The two front-runners for the GOP nomination are men without any governing experience to their names. Along with retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, real estate magnate and reigning media gadfly Donald Trump has for the last several weeks enjoyed a solid margin in the polls among Republicans. Now holding 40 percent support among Republicans in New Hampshire, Trump is galvanizing an unlikely cadre of right-wing nationalists, formal white supremacist organizations and ordinary, working-class whites under an inspiring call to “make America great again.” Beyond the clearly toxic implications of a Trump presidency on poor communities and communities of color the world over, what can his rise teach progressives?
Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde rightly compared Trump to Europe’s emergent right-wing nationalists, people such as France’s Marine Le Pen and the UK Independence Party in Britain. Like other xenophobic populists, Trump’s ideology is schizophrenic: an advocate of both higher taxes for Wall Street and a draconian immigration plan to deport virtually anyone guilty of being brown north of the Rio Grande. Part of his ability to ruffle even the Tea Party establishment’s feathers is his near-complete disregard for convention. According to Mudde, “Trumpismo can be seen as a functional equivalent of the European populist radical right, but it is a very American equivalent. Trump himself doesn’t hold a populist radical right ideology, but his political campaign clearly caters to populist radical right attitudes.” Mudde also contends that Trump can’t fully claim the populist label for one important reason: He doesn’t actually like people. Mudde reasons that, “In contrast to the rich history of U.S. populism” — people like George Wallace and William Jennings Bryan — “Trump is an anti-establishment elitist. He is better than everyone, i.e. both the elite and the people!”
Ernesto Laclau, a deceased and semi-obscure Argentine critical theorist, wrote extensively on the dynamics of populism, which he describes not as an ideology so much as “a set of resources available to a plurality of actors, in a more or less systematic way.” While Mudde notes that Trump breaks some of the rules of populism, its real power is the fact that there are no rules. Rather, Trump has simply picked up a set of tools available to the rest of us.
Leaders of the European populist parties Syriza and Podemos each studied his work extensively in building their electoral might, lifting his theories into the realm of practice to confront plutocracy. For a U.S. audience, Laclau’s writing can help explain populism in our own country — from Trumpismo to whatever rising left populism progressives might hope to foment. Whereas in Spain and Greece populist outfits defined their enemy as austerity-friendly elites (La Casta, for Podemos), Trump has most notably riled his devotees against immigrants and the U.S. political establishment and toward a shared desire of “making America great again,” using the kind of victimizing narrative reactionary right forces have come to love. As New Republic writer Elizabeth Stocker Bruenig wrote on Twitter last week, “So much of Trump’s appeal seems to be that he’s rich enough to be mean to the people suburban dads would like to be mean to.”
Laclau grounds his theories in dusting off crowd theory, a literature that emerged in the century after the French Revolution to explain what happens when massive numbers of people come together — in that case, to overthrow the country’s aristocracy. Often, crowd theorists treat their subjects like a disorderly band of children. Nineteenth-century French sociologist Gabriel Tarde described them as “excessively emotional, impulsive, violent, fickle, inconsistent, irresolute and extreme in action, displaying only the coarser emotions and the less refined sentiments,” and so on. Reflecting on the same period, a contemporary thinker wrote that “crowds, as described by late-nineteenth century French men, resembled alcoholics or women.”
Although populism might seem to hold an obvious appeal for progressives, liberal and far-left forces have fallen into their own brand of crowd-hating. Socialist organizations even decried Occupy for its populism. A “Marxist assessment of Occupy Wall Street” released by the League of the Revolutionary Party in 2012 moaned that the movement “put forward a populist view of the crisis, which failed to identify the capitalist system as a whole, including its state, as the enemy; nor did it promote any clear understanding of the class forces at work.” Writing around the same time, the Socialist Alternative lamented “the limitations of populism and the need for clear working-class and socialist policies.” For shame!
Contra both, the 99 percent versus the 1 percent might be the most endearing frame progressives have produced in the last half-century. And while the movement did yield concrete victories, its far-right counterpart was what ultimately shifted America’s electoral context toward an anti-establishment pole.
Writing in 2004 — well before the Tea Party captured the heart of the GOP — Laclau warned that it would be “pure illusion” to assume that the Republican party’s “long-term defeat could take place without some kind of drastic rearticulation of the political imaginary.” While insurgent energy from both the left (Occupy) and the right (the Tea Party) cropped up in response to a botched bipartisan response to the financial crisis, only the latter diverted a major party’s political make-up toward its fringe. Look, for instance, at the frontrunners from the 2008 presidential race at this time in 2007: Mike Huckabee stood out as the far-right radical of a bunch that included long-time governor Mitt Romney, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani and seasoned Congressmen John McCain. His pick for vice president, Mama Grizzly cum-(former) Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, was a woman ahead of her time in terms of crass, homespun appeal.
Better than any extra-institutional force, the Tea Party has provided the “drastic rearticulation” of American electoral politics Laclau called for. Importantly, this was stoked not only by charismatic candidates, but a thriving, genuinely grassroots movement propped up by more than just hearty checks from the Koch Brothers. In their study of the Tea Party, researchers Theda Skocpol, Venessa Williamson and John Coggin linked its rise to three key factors: grassroots mobilization networks, organized through churches and other community institutions; the support of funders and older, institutionalized players outside of the Republican establishment, in think tanks such as the CATO Institute; as well as a conservative media positioned to “inspire a shared identity.”
Drawing from sociologist Debra Minkoff, they wrote, “Rather than serving a journalistic, or even propagandistic function, Fox News in effect acts as a national social movement organization.” With regular, favorable coverage, Fox “provid[ed] a venue for the leading voices, articulating a sense of pride and power among conservatives … and spreading information about how people could get involved in national occasions to display solidarity and collective voice.” While Trump is hardly a strict Tea Party candidate, his emergence would have been impossible without it, and — to focus on one factor — the formation of a shared identity that holds collective action at its core. However reactionary it may be, Trump is capitalizing on an identity category big enough not only to hold backwoods neo-Nazis and suburban soccer moms, but invite them out to the same rallies to wear the same silly hats, be they tri-cornered or Trump’s signature baseball caps.
It’s the sort of seemingly vague universalism that progressives have shied away from, fearing an imprecise analysis of the problem at hand. Trump’s populist discourse might even be more effective than the Tea Party precisely because it lacks a strict ideology. “The language of a populist discourse — whether of left or right — is always going to be imprecise and fluctuating,” Laclau wrote, “because it tries to operate performatively within a social reality, which is to a large extent heterogenous and fluctuating. I see this moment of vagueness and imprecision … as an essential component of any populist operation.”
The Tea Party may have laid the groundwork for Trump, but there’s a deeper crisis of legitimacy felt as much among progressives as reactionary whites. In some ways, Bernie Sanders has been the left’s answer to Trump in taking on America’s entrenched political class, all the way down to his charmingly unpolished Brooklyn accent. But it would be hard to argue that left-of-Hillary Democrats have undergone the same complex process of consolidation as their right-leaning counterparts. Nor are they operating from the same complex infrastructure that Trump has built his support on.
Still, given the success and legacy of the 99 percent framing, it’s not as if we’re starting from scratch. From Occupy to the movement for black lives, young American progressives — self-identified or not — are coalescing against extreme racial and economic inequality, and a loss of control over the political agenda. Uniting these and other millennial movements around a shared and politically forceful identity may yet mean getting comfortable with a certain amount of analytical imprecision, and talking seriously about shared values rather than ideology. Identity formation included, there are more than a few steps between here and a left-leaning answer to the Tea Party and Trump, but a growing impulse toward collective action is giving us a head start toward building a real, militant progressive movement in the United States.