Why Millions of GOP Voters Bought Into Trump's Phony Populist Act
Donald Trump does not come across as a typical plutocrat — and if he did, it is doubtful whether he would be the leader of a new right-wing populist movement in America. Though the billionaire was born into great wealth and privilege, and started running his father’s $200 million real estate firm in the 1970s (a lucky break?), he has a very down-to-earth and unsophisticated way of communicating; as crude as the stereotypical drunk uncle and as slick and self-assured as a used-car salesman from New Jersey.
Over the past year, the Trump has skillfully crafted his political image as a common man fighting against the elite Republican establishment, the politically correct “limousine liberals,” and, of course, the foreigners and immigrants who want to steal American jobs and impose their alien values on Jane and Joe Average.
In a recent NPR interview, President Obama — who, unlike Trump, is a self-made man who grew up with very little — ventured to remind everyone about Trump’s plutocratic status, and how he has been a wealthy elite for his entire seven decades on planet earth:
“Mr. Trump embodies global elites and has taken full advantage of it his entire life,” said the president. “So, he’s hardly a spokesperson — a legitimate spokesperson — for a populist surge from working class people on either side of the Atlantic.”
Indeed. Trump is a capitalist who has combated unions, outsourced production of his many products to countries like China and Mexico, scammed vulnerable working class people out of thousands at his defunct Trump University, and attempted numerous times to seize the property of unwilling homeowners and small business owners through eminent domain. As Obama implied, Trump is the last person who should be expected to lead a working class movement.
Of course, the billionaire is not leading a working class movement in a typical progressive or socialist sense, but a reactionary one. The Trump campaign can be described as anti-intellectual and anti-internationalist rather than anti-elitist or anti-capitalist. Trump hasn’t derided the capitalist system or the billionaire plutocrats who profit so handsomely because of it (after all, he is one of them), but the technocratic experts in government, the snobby intellectuals in academia, the politically correct liberals in the media, and so on.
The campaign is in many ways a revolt against neoliberalism from the right, just as the Bernie Sanders campaign is a revolt from the political left. The latter candidate has been very critical of free market and neoliberal economics and the corrupt political process (i.e. unlimited political spending), while the former has directed his fury at the “totally incompetent” government officials (read: experts) and the politically correct elites who hate America (cultural issues have tended to dominate his rhetoric over economic ones).
This kind of right-wing populist approach is hardly novel; author Thomas Frank explained how reactionaries paint themselves as common folk while serving the interests of the economic elite in his classic 2004 book, “What’s the Matter with Kansas,” by largely ignoring economic realities:
“You can hardly deride liberals as society’s “elite” or present the GOP as the party of the common man if you acknowledge the existence of the corporate world — the power that creates the nation’s real elite, that dominates it’s real class system, and that wields the Republican party as its personal political sidearm,” writes Frank. “The erasure of the economic is a necessary precondition for most of the basic backlash ideas. It is only possible to think that the news is slanted to the left, for example, if if you don’t take into account who owns the news organizations and if you never turn your critical powers on that section of the media devoted to business news. The university campus can only be imagined as a place dominated by leftists if you never consider economics departments or business schools. You can believe that conservatives are powerless victims only if you exclude conservatism’s basic historical constituency, the business community, from your analysis.”
Frank more recently wrote “Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened To The Party Of The People,” a polemic against the Democratic party and the meritocratic dogma that has dominated it for years. The so-called “party of the people,” argues Frank, has become the party of an elite professional class over the past thirty or so years. After the Reagan revolution, the party of FDR adopted third-way centrism to get on the good side of corporate America, and began advocating reactionary economic policies that had once been firmly Republican, such as financial deregulation, welfare reform, and corporatist free trade (NAFTA, TPP). The last two Democratic administrations have been made up largely of professional “revolving door” elites who serve in government for a few years only to go and make big paydays in private industry afterwards (recall the notorious “Committee to save the world”). The next Democratic administration will likely be no different, as Hillary Clinton has close financial ties to Wall Street and corporate America, and is a firm believer in professional class elitism.
In other words, Trump’s diatribes against the liberal and technocratic elites are not completely unfounded. Right-wing populists like Trump have been able to succeed because Democrats have become less egalitarian and more elitist over the years.
Sanders has attempted to push the Democrats to the left with his own presidential campaign, and while it was an unequivocal success — especially considering it began as a fringe campaign — it is too soon to tell whether it will have any long-term effect on the party (if the Sanders campaign morphs into a popular movement, of course, the chances rise exponentially).