Historically, the term populism described a movement of farmers and workers formed in the 1890s to counter America’s corporate monopolies. Its purpose was to put a leash on unbridled economic power. Spurred on by the anger of common people, the movement spelled out a clear agenda of reforms that later inspired progressive legislation to regulate business and level the playing field .
By the mid-20th century, however, “populism” appeared to lose its connection with progressivism and reform. Instead, it became identified with conservative discontent centered around crime, welfare, racial integration, and civil rights. Its anger was aimed at intellectuals, poor people dependent on government, and emerging groups seeking a voice, notably women, gays, and minorities.
No longer reform-oriented, this new populism resembled the old populism only in its ability to harness the grievances of frustrated Americans. Politicians like George Wallace, Richard Nixon, and Pat Buchanan were able to reach these voters by appealing not only to raw prejudice but to fear of social and economic disempowerment. Their tactics were often adopted, though more subtly, by Ronald Reagan, G. H. W. Bush, and other Republicans seeking a wedge against Democrats. The formula worked well for many years as a means of attracting white working class votes and securing a power base in the South.
With the rise of conservative talk radio, Fox News, and websites like Breitbart.com, populist appeals to the anxieties of Americans have only increased in recent years. Certain voices in the media (e.g., Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones, Glen Beck) and politicians (Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Steven King) have been purveyors of these appeals, relying on conspiracy theory, undocumented claims, and angry hyperbole. They have both fed on and contributed to a general disillusionment with government and civic compromise.
Donald Trump, known for his earlier contributions to the “birther” movement, has taken naturally to the populist mode in his presidential campaign. A master of the coarse and the outrageous, Trump adds a definitely new flavor to the genre, dwelling on his own favorite topics and themes. Early on he called for draconian measures against illegal immigrants and American Muslims. Later he displayed his signature pugnacity on ISIS, climate change, crime, and political correctness, all red meat issues for conservatives. But he has also appealed to the economic grievances of workers, a traditionally left-wing stance. He has not only robustly promoted trade protectionism, but defended social programs like social security and universal medical insurance.
Thus Trump’s populism takes on a bipartisan thrust. He caters to independents by avoiding hot-button cultural issues (e.g. abortion and gay rights) and by attacking establishment politicians of both parties. His foreign policy, such as it is, draws criticism from experts generally. One writer calls him the “perfect populist” because of his skill in transcending normal party allegiances.
But does Trump’s populist calculus add up? Will it gain him a winning number of America’s voters? Probably not. The problem for Trump is that his populist causes may never capture a plurality, let alone a majority, of the electorate because discontent, while high, is still countered by some degree of pragmatism and hope. For every passionate voter he gains on immigration, he probably loses at least one Republican suburban housewife or college-educated independent unable to stomach the risk of a Trump presidency.
Win or lose, Trump has already taken American politics another step toward dysfunction. He has shown how easy it is to mobilize a sizable portion of the populace by identifying and homing in on its palpable grievances. Until we can deal with the ever increasing disparities within our nation, we had better get used to politicians making raw appeals to those who fail at its edges.