What Trump Represents Is Neither New Nor Unique

Nationalism and political incorrectness are the hallmarks of populists on both sides of the Atlantic.

Businessman Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, February 27
Businessman Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, February 27 (Gage Skidmore)

In France, they vote for Marine Le Pen. In the United Kingdom, for Nigel Farage. And in the United States, they are supporting the presidential campaign of businessman Donald Trump, who is running as a Republican.

The billionaire’s base of support is neither surprising nor unique. His nationalist and politically incorrect rhetoric appeals to a particular segment of the American population that has seen its economic and political power decline in recent decades — just as in other Western democracies.

Culture war

Andrew Sullivan, a British blogger, has called Europe’s a “blue-red culture war over modernity.”

“Blue Europe,” he suggests, is “internationalist, globalized, metrosexual, secular, modern, multicultural.” Blue Europeans tend to be better-educated and more traveled. They vote for socially liberal parties — which, in Western Europe, can mean anything from the far left to the mainstream right.

“Red Europe,” by contrast, “is noninterventionist, patriotic, more traditional, more sympathetic to faith, more comfortable in a homogeneous society,” according to Sullivan. It is less mobile and struggling to maintain its high living standards in an era of rapid economic and social change.

Red Europeans are most likely to vote for parties that are anti-globalist or anti-immigration. Again, in Europe, that can mean anything from the far left, like Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece, to the far right, like Le Pen’s Front national — but there are few choices in between.

The migrant crisis exacerbates this culture war, as the Atlantic Sentinel has reported, stoking resentment in an already beleaguered working-class Europe; more so toward European elites that are dismissive of what they perceive to be illiberal attachments to community and nation.

America’s folk community

So it is with Donald Trump’s supporters.

In an excellent analysis of the property tycoon’s popularity, the National Journal‘s John B. Judis places him in a long tradition of American populism.

His supporters, he argues, are “middle American radicals.” Like many on the left, they are deeply suspicious of big business. But like many on the right, they are equally mistrustful of big government. They support entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security, but also believe the poor are getting too much help and their own taxes are too high.

Walter Russell Mead would call them Jacksonians: an American folk community that is bound together more by cultural and ethnic ties than any particular idea.

He writes in Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World (2001) that Jacksonians believe the prime purpose of government is to defend the living standards of the “middle class” (what would in Europe probably, and more aptly, be called working class). Hence their ideological inconsistencies.

Colin Woodard shows in American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (2011) that many of these Americans are of Scotch-Irish heritage and live in the larger Appalachia Mountain region that stretches from the deindustrialized Rust Belt in the north through the coal mines of Kentucky and West Virginia into the Deep South where they blend in with another white and conservative tribe.

Like their counterparts in Europe, they see immigration as endangering the cohesion of the community and are easily swayed by a strong leader, whatever his principles.

Winners and losers

Jacksonian Americans have been on the losing side of every major argument in the last twenty years, from the culture wars about feminism and gay rights to free trade and globalization.

Barack Obama’s election in 2008 encapsulated the demise of the America they knew: a black president elected to end wars and provide universal health insurance would have been unthinkable a generation ago.

Patrick Buchanan, who sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1992 as well as 1996 on a platform not too dissimilar from Trump’s, postulated the “end of white America” in 2011. “Mexico,” he warned in a book, Suicide of a Superpower, “is moving north.”

Enter Trump who kicked off his presidential campaign by accusing Mexico of deliberately sending its drug dealers and rapists across the border.

There is more to his worldview that makes him popular.

Judis notes that populists like Buchanan and Trump have several things in common.

One is that they see themselves as defending the American “middle class” (working class) against its enemies both at home and abroad.

From the Chinese who are supposedly ripping America off to illegal immigrants driving down wages to hedge-fund spec­u­lat­ors “get­ting away with murder” on their tax bills, Trump’s enemies fall into familiar categories: foreigners and big-city elites.

The latter, according to Trump, are either devious or wimps; getting rich off the backs of the ordinary Americans or failing to defend the national (folk) interest.

Nigel Farage and other “Red Europeans” like him have a similar gripe with the “liberal establishment” in Brussels, London and Paris: they’re either out of touch with the man in the street or they’re too feeble to defend the nation against the others menacing it (Islamists, in their case).

Strong hand

Another recurrent theme, according to Judis, is the belief that all it takes to set things straight is a strong leader.

Megan McArdle, a Bloomberg View columnist, recently cautioned against this fantasy that someone like Trump will be able to escape the political constraints that have bedeviled Republican leaders in the past.

“Superhero” politicians, as she puts it, never succeed. Certainly not in the United States where the political system “is set up precisely to frustrate a powerful guy with a big idea.”

Governing is not like building a building; it’s not like running a business. It’s like, well, trying to herd three branches of government in roughly the same direction. These branches are composed of thousands of people, each of whom has their own agenda, and represents millions more, each of whom has their own agenda and will hound out of office anyone who strays too far from it.

It may be a wildly ponderous and inefficient way to run a state, but it’s the price Westerners pay for representative democracy.

Impatient minority

Neither Trump nor Le Pen nor the populists like them really have the patience for democracy. Nor do their supporters.

They are not antidemocratic. Few advocate an overthrow of the system. They should not be confused with the real fascists, like Golden Dawn in Greece, Jobbik in Hungary or Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie.

But they don’t appreciate either that government does not exist only for them and that consensus and incremental change are not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength.

Their appeal should not be overstated. Le Pen is supported by perhaps a third of the French. Farage’s United Kingdom Independence Party got 13 percent support in the last election. Nate Silver points out at FiveThirtyEight that Trump now has the support of 25 to 30 percent of the quarter of Americans who identify as Republican. “That’s something like 6 to 8 percent of the electorate overall, or about the same share of people who think the Apollo moon landings were faked.”

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