Donald Trump pitched an economic policy platform nakedly contrived to benefit other multi-millionaires to an assembled crowd in Detroit this Monday, it was quite a spectacle. If there was ever any doubt about the absurdity of the signifier of populism in American politics, it should have been dashed there and then.hen
What’s clear by now is that Donald Trump’s populist appeal is limited to a very specific populace, by design. The question of whether Trump’s support is predicated on race versus class isn’t really a question anymore. It’s the kind of thing that can be tested with polls and multivariate regression models. Which is exactly what political scientist Philip Klinkner did, and found that, controlling for one another, pessimism about the economy doesn’t predict support for Trump; resentment toward African Americans and Muslims does.
It’s the reason why Trump won’t win over Sanders supporters: however much he invokes Nafta and the decline of manufacturing in the Midwest, as he did in his Detroit speech, trade just isn’t as politically salient as he thinks. Most voters don’t rank trade as a top issue. And most of Trump’s supporters care far more about immigration and terrorism, which makes his frequent racist and Islamophobic dog whistles far more effective at shoring up his base.
There are, of course, many on the left who wish trade was more of a salient issue, just as many wish the US had stronger unions and an honest-to-God populist party. But given our history as a country founded on white supremacy, the dream of a kind of pure populism, unadulterated by racism and xenophobia, has always been elusive. Trump’s platform and rhetoric neatly dovetail with those of earlier American populist parties, the Know Nothings (for whom their alien scourge was Catholics) and the People’s Party (who called for restricting immigration in their founding document).
Which is why it doesn’t really matter that Trump gets so much wrong on economics. Just in this one speech, he asserted, without evidence, that the Department of Labor is misreporting unemployment figures, apparently confusing their U3 and U6 rates. He conflated retirees with people out of work. He used out-of-date census data to say that household income dropped $4,000 in 16 years, which is not true. He claimed a Congressional Budget Office report says “Obamacare will cost the economy two million full-time jobs,” when the report says no such thing. He flat out made things up about Clinton’s tax plan. He called for repealing an estate tax that affects only him and a handful of his richest peers, a display of self interest that’s so unabashed it’s impressive. Make me president and I’ll end the tax on private jets and orange hair weaves.
He can get all this wrong and it won’t matter. Just as it doesn’t matter that a man who appears to use bankruptcy as a business model can claim to be a jobs candidate. Just as it didn’t matter that the last movement to be called populist, the Tea Party, had average incomes well above the US median. It’s not about jobs and it’s not about income. Even if it should be.
To be sure, the Democrats’ allergy to anything resembling class-based politics does much to enable Trump, and the continuation of a racialized populism largely divorced from economics. When Democrats say “middle class”, they mean “working class”, and when Republicans say “working class”, they mean “white people”. To be called working class in America means being an evangelical, being a gun owner, living in a rural area, not being black or Latino or Asian – being, in other words, a typical Republican.
So when Democrats flip flop on trade, and cozy up to Wall Street while keeping unions at arms length, who can blame Republicans for seizing an opportunity to fill the void? And the more Trump’s racialized populism alienates establishment Republicans, the more Clinton embraces them, trumpeting an elite Washington consensus that she is the only responsible candidate in the race. Which may be true.
But if there’s anything that feeds the Trump phenomenon more than racial resentment, it’s suspicion of an elite Washington consensus. When class disappears, being declared wrong by the whole of the establishment is enough to qualify you as a populist.