One of the indispensable books of our moment is What Is Populism? by Jan-Werner Müller, a political theorist at Princeton. Müller maintains that populism has two essential elements: anti-elitism and anti-pluralism. Anti-elitism is a standard feature of progressive, egalitarian politics. Think Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn. But anti-elitism doesn’t add up to full-throated populism without an exclusive, anti-pluralist conception of national identity. Here’s Müller in an interesting interview:
Today, we read in virtually every second op-ed piece that the world is witnessing a growing alienation between elites and the people, or that across the West there is a “revolt of the masses” against the establishment. However, not everyone who criticizes elites is a populist (in fact, any standard civic-education book will positively encourage us to be critical citizens). Rather, populists always claim that there is a homogeneous, morally pure people of which they are the only authentic representatives. For them, it follows that all other contenders for power are corrupt or in some other way immoral. Less obviously, they hold that whoever does not support them among citizens does not properly belong to the “real people.” Think of Nigel Farage celebrating the Brexit vote by claiming that it had been a “victory for real people” (thus making the 48 percent of the British electorate who had opposed taking the U.K. out of the European Union somehow less than real — or, rather, questioning their status as members of the political community). …
[O]ne remark [of Trump’s] at a rally in May passed virtually unnoticed — even though that statement clearly showed the populism at the heart of Trump’s worldview: “The only important thing,” he said, “is the unification of the people — because the other people don’t mean anything.” Like all populists, Trump engages in a certain form of exclusionary identity politics (which is not to say that all identity politics has to be populistic): he decrees who belongs to the real American people and who doesn’t. What is unusual is the openness with which he has incited hatred against minorities in this process.
The logic of this “exclusionary identity politics” bears on Trump’s conflicted attitude about ending DACA in way that isn’t immediately obvious.
Why did Trump have Jeff Sessions announce that DACA will end in six months, but then immediately admit that this might not actually happen should Congress fail to deliver a permanent solution to the legal status of “Dreamers” (i.e., undocumented kids whose parents brought them the United States without legal approval)? Why did Steve Bannon, of all people, disagree with the administration’s decision to rescind DACA? Trump and Bannon’s relative leniency about Dreamers is counter-intuitive, but I think it follows from some of the same ideas that make populist nationalism so nasty. Indeed, the same populist logic that encourages the moral de-nationalization of “un-American” fellow citizens seems to me to recommend embracing culturally American non-citizen kids. Ironically, this may make vehemently anti-immigrant populists more sympathetic to Dreamers than some standard, non-populist Republicans.
The key, I think, is that citizenship, and the sort of “immigration status” at stake with the demise of DACA, are distinctly legal notions. But populist nationalism isn’t legalistic. As Müller suggests, it’s sentimental and cultural.
As I put it in a 2013 Economist piece, well before Donald Trump was a glimmer in the GOP’s eye:
The energetic ideological base of the Republican Party is a nationalist, identity-politics movement for relatively well-to-do older white Americans known as the “tea party”. The tea party is interested in bald eagles, American flags, the founding fathers, Jesus Christ, fighter jets, empty libertarian rhetoric, and other markers of “authentic” American identity and supremacy. That America is “a nation of immigrants” is a stock piece of American identity politics, but the immigrants that made America America were, well, not Mexican, and spoke English, or at least Pennsylvania Dutch. Sorry Mexicans!
The right-populist construction of national identity offers a criterion for membership in the “homogeneous, morally pure people” that is based on distance from an implicit cultural ideal of Americanness. Insensitivity to citizenship or legal nationality is a side-effect of the populist’s primarily cultural test of inclusion.
Somalian Muslims with poor English rank dismally on the populist’s Great Chain of Americanness, but there are plenty of American citizens of who fit that description. The possibility of this kind of mismatch between legal and cultural/moral citizenship is essential to the internal logic of populist politics. An exclusive notion of “the people” that discounts juridical technicalities allows populists to psychologically de-nationalize fellow citizens, and this catalyzes a morally alchemical transformation: democratically unconscionable measures to disenfranchise political opponents become duties necessary to the achievement of popular “sovereignty.”
On the other side of the equation, consider the case of my father. He was at a certain point in his life a white, Christian, Anglo-Nordic, native English-speaker enlisted in the United States Army—but not legally American. Anglo-Canadians like my Dad are better “Americans,” in the populist identity politics sense, than tens of millions of actual American citizens. Letting literal foreigners through the net is sort of a bug of the populist mental model, but mostly it’s a useful feature that tells you which immigrants to favor. Consider that Trump didn’t catch flak from his base for his Slovenian immigrant wife, because she’s “American” enough. However, Trump’s supporters, and Trump himself, exploited Jeb Bush’s marriage to a Mexican immigrant to question his loyalty to the interests of genuinely American Americans.
The populist notion of national identity is a creature of whimsical imagination liberated from history. An important historical fact about the United States of America is that a large swathe of it once literally was Mexico. When Mexican territory became American territory in 1848, oodles of Mexicans became Americans (they didn’t cross the border, the border crossed them!) and Spanish colonialism, and the Spanish language, became central elements of our national origin story. Work on the San Miguel mission, the oldest Christian church in the United States (in a state called, um, “New Mexico”) began in 1610, a decade before the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts. To the historically literate, then, Spanish North American, or “Mexican,” is a basic, original American type. Nevertheless, Columba Bush comes off as somehow less American, in populist terms, than Melania Trump, despite the fact that Slovenians didn’t begin arriving in the United States until the 1880s.
Similarly, the typical black American has much deeper American roots than the typical white American. Trump himself, whose grandparents were all foreign-born, is an excellent example of relatively shallow white American roots. And, of course, American culture to a great extent just is African-American culture. Yet populist nationalists are fond of statues honoring literal military enemies of the United States of America, who killed U.S. soldiers en masse in defense of the enslavement of black Americans. And American populists aren’t fond of the idea of replacing an image of the slave-owning, native-murdering Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill with an image of Harriet Tubman, an indisputable hero of American freedom who repeatedly risked death liberating fellow Americans from enslavement.
Taking American history seriously is exactly what Trumpian populists are trying to avoid, so it’s not surprising that the populist ideal of American identity fails to acknowledge the unimpeachable historical credentials of blacks and Mexicans as basic, authentic American types. But it’s impossible to completely ignore the living human proof of American history, so the populist hierarchy of American identity is forced to accommodate it a little.
For blacks, the main qualifying attribute is the embrace of right-populist ideology, which we might as well call Americanism. Anti-pluralistic populism is monocultural, but can tolerate individuals whose ancestry deviates from the ideal of American identity, as long as they assimilate to Americanist monoculture. The adoption of Americanism means rejecting identification with the (multicultural and thus un-American) Democratic Party and rejecting racial “identity politics”—the controversial idea that centuries of brutal subjugation based on racial identity continues to harm black people, and that it’s not okay to ignore this. Acceptance of African-Americans into the fold of “real” Americans, conditional on becoming Republicans who consider America’s history of racist oppression water under the bridge, allows white-identity populists to believe themselves when they deny that you need to be white to be a full-fledged American.
Hispanic and Latino Americans can also get into the club through assimilation to the white-centered Americanist monoculture. But because Hispanic and Latino Americans are mostly “whiter” than African-Americans, and less likely to harbor historical grievances, the requirements of membership are less demanding. Mainly, inclusion in the authentic people here means being ideological about “speaking American” and “assimilating,” having a steady job, and being hawkish about illegal immigration.
Which brings us, finally, to the case of Dreamers. Most (but by no means all) Dreamers are culturally American Mexican citizens, who bear little personal responsibility for their lack of legal status in the United States. Because populist nationalism is cultural rather than legalistic, populist American-identity nationalists have a hard time coming down hard on Dreamers.
For example, here’s Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, one of America’s most vehement anti-immigration activists, talking to Rachel Martin on NPR:
MARTIN: So I want to touch on something you just mentioned. Do you think that the issue of the so-called DREAMers, these 800,000 people who were brought here as children – do you think this can and should be treated separately from the bigger debate over immigration reform in this country?
KRIKORIAN: Sure. I mean, that’s – they’re clearly the most sympathetic group of illegal immigrants. The point is that they’ve grown up here. They not only didn’t decide to come here on their own, they grew up here, and their identities have been formed here. It really is a special case.
For Krikorian, there’s nothing really objectionable about Dreamers. The fact that they immigrated illegally is much less important than the fact that “their identities have been formed here,” and they are therefore culturally American. The only problem with matching Dreamers’ American cultural identity with legal immigration status, and possibly citizenship, is that it might encourage future illegal immigration. It’s significant that Krikorian treats the amnesty for Dreamers as fait accompli, and mainly wants to use it as a bargaining chip to amp up border security, reduce future levels of legal immigration, and restructure the system to better accord with populist nationalist cultural priorities.
And this all makes total sense. Advocating the deportation of Dreamers isn’t just cruel and unpopular. It confuses the legalistic and cultural sense of national identity in a way anathema to the logic of populism. The idea that our claim to the rights of membership in the American political community are rooted in cultural identity, rather than in mere legal citizenship, is what justifies the populist politics of delegitimizing and disenfranchising internal enemies of “the true, pure people,” even if they’re legally American. To argue that it’s okay to deport Dreamers because they aren’t technically American is to deny that cultural nationality ought to be the politically controlling factor. And this amounts to admitting that legal citizenship is sufficient, and that the cultural markers of “Americanness” are therefore unnecessary, to qualify as a full, rights-bearing member of our democracy’s sovereign chorus. But that’s the negation of populist anti-pluralism.
That’s why Trumpian populist conservatives, who don’t care a whit about “the rule of law,” may be less conflicted about naturalizing Dreamers than standard, non-populist Republicans, who are much less xenophobic, yet much fussier about legal process. The political fight isn’t going to be about whether Dreamers should get amnesty. It’s going to be over the restrictionist policies American-identity nationalists demand in exchange.
Will Wilkinson is Vice President for Policy at the Niskanen Center