Nativism And Economic Anxiety Fuel Trump's Populist Appeal

Sep 4, 2015
Originally published on September 4, 2015 11:54 am

Ever since the Tea Party began in 2009, various Republicans have been auditioning to lead this populist revolt. Rand Paul took a chainsaw to the federal budget. Ted Cruz almost shut down the government. Chris Christie and Scott Walker have been bashing Washington elites.

But it wasn't until Donald Trump came along that the populist base of the Republican Party found the right mouthpiece for all its grievances.

So much of what Trump says on the stump seems improvised and inconsistent. And on the surface he can look like nothing more than a bombastic showman. But Trump fits right in to the classic tradition of American populism. From William Jennings Bryan to Huey Long to George Wallace to Ross Perot, American populism has always combined nativism with economic grievance.

As Michael Lind of the New America Foundation points out, the populist world view sees a division not between rich and poor but between producers and parasites. And that's why Trump's supporters hold in equal contempt Wall Street financiers who got a bailout and undocumented immigrants who broke the law.

In their eyes, both groups are cheaters and parasites. That's why it makes perfect sense for Trump to call for a big wall on the Mexican border and for higher taxes for hedge-fund managers. Some of his positions — like higher tariffs, an end to tax breaks for hedge funds, and protections for entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security — are challenging Republican orthodoxy. Some of them would even be right at home on Bernie Sanders' website. But populism is often a mashup of positions from the left and right.

The other thing Trump does is highlight the growing division between the Republican Party's establishment wing and its base.

Ever since another populist — the segregationist Democrat George Wallace — inspired a group of alienated white Southern Democrats to switch to the GOP, the Republican Party's base has consisted of white working-class (mostly male) voters whose views on trade, immigration and entitlements have been at odds with the GOP's donor class. For a long time, those divisions were papered over by social issues — opposition to abortion and gay marriage. But as the social issue debate recedes, the weak links in the conservative alliance are becoming more apparent. Trump and Trumpism makes the Republican coalition look like a rickety contraption.

Maybe one of the lessons here is that this is what happens when a party waits too long to update its ideology. Conservative intellectuals have been talking for years about the need to update Reaganomics for the 21st century, to develop a modern message for the middle class, especially for blue collar, non-college-educated voters who have been unsettled by globalization and whose incomes have been stagnating for a generation. There's a widespread feeling among voters that the old economic model isn't working anymore to provide broadly shared prosperity and economic opportunity. And neither political party is offering solutions. Now Trump — with his anger at immigrants, trade, Wall Street and Washington elites — is filling the void.

In the past, populist candidates haven't won. But they have left a lasting mark on one or both parties. That's what happened when the Republican Party absorbed Wallace's disgruntled white voters in the '70s and '80s. And when Bill Clinton co-opted Ross Perot's message about the deficit in an effort to prove that Democrats were fiscally responsible enough to balance the budget.

What will be Trump's legacy? That's not clear yet. One possible legacy could be to make the Republican Party more nativist, alienating Hispanic voters. That would likely doom the GOP to minority status for a long time.

Or one of the other candidates could emerge as the anti-Trump, and the party could have a big, healthy debate about what it means to be a modern Republican.

Jeb Bush seems the most likely Trump opponent. But even though Bush is pushing back against Trump's personal attacks, accusing Trump of being a closet liberal and — of all things — a germaphobe, Bush doesn't seem to want to engage with Trumpism directly.

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What we've just been hearing is American politics in a populist moment. That description applies to Democrats as well as Republicans. Here is NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: The two candidates who are doing the best right now are the ones with the strongest populist voices.


BERNIE SANDERS: This great nation and its government belong to all of the people and not to a handful of billionaires.


LIASSON: That's Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Democratic socialist who is now within striking distance of Hillary Clinton. Sanders is angry about billionaires. On the Republican side, it's a billionaire populist who's channeling voters' anger, and Donald Trump is angry about a lot of things.


DONALD TRUMP: The American people are led by such stupid leaders.

They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists.

We have people that are selling this country down the drain.

LIASSON: Trump's list of targets is long - illegal immigrants, Barack Obama, Republican leaders in Congress, just about anyone he doesn't like. Democratic pollster Peter Hart says Trump is surging because right now, the electorate is anxious and frustrated at almost every institution in America.

PETER HART: What it comes down to is this sense that what we have is an elite group that are controlling everything that's going on, and the rebellion comes against the elite candidates, which are Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton. They represent the status quo. In comes Donald Trump, in comes Bernie Sanders.

LIASSON: Trump, in particular, is in the classic tradition of American populism. From William Jennings Bryan to Huey Long to George Wallace to Ross Perot, populists have combined nativism with economic grievance. Michael Lind of the New America Foundation says that in the populist worldview...

MICHAEL LIND: The real division is not between the rich and the poor. It is between producers and parasites. So in classic populist fashion, the Trump supporters see bailed out Wall Street financiers and illegal immigrants as cheaters, as parasites.

LIASSON: So much of what Trump says on the stump sounds improvised and inconsistent, but Lind says it makes perfect populist sense for Trump to want a big wall on the Mexican border and higher taxes for hedge fund managers. Here's what Trump said when he called into CBS on Sunday.


TRUMP: The hedge funds guys didn't build this country. These are guys that shift paper around, and they get lucky. They make a fortune. They pay no tax. It's ridiculous, OK?

LIASSON: On this issue, the real estate mogul and reality TV star is right in sync with Bernie Sanders and, for that matter, Hillary Clinton because sometimes, populism does tend to be a mashup of positions from the left and right. Trumpism is also filling the growing gap between the Republican Party's establishment and its base. Lind points out that the modern conservative movement owes its success to George Wallace, the populist segregationist Democrat who helped lead a group of southern Democrats into the Republican Party.

LIND: Essentially, for a couple of generations, the Republican base has consisted of these white working-class populists whose views on trade, on immigration, even on entitlements - because most of them support Social Security and Medicare - their economic views were quite at odds with those of the GOP donor class.

LIASSON: For a long time, cultural issues, like opposition to abortion and gay marriage, was the glue that helped hold this disparate conservative coalition together. But Trump is exposing the weak links in the Republican alliance. And, says Republican strategist Steve Schmidt, he's redefining what it means to be a conservative.

STEVE SCHMIDT: We're at this moment in time where there is a severability between conservatism and issues. Conservatism is now expressed as an emotional sentiment. That sentiment is contempt and anger. You look at Donald Trump's face, and it's blue collar, part of a middle class that's been decimated in the country that hasn't seen real wage growth in 30 years.

LIASSON: Trump has become the id of this Republican base. Steve Schmidt says Trump's slogan is strong and simple, I can make America great again.

SCHMIDT: He's saying something rather profound and something that Republican voters deeply believe. They believe Barack Obama has wrecked the country, the world is in chaos and that America is failing.

LIASSON: In the past, populist presidential candidates haven't won, but they have left a lasting mark on American politics. George Wallace helped create the modern Republican Party by bringing in disenchanted white Southerners. Ross Perot's focus on the deficit forced a Democratic president to prove that his party was fiscally responsible enough to balance the budget. Donald Trump will leave a legacy, too. It's just not clear yet exactly what it will be. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.