Almost everyone, including President Trump and the vast majority of his supporters, would agree that he is a populist. Usually, this is thought to entail that he, and they, are opponents of the status quo (which he portrays as “rigged” by “elites”). This is too flattering, both to Trump and to the status quo.
It’s convenient for Trump to pose as a rebel. Who doesn’t love a little rebellion? And it’s all too tempting for his critics to go along with the act—not only objecting to his odious policies and questionable sanity, but denying any continuities between him and “us.” Everyone is happy if Trump is treated as the “other.” But in many crucial respects, he isn’t. In fact, Trumpist populism may best be seen as a caricature of the fundamental impulses of modern government.
Trumpery and American Democracy
To begin with the most obvious continuities between Trump and the status quo: anti-elitism is not a Trumpist invention; it’s inherent to democracy. Similarly, all modern states are nationalistic, and as Morgan Marietta and I have argued in this space, Trump is nothing if not a nationalist.
The rarely questioned authority of democracy and nationalism lent Trump’s brand of populism a ready-made legitimacy—and gave him a leg up on politicians with more complicated and compromised positions than “America first.” “America first” is as simplistic as it gets. But for precisely that reason, it cleanly articulates the nationalist sentiments to which we are all acculturated by the pledge of allegiance, the national anthem, and the obsessive interest of the news and cultural media in the activities of, threats to, and disasters befalling our fellow Americans. (The author of an article in this week’s New Yorker, discussing the threat that a war with North Korea would pose to Seoul’s population of 10 million, feels compelled to add: “Some two hundred thousand Americans live in South Korea.” Oh!—well now you’ve got our attention!)
The other face of nationalism, though—not the outward face of obliviousness to “foreigners,” but the aid nationalists want to give to their conationals—will be my focus here.
Trump’s harping on the interests of the middle class and working people, like Richard Nixon’s paeans to the silent majority, can be interpreted as narrowing down the category of “Americans” so as to contrast it against un-Americans—dividing “us” into those who are and aren’t in the middle class, those who do and don’t work, those who are voiceless and those whose voices are amplified by the media. But this interpretation is too one-sided, effacing the effervescence of so many Trump supporters that’s apparent in journalistic reports (see below). His supporters are thrilled that in Trump, they’ve found someone who expresses their concerns about the future of America. As we’ll see, these concerns fit the usual pattern of politics in modern nation-states, in which public policy is designed to ameliorate the social and economic problems of one’s conationals.
For lack of a better term, let’s call this type of politics “sociotropic nationalism.” Political scientists use “sociotropic” to mean “concern for the common good.” In a sociotropic-nationalist polity, this concern usually takes the form of wanting to solve the social and economic problems facing one’s conationals. That’s exactly what Trump portrays himself as wanting to do. As he said before a joint session of Congress, “Everything that is broken in our country can be fixed. Every problem can be solved.” Utopian? Yes. But utterly conventional.
Still, Trump’s sociotropic nationalism is populistic. Does his populism set him apart from the status quo?
American Populist Exceptionalism
Jan-Werner Müller’s instant classic, What Is Populism (2016), underscores the fact that populism is sociotropic. Müller pursues the point only by asserting repeatedly that neoliberalism is responsible for the grievances fueling right-wing populism in Europe. He insists, however, that the grievances themselves are prompted less by personally experienced difficulties than by populists’ negative “general assessment[s] of the situation[s]” of their countries.  That is, populists see their populism as a warranted reaction to the economic and social problems their countries face.
Populists have “reasons for anger and frustration,” Müller writes, and “most [of them] can actually spell out in some form or other” what these reasons are. Therefore, “simply to shift the discussion” of populism to “social psychology”—by blaming populism on personality disorders, such as authoritarianism or xenophobia—“is to neglect a basic democratic duty to engage in reasoning” with one’s political opponents.  Instead of psychologizing populists—which requires dismissing what they say—Müller listens carefully to what they say.
After listening, Müller concludes that populists “hanker after what the political theorist Nancy Rosenblum has called ‘holism’: the notion that the polity should no longer be split” among factions and parties.  In other words, populists oppose political pluralism as such. This may be true of European and South American populists, as it was true of fascists, but I don’t think a careful listen shows it to be true of Trump, let alone his supporters. 
Müller’s sole basis for indicting Trumpian populism as anti-pluralist is Trump’s remark on May 7, 2016, that “the only important thing is the unification of the people—because the other people don’t mean anything.”  But as you can see at the link here, the “other people” who didn’t mean anything to Trump weren’t marginalized ethnic groups, Democrats, or Republican voters who opposed Trump, as would be true if his remark was meant to be anti-pluralist. The other people who didn’t mean anything to Trump were Republican leaders such as Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House, who at that point in the campaign still (bravely) refused to endorse Trump. Trump’s last remaining opponent, Ohio governor John Kasich, had withdrawn from the race three days earlier. When Trump made the remark quoted by Müller, he was the Republican nominee in everything but name, yet most Republican leaders still hadn’t endorsed him. His response was to say that the leaders’ endorsement didn’t matter: pointing to his crowd of supporters, he said that what mattered was that the people were united behind him.  Any presumptive nominee of either party might have said the same thing.
The trope Trump used is so very familiar—The people are behind me! Who cares about the leaders who aren’t?—because of the anti-elitism built into democratic politics. What was Hillary Clinton’s repeated promise to “fight for you” but a hollow version of the same trope? If she could have denied that she was the candidate of Democratic party elites without being laughed off the stage, surely she would have. Indeed, one searches in vain for an American president in the twentieth century who has admitted to caring about the opinions of elites. And one remembers what happened to previous candidates who were successfully tainted with the elitist label, such as Adlai Stevenson.
Trump was not issuing a frightening call to crush dissent. He was engaged in the mannered anti-elitism that’s part and parcel of democracy as we know it. One can see how this anti-elitism might take a Robespierrean turn against pluralism, but this is always a danger in democracies, as Müller fully acknowledges. Toward the end of his book, he points out that “populism is strong in places with weak party systems,” and he suggests that populism is an outgrowth of the decline of strong parties across the West.  If so, it suggests that populism was already “there,” as it were, ready to break out when it wasn’t hemmed in by party leaders.
Trump’s favorite president, Andrew Jackson, picked this lock in 1828 by founding a new party—the Democratic party—to escape the grip of the old ones. Theodore Roosevelt tried the same thing with his Progressive party in 1912. Ross Perot bypassed party elites by mounting an independent candidacy in 1992, and he almost won. Trump used modern technology to take over the GOP. The potential for populism is always there, because the premise of democracy is that the common people should rule—a premise that makes elites, including party elites, the objects of automatic suspicion.
Populism and Political Correctness
Müller’s evidence for the “holism” interpretation of populism is much better for South American and European populists than for Trump. Nonetheless, he points out that in Europe, populists frequently make pluralism into their own cause, presenting themselves
as resisting a hegemonic liberalism in the name of diversity and even minority rights, as if to say, “We Hungarians, Poles, and so on, are a minority in the EU who believe in traditional morals and do not submit to the one-size-must-fit-all liberal universalism promoted by Western liberal elites.” 
This point does seem relevant to the United States. Trumpian populism clearly has a great deal to do with opposition to “political correctness,” whatever one may think motivates this opposition. What Trump and his supporters say motivates it is the threat posed by p.c. thought police to their right to speak their minds.
The fact that populists may support cultural pluralism against political correctness poses a clear problem for Müller’s claim that populism is inherently anti-pluralistic. His solution comes in two parts. First, he warns that it’s counterproductive to argue against populism on liberal grounds: “we should stop the thoughtless invocation of ‘liberal democracy’” against populists, because the populists will notice the hypocrisy involved.  Second, while allowing that populists can be culturally pluralistic, Müller denies that they can be politically pluralistic. “While they may have won an initial election fair and square,” he writes, populists “quickly start tampering with the institutional machinery of democracy in the name of so-called real people.”  Fortunately, however, this hasn’t been true of Trump, at least not thus far. Does this mean that he isn’t a populist? Or, perhaps, that his populism is sui generis?
It doesn’t take much imagination to envision Trump trying to engage in institutional deck-stacking or even dictatorship, as has been successfully attempted in Europe and South America. Trump’s ignorance of the U.S. Constitution—and his evident lack of interest in it—suggest that he might try to circumvent it if he could. Yet one must again wonder if this isn’t a problem with democracy itself, especially under modern conditions.
Threats to the rule of law troubled liberal critics of George W. Bush’s “signing statements.” It enraged Tea Party critics of Barack Obama’s use of “phone and pen” to get around Congress when it failed to do what he wanted it to. Yet to accuse Bush or Obama of populism would drain the term of all specificity. So it’s worth wondering whether pressures against the rule of law are inherent in the status quo. It seems to me that they are.
The Origins of Our Status Quo
To see why, we need to go back to the Populist Era at the end of the nineteenth century.
The People’s Party demanded that the federal government address nationwide economic problems caused by monopolistic railroads and monetary deflation. While the Populists didn’t elect a president, they did prompt the Democrats to co-opt their demands by nominating William Jennings Bryan three times. This put economic and social problem solving at the heart of national politics. In turn, the Democrats were soon co-opted by the Republicans. President William McKinley campaigned for re-election in 1900 on the promise of “Four More Years of the Full Dinner Pail.” Prosperity had become the business of the federal government.
Thus, the Populists had added, to the traditional democratic tenet that power should be in the hands of the people, the sociotropic tenet that the government should use this power to serve the people’s interests. These two tenets have been all-but-universally accepted ever since—although the sociotropic premise can be turned against the democratic premise, justifying government by experts, whose knowledge might serve the people’s interests. (I’ll discuss that next week.)
In the first decades of the twentieth century, the Populists’ Progressive successors widened and deepened the new understanding of the purpose of government. Progressives tended to be relatively well-educated and urban, producing an elitist image that’s largely inaccurate.  They actually favored a massive expansion of democracy, including the direct election of presidents and senators; primary elections to choose the candidates and weaken party bosses; initiative and referendum elections; recall elections; the election of judges; campaign-finance legislation; and congressional reforms that would expose back-room dealings to “sunshine” and popular accountability. Each of these political reforms was designed to enable the people to enact far-reaching social reforms to solve problems caused by industrial capitalism. As Theodore Roosevelt memorably put it, political reforms would be “weapons in the hands of the people,” enabling them to enact minimum wages, worker’s compensation, food and drug regulation, antitrust laws, and the rest of the endlessly proliferating measures that have, ever since, been the routine business of government. 
Progressive political reforms required radically altering the Constitution, which had been designed, in part, to block popular legislation—legislation that the Framers thought would be unwise. Burned by popular misgovernment under the Articles of Confederation, the Framers feared the people’s weakness for appealing but counterproductive policies such as currency inflation and other forms of debt relief. Thus, they sought to deflect popular pressures—for example, by requiring senators and presidents to be indirectly elected, via state legislatures and the Electoral College, respectively. But if the aim of such constitutional devices was to deter the enactment of popular policies, how could the people be persuaded to support the Constitution? The historical answer was that the people were taught to venerate the Constitution as if it were an end in itself. This is what happened in the nineteenth century, and it still happens, to a much lesser extent, as reflected in the Tea Party.
After the Civil War, however, social reformers successfully undermined Constitution-worship among the most educated Americans. They argued that law should be a means to the end of the common good—and that, since the common good is known to the people, the law should enable the people’s sovereignty, not impede it. A rational, instrumentalist view of law took hold that yokes the rule of law to the will of the people, rather than pitting them against each other. According to this new common sense, the legal order is only as valuable as its (immediate, visible) consequences for the people.  When the laws are made, interpreted, and enforced by those friendly to the people, then the rule of law is unobjectionable. When the laws—or the Constitution—get in the people’s way, they should be changed or circumvented. It’s but a short logical step to forget legal niceties altogether in pursuit of the common good.
However, Müller shows that even the radical populists of Europe and South America do not repudiate legal forms as such. They merely change them to ensure that they produce the “correct political outcomes.”  Populism doesn’t entail rule by decree; it can be content to bend the law to popular purposes. This is directly in line with the instrumentalist view of law that’s inherent in our status quo. When Hillary Clinton reacts to her defeat by proposing to abolish the Electoral College, it shows that the instrumentalist view bequeathed to us by the Progressives is now shared by almost everyone, elite and mass alike.
Müller quotes a legislator from Poland’s populist party, the PiS, arguing that “above the law stands the good of the nation.”  If the end of government is the common welfare, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that law should be a means to this end—at best, a weapon in the hands of the people as they pursue the good of the nation; at worst, an impediment to the people’s interests that must be altered accordingly. Tony Blair recently described “the strongman form of government” as boiling down to this promise: “‘I’m just going to bust through the systems not delivering for you and I’m going to deliver.’” He admits: “It’s got an appeal.” It’s the appeal that overturned the old, constraining rule of law. 
Trump as a Conventional Politician
Since everyone who has been analyzing Trump was brought up under the new constitution, it isn’t surprising that most of their analyses have overlooked basic continuities between his politics and that of the governing order as a whole. Preoccupied by his vile personality and equipped only with reductionist, off-the-shelf psychological tools for understanding how anyone could vote for him, Trump’s critics have leapt to the conclusion that his supporters are xenophobic authoritarians—a depiction that seemed to be chillingly confirmed in Charlottesville last month. But as I’ve argued previously, there’s no solid evidence that 500 neo-Nazis are representative of Trump’s 63 million voters, and there’s significant evidence against it.
I’ve discussed quantitative evidence, but the most impressive evidence is qualitative. Journalists who’ve actually talked to Trump voters, Trump boosters, Trump rally attendees, and Trump campaign workers have found little xenophobia but much sociotropic-nationalist “common sense.”
Thus, Trump supporters are mightily impressed that he is (supposedly) a successful businessman, which they seem to equate with having superior practical skills. And his ill-mannered, ill-tempered, and absurdly stubborn behavior—never backing down from a claim or a position, no matter how ridiculous—seemed to suggest to many that he would fight for the public interest with ferocity. When he declared in a presidential debate that his “temperament” best suited him for the presidency, it sounded like a bad joke to those of us who thought of his finger on the nuclear trigger. But he clarified that he has a “winning temperament.” His constant talk of winners and losers, like his obnoxious behavior itself, signaled that only an unstoppable jerk like him could face down the elites and the special interests. Listen to a Trump supporter in rural Colorado about this: “If I have rats in my basement, I’m going to try to find the best rat killer out there. I don’t care if he’s ugly or if he’s sociable. All I care about is if he kills rats.” Or one in Arizona who, when asked about Trump’s vulgarity, lies, and paranoia, answered: “Who gives a shit? Because if he’s going to get the job done?”
Getting the job done—producing results—is what matters in a sociotropic polity. The job is to solve social and economic problems. Even as conventional a politician as Democratic governor John Hickenlooper of Colorado came away from a meeting with Trump impressed by his apparent focus “on solving problems.”
Whose problems was Trump going to solve? If we listen to him, we find him loudly, abrasively, and repeatedly declaring that he’ll solve the problems of the people—not some small part of the people, but the American people. He is indeed an us-against-them politician, but so are all other successful politicians in the modern world: the “us” is the American, or British, or French, or German, or Japanese people. The “them” is everyone else. This binary, however, doesn’t necessarily betoken hatred of those outside the people’s borders; if it did, modern democracies would not behave so peacefully toward each other, nor would it be so popular in each country to shrink the military. The binary isn’t a sign of hostility but of sociotropic nationalism. Everyone knows, through acculturation, that the “people” encompassed by a set of national borders is supposed to take care of its own (sociotropic) interests before it looks outward.
Sociotropic nationalism explains, too, which particular rats Trump wanted to kill. Trump promised to fight against free trade and immigration on the grounds that they were hurting Americans’ interests by causing economic and social problems “here at home.” Trump had ingeniously come up with a domestic policy almost entirely shaped by the fundamental sociotropic-nationalist binary, us versus them: protectionism to bring back American jobs from abroad; border control to prop up wages at home and keep out terrorists and criminals. If there’s one thing that everyone understands, one heuristic that the poorly informed can use to judge a politician, it’s a politician’s sheer commitment to helping the domestic “us.” What better metric for this commitment than the politician’s obsession with policing the geographical border between us and them? “Without borders,” Trump frequently emphasized, “we don’t have a country.” A Texas Trump supporter said, “He’s talking about protecting us and building a wall and getting rid of people who are hurting us. That will be beneficial for all of us, Latinos, blacks, whites, Muslims, all of us.” A Virginian told a reporter, “Americans just want to feel like we’re looking out for us a little more.”
Trump’s policies, his behavior, his character, and his rhetoric are all “deplorable.” But if we stop our analysis with moral condemnation, we put a cordon sanitaire around him, letting the system that produced him off the hook. He didn’t come from Mars, and his success isn’t inexplicable. To the extent that the explanation isn’t his supporters are crazy or evil, then we have to recognize that something else is at work: that he seems, to many people, to be a politician who finally does what politicians are supposed to do.
Jeffrey Friedman, a Visiting Scholar in the Charles and Louise Travers Department of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley, is the editor of Critical Review: A Journal of Politics and Society and of The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion Reconsidered (Routledge, 2014). His Technocracy: A Critique is forthcoming from Oxford University Press (2018).
- Jan-Werner Müller, What Is Populism? (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016), p. 15.
- Ibid., p. 16.
- Ibid., p. 20.
- Müller’s book appeared last year, necessarily truncating its treatment of Trump.
- Ibid., p. 22.
- Trump may also have meant that the people would soon unite behind him. The word-salad-words unification of defy a definitive interpretation, given the context recounted above.
- Müller, p. 79.
- Ibid. p. 56.
- Ibid., p. 57.
- See Jeffrey Friedman, “‘A Weapon in the Hands of the People,” Critical Review 19(2-3) (2007): 197–240.
- Theodore Roosevelt, Social Justice and Popular Rule: Essays, Addresses, and Public Statements Relating to the Progressive Movement (1910–1916). Vol. XVII of The Works of Theodore Roosevelt: National Edition, ed. Hermann Hagedorn, 1926. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, p. 120.
- In this view, the Framers feared the sociotropic consequences of vesting direct power in a public that saw only immediate or intended policy consequences, not unseen or long-term policy effects. When Progressive jurisprudence undermined the old Constitution, it was the triumph of a new kind of sociotropic thinking—one that took all policy effects to be self-evident to members of the public.
- Müller 2016, p. 62.
- Ibid., p. 57.
- To be sure, there are counter-tendencies, so we are not inexorably on a “road to populism.” After World War II, the Progressive school of legal realism gave way to a revived appreciation of legal restraints. New “substantive” rights—civil liberties—were discovered in the Constitution. Moreover, respect for legal procedures remains largely intact. Even populists tend only to use legal means to change the law. But proceduralism remains at odds with the logic of populism, which is, in turn, part of the logic of the status quo.