Right-wing vs. progressive populism: How to win in these populist Trump times

To be living in populist times is to be living in an era when political authority is no longer seen as legitimate

Published November 13, 2016 4:59PM (EST)

Bernie Sanders   (AP/Craig Ruttle)
Bernie Sanders (AP/Craig Ruttle)

This piece originally appeared on Waging Nonviolence.

Waging Nonviolence Donald Trump just rode into power on an anti-establishment wave caused by the deep fault lines of crisis. This is unfortunately what it took for the political establishments of both major parties to grasp the magnitude of the crisis. Unfortunately, members of the political class aren’t the only ones who will be paying the price for their failure of understanding.

The nightmare has just begun. Trump’s unabashed racism and misogyny on the campaign trail should be our first warning about what his presidency will look like. There’s no reason to believe he will now “turn it down,” seeing as how well it has worked for him so far. A cursory look at Trump’s far-right cabinet appointees provides another terrifying glimpse of what’s ahead. The threats before us are perhaps greater than most of us have seen in our lifetime. Already life has become palpably more dangerous for some of the most vulnerable Americans, as unapologetic racists have felt empowered, hate groups have grown and hate crime incidents are proliferating across the country. While it’s possible that Trump could unravel early on, the fact is that most people thought he would do so a long time ago. He hasn’t. And there seems to be no inherent limit to how far he might go.

The thing is, Trump has shown himself to be more powerful than his own party’s leadership and more powerful than the Democratic Party — even as he spent half as much money and had far less formal infrastructure for voter turnout. How did he become so powerful? If we are to understand Trump as a threat, and if we are to eventually overcome that threat — seeing as how he wasn’t stopped on Nov. 8 — we have to understand how he gets his power.

Here’s the central reason: Trump intuitively understood the populist times we are living in.

Understanding populism

To be living in populist times is to be living in an era when political authority is no longer seen as legitimate by most people; it’s what’s often referred to as a crisis of legitimacy. During such a crisis, populist movements and leaders emerge, from both the right and the left, in order to forge a new popular alignment of social forces. Populists explain the causes of the crisis, they name “the establishment” as the problem, and they articulate a new vision forward  —  an aspirational horizon  —  for “the people.” Left-wing populism and right-wing populism thus share certain rhetorical features (e.g., “the people” aligned against “the establishment”), but their contents and consequences could not be further apart. The retrograde “aspirational horizon” of right-wing populism tends to be in the rearview mirror: a nostalgic longing for a simpler time that never actually existed. More importantly, despite its ostensible anti-elitism, right-wing populism always punches down, unifying “the people” (some of them) by scapegoating a dehumanized other: blacks, Jews, homosexuals, immigrants, Mexicans, Muslims  —  take your pick  —  depending on the opportunities available to the particular demagogue in the given context.

The signs of the present crisis have accumulated for a long time: The Iraq War, crumbling public infrastructure, Hurricane Katrina, growing inequality. But if any single event brought about a popular recognition of the crisis of legitimacy, it was the financial meltdown of 2008. Despite reestablishing some level of relative stability, this underlying crisis has stayed with us since then, even if often out of sight and out of the minds of the punditry and the political class. Their underestimation of the magnitude of the crisis is what has made them so useless in predicting the remarkable success of the insurgencies within both major parties in 2016.

In these two insurgencies we can see the “two sides” of populism and the two very different possible paths. From the progressive perspective, a crisis of legitimacy holds great potential because it presents an incredible opportunity to narrate the crisis, to reframe the premises of American society along progressive lines, and to organize a popular political alignment capable of challenging the entrenched power of elites: in short, a political revolution. But a crisis of legitimacy is extraordinarily dangerous for a political left that is not ready to take advantage of it. History shows that when progressives fail to realign popular social forces in such populist moments, reactionary authoritarians can suddenly step in with remarkable speed and horrific consequences.

That is what happened on Nov. 8. That is what we are witnessing with the election of Donald Trump to the highest office in the land.

Neoliberal Democrats

However, to understand how this happened we can’t just point fingers at the right. The Democratic Party had a surprising opportunity this year to claim the mantle of a vibrant progressive populism. When the Democratic Party establishment defeated the Bernie Sanders insurgency in the nomination contest — in part by conspiring to stack the deck against him — it shot itself in the foot. It was dismissive of Sanders’ electability in the general election for the same reason that it was dismissive of Trump’s electability: It failed to understand the populist moment. And by nominating the establishment candidate, it ceded powerful anti-establishment messages — and the trappings of the underdog, the outsider, the insurgent — to Donald Trump for the remainder of the election season. Try as she might, Hillary Clinton could not convincingly tap into a populist spirit. And the problem isn’t that she’s bad at messaging or “too cold.” The problem is that she symbolizes the establishment precisely because of the political choices she has made over the course of her entire career.

And this isn’t just about the person Hillary Clinton or her individual choices; it’s about the choices of the whole Democratic Party establishment over the past few decades. In ingratiating itself to Wall Street and the “1 percent,” the Democratic Party has forfeited a resonant moral message on “bread-and-butter” issues that could win over a solid majority of Americans. The party’s problem isn’t just a “messaging dilemma.” There is no message that can inspire the working people who were once-upon-a-time the predominant social base of the Democratic Party while simultaneously appealing to the neoliberal professional class and the finance cabal that has become the functional base of the party today. It’s very difficult, for example, to take a $225,000 speaking fee from Goldman Sachs and then deliver a convincing economic populist appeal to voters.

This also isn’t just about Bernie Sanders. He was in many ways a less-than-ideal candidate and his campaign had its share of errors and shortcomings. What this is about is the potential progressive direction for the Democratic Party — and for the country— that Sanders symbolized. Economic inequality is central to the emerging progressive force that the Sanders campaign represented — along with the conviction that the political system has been rigged to serve only an obscenely wealthy few. (Racial justice will also have to be central to this progressive force in the coming years — a topic I will return to shortly.)

Race, class, liberalism and populism

This burgeoning progressivism is different from liberalism in important ways. While economic justice values may have been important to liberalism in the past, today for many people the term liberal has come to only mean socially liberal and it is also associated with elitism. This negative association is partly the product of a quite effective decades-long conservative project to tarnish the label. Liberals have been associated with a caricature of “the '60s” — a story of pampered, affluent, irresponsible youth; hippies who soon enough grew up to become yuppies. Strategic racism provides another big part of the explanation for how the right “negatively branded” liberals and liberalism. Over the past few decades, conservative politicians and operatives cynically appealed to white solidarity and white fear as they associated liberalism with a welfare state whose recipients were framed as lazy and taking-advantage, if not outright dangerous criminals; the plausibly deniable insinuation was that this “element” of society was colored black or brown (even if the actual data showed that whites comprised the majority of welfare recipients). It is hard to overstate the significance of this strategy in turning middle-class whites against public institutions and social welfare.

Yet there’s another reason why this negative branding campaign against the liberal label worked so well, which is that there’s more than a grain of truth to the charge against contemporary liberalism  —  that it is elitist. As organized labor declined, and along with it, unions’ influence as an essential bloc in the (then unraveling) New Deal coalition, successful baby boomers grew up to become the new creative professional class and a central social base of the new Democratic Party. More individualistic than their parents, this generation of liberals pursued its private dreams, which tended to include living and working in socially liberal, highly educated, relatively affluent enclaves. Whether or not there is a correlation between affluence and those who identify as liberal, there is certainly a popular association between the two.

Trump played on that association very effectively. And to stop him now, we have to understand how this works. On the one hand, it is a mistake to argue that white working-class and middle-class people voted for Trump only because they have been screwed by neoliberalism and they’re resentful of educated liberal elites. Trump is a racist bigot — in his heart and for cynical strategic reasons — and xenophobia was at the center of his campaign. So we have to see that for many white Trump voters, racism — even if often unconscious — was a major motivating factor in how they cast their votes. On the other hand, it is also a mistake to argue that white people voted for Trump only because they are racists. It is both things at once, and that’s precisely why it works. This is the classic formula of right-wing populism and why it is so dangerous. Trump’s appeals resonated not just because of racism and not just because of economic insecurity. He blended together a dangerous cocktail of both central elements (along with a huge dose of misogyny). Many white people are legitimately experiencing economic, social and psychological strain and they may harbor understandable resentment toward educated elites. Trump, like other right-wing demagogues before, appeals to this anxiety and resentment while simultaneously appealing to — and stoking — racial prejudice and a racialized national identity.

So then, what undermines the power of right-wing populism? Progressive populism. By telling a more compelling story about the causes and culprits of working people’s economic woes, progressive populists like Bernie Sanders are able to seriously weaken one of the central pillars of the right-wing populist appeal. First of all, Sanders could equally wield the power of being an anti-establishment outsider candidate in a populist moment. As such, Sanders was also uniquely positioned to go after Trump as a particularly scorn-worthy member of the billionaire class — to frame Trump as a poser who adorns himself with the superficial trappings of populism, while he enriches only himself. To be clear, the number of people who voted for Trump who would have voted for Sanders had he been the Democratic nominee may or may not be significant, and it’s not the main thing that matters here. Remember that over 43 percent of eligible voters did not vote in this election. As an authentic progressive populist, Sanders would have enjoyed enthusiastic backing across the country, including in many areas where Trump’s strongest supporters were to be found. We know this because the primary numbers make it clear. Like Trump, Sanders was bringing in a whole new enthusiastic and committed voter base — because he was connecting with people’s experiences, frustrations and aspirations.

The Sanders campaign points the way forward for progressives and for the Democratic Party — though imperfectly. His campaign had problems that we must correct for as we figure out how to move forward. Progressive populism is worlds apart from right-wing populism, but it is nonetheless susceptible to its own kinds of blind spots and dangers, especially concerning racial justice. To be clear, in an anti-establishment era like the one we’re in, the alternative to building progressive populism is to cede the “populist space” to dangerous reactionaries, which is a far more dangerous prospect for the interests of both racial and economic justice. Incidentally, that’s precisely the situation we’re in at the moment. But if and when we regain the populist momentum, we have to do better than previous struggles have done. The central fissure that has prevented progressive political alignment throughout the history of the United States is the tension between racial justice and economic justice frameworks. That tension played out in 2016 — dramatically in the Sanders campaign — and it will continue to be a very real tension for a long time to come. But we can step up to navigate it conscientiously and strategically. We can build a progressive populism that centers both racial justice and economic justice, and whose leadership reflects the diversity of a multiracial alignment of social forces. The millennial generation, with its promising new wave of social movements — from Black Lives Matter to immigrant Dreamers to Occupy Wall Street — may just produce leaders capable of doing this better than others have been able to do in the past. It will not be easy, but that is the task.

Persuading or replacing them

But how can this be the path forward not just for progressives but also for the Democratic Party if the party establishment is actively resisting such a direction? There are only two answers to this question: We’ll have to either persuade them or replace them. More precisely, once we prove capable of replacing some of them, we will have the power to persuade others. We have to start right now.

The thing is, Democratic Party leaders don’t presently have a leg to stand on. We have just witnessed one of the most epic failures in the history of the party. This failure is the culmination of a much longer historical failure. The Democratic Party’s ostensible reason for existence is to fight for working people. Yet it has neglected that charter for four decades now; in so doing, it has unsurprisingly failed to inspire working people to turn out to the polls.

In most countries, when a political party’s leaders fail so severely, heads roll. That leadership faction is typically forced to step down. And if there were, say, an insurgent faction in the party that had accurately predicted the failure — and that had just successfully brought in a substantial new social base, whose enthusiasm the party desperately needed — that faction would typically take the helm of the party. That’s how it works. That’s what has to happen now. And not just because I’m partial to a progressive political agenda, but because to proceed in any other way would be political suicide for the Democratic Party and for progressives alike.

If a broad center-left political alignment is to win elections in 2018 and 2020 and to do effective damage control in the meantime, progressives will have to be popularly framing the fights. To do so, progressives will have to expel, persuade or at least outmaneuver the current failed leadership of the Democratic Party. All indications are that this entrenched leadership is unlikely to even admit fault, let alone to willingly step aside, so this will be no small task. Social movements will have to push from the outside. Savvy progressives will have to run for office or support other progressives who are doing so. Large progressive membership organizations will have to majorly invest in recruiting and developing a proliferation of progressive candidates. Elected progressive champions and grassroots organizers will need to have a shared “war room.” We’ll need to break out of old categories, and to blur the lines between outsider social movement, political party and state power. And insiders and outsiders alike will need to articulate a shared progressive aspirational vision for the nation — of an America that works for all of us.

If we’re to force the Democratic Party to stand up and actually fight for working people, there will have to be a profound change of course and of leadership. A popular united front against a dangerous Trump presidency will not be effective if we don’t win a long overdue fight over the leadership of the Democratic Party. Spineless centrist neoliberal careerists have had their day. Their failure to fight for — and thus inspire — working people is what enabled a Trump presidency. It is time for them to step aside. It is time for us to step up.

Jonathan Matthew Smucker is a political organizer and strategist. He directs Beyond the Choir and is a sociology doctoral student at UC Berkeley. He is author of "Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals" (available for pre-order). Follow him on Twitter at @jonathansmucker.

By Jonathan Matthew Smucker

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Bernie Sanders Donald Trump Elections 2016 Hillary Clinton Populism Right-wing Socialism Waging Nonviolence