Two strands of populism have long thrived in American politics, both purporting to champion the interests of ordinary people. One shoots upward, at nefarious elites; the other—Trump’s tradition—shoots both up and down, targeting outsiders at the bottom of the ladder as well.
🔖 I’ll have to get a copy of Gest’s work to read now that I’ve seen two references to it in two different articles.
My Highlights, Quotes, & Marginalia
Two different, often competing populist traditions have long thrived in the United States. Pundits often speak of “left-wing” and “right-wing” populists. But those labels don’t capture the most meaningful distinction. The first type of American populist directs his or her ire exclusively upward: at corporate elites and their enablers in government who have allegedly betrayed the interests of the men and women who do the nation’s essential work. These populists embrace a conception of “the people” based on class and avoid identifying themselves as supporters or opponents of any particular ethnic group or religion. They belong to a broadly liberal current in American political life; they advance a version of “civic nationalism,” which the historian Gary Gerstle defines as the “belief in the fundamental equality of all human beings, in every individual’s inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and in a democratic government that derives its legitimacy from the people’s consent.”
Although Trump’s rise has demonstrated the enduring appeal of the racial-nationalist strain of American populism, his campaign is missing one crucial element. It lacks a relatively coherent, emotionally rousing description of “the people” whom Trump claims to represent.
By invoking identities that voters embraced—“producers,” “white laborers,” “Christian Americans,” or President Richard Nixon’s “silent majority”—populists roused them to vote for their party and not merely against the alternatives on offer.
For much of his campaign, his slogan might as well have been “Make America Hate Again.”
According to a recent study by the political scientist Justin Gest, 65 percent of white Americans—about two-fifths of the population—would be open to voting for a party that stood for “stopping mass immigration, providing American jobs to American workers, preserving America’s Christian heritage, and stopping the threat of Islam.”