September 23, 2022
The road to Trumpism, and away
How did we get to the point where millions back someone as unworthy as Donald Trump? It has seemed a mystery to me, but perhaps it’s not, given the nature of political movements and the history of national politics since the mid-twentieth century.
There are three levels in the structure of the modern American political right (and, I suppose, of any movement): leaders (including elected officials), molders of opinion (now, often mass-media agitators), and followers. Complicating the picture, there are factions within the right, with their own three-part structure, and those factions collectively act as agitators. Given a sufficient level of grievance, many of the followers — the voters — will accept and support, even if they do not fully believe, almost anything that seems to lead toward improving their lives, or which at least attacks those alleged to be at fault. Popular complaints have carried an anti-elite attitude, although it’s not clear to me how much of that is natural to those complaining and how much has been injected by those stirring the resentment. The same question arises about anti-government attitudes.
Recent books have shed light the first two levels. Trump was not the first right-wing demagogue, nor was his message entirely novel. Precursors to Trump include George Wallace, who played on cultural grievance. The Tea Party, while it emphasized economic issues, apparently fostered a general willingness to believe that politics was rigged against ordinary Americans. Voters certainly did not turn to the GOP because of its economic policy. However, once persuaded to vote Republican, they seem able to ignore policies that favor the rich, even though the latter are among the elites supposedly denounced.
Trump’s followers believe, or are willing to be persuaded, that the fault lies with liberals. One theory is that working people turned against liberals and Democrats years ago because of disgust at the counterculture, including protests against the Vietnam war (bringing out the famous hardhats) and campus demonstrations, and because anti-discrimination policies, including affirmative action, were perceived as biased against whites. Immigration has added to concerns about status among whites. His legions see an American culture in decline, standards eroded or denounced. While the complaints against liberals, and by extension against Democrats, are exaggerated and at times silly, there is no doubt that attitudes held and actions by liberals pushed many to the right.
Conservatives long have claimed to be the party of true Americans and have alleged that liberal ideas are subversive. That tendency was at its height in the McCarthy era, but even today, some on the right will accuse liberals of being communists. Leaving aside such excesses, claims that only conservatives are true Americans has an effect. Conservative parties always have an advantage in appealing to national identity.
There is abundant irony in the claims from the right; it now is pushing a subversive agenda — overturning elections and sowing division — and is waging a culture war. Democrats could point out that the support among Republicans for the January 6 insurrection and for an ex-President who encouraged that uprising and attempted to cling to power after defeat, is truly un-American and violates the rule of law, turning the usual conservative argument against them.
Democrats should point out to Trump’s followers that they are being used, that the politics of the right is a scam, a means of electing Republicans who will serve other interests. As Hacker and Pierson put it, it is plutocratic populism, far from a movement helping ordinary folk.
Democrats must reconnect with ordinary Americans, and must do so before those voters become even more convinced that the deck is stacked against them. “A movement turns to violence when all hope is lost,” and violence already is being practiced or suggested by many on the right.
Although Trump’s followers have not focused on economics, Democrats should remind them that Republicans are funded by, and will serve the interest of, the rich, while Democrats will adopt policies that will help them, such as the Affordable Care Act (which Republicans have tried to repeal), an increase in the minimum wage and encouraging American manufacturing. The last is critical, to erase the image of a Party interested only in the professional class. Democrats also must support labor unions and find ways to facilitate unionization.
Hillary Clinton’s reference to “a basket of deplorables” has been cited as an example of the supercilious attitude of liberals. Actually, her full comment may reveal some of that, but it also describes the positive attitude Democrats need.
You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump's supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. . . . The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic — you name it. . . . Now some of those folks, they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America.
. . . But that other basket of people who are people who feel that government has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they are just desperate for change. It doesn't really even matter where it comes from. They don't buy everything he says but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won't wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they're in a dead-end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.
The next two elections are of critical importance. As a campaign ad by Senator Patty Murray puts it: “Democracy is on the ballot.”
41. Continetti, The Right (2022), which provides an interesting history of developments in conservative politics over many years; Peters, Insurgency (2022); Karl. Betrayal (2021).
42. See their book Let Them Eat Tweets (2020).
43. Walter, How Civil Wars Start (2022) p. 155
44. A discussion of that issue is here:
45. https://www.npr.org/2016/09/10/493427601/hillary-clintons-basket-of-deplorables-in-full-context-of- this- ugly-campaign