of vicious online abuse and threats of physical violence – and moderate Republicans who dare to criticize Trump even more so. The long-term implications of the polarization Trump fosters could be dire indeed. As evidence of illegality and collusion mounts, a third of Americans, comprising a majority in many red states, will interpret attempts to impeach him or even clip his wings as proof that un-American elites are taking their country away from them, the real Americans, and will react accordingly.
Beyond defeating Trump and his acolytes at the polls, unwinding this polarization is the real challenge. Fifty years ago, political scientists comparing democracies found that in the United States politics was consensual – “I did not vote for him, but I am sure he will do a good job” – while ideologically divided Europeans were willing to accept the legitimacy of the opposing party in power only because the alternative was a return to war. Today the opposite is the case. The system, the Trumpites know, is rigged against them, and they will not go quietly.