How can we explain Donald Trump’s rise?
Certainly a number of contingent factors helped propel him to the top of the Republican ticket: the GOP establishment failed to correctly grasp the mood of the party’s most fervent supporters; the party leadership refused to consolidate behind a candidate; Trump mostly self-funded his campaign; and presidential hopefuls like Marco Rubio and Scott Walker proved they weren’t ready for prime time.
But the confluence of these events shouldn’t obscure the fact that the emergence of a nominee like Trump — who runs on a “populist” or “antiestablishment” platform that openly advocates nationalist, xenophobic, and anti-immigrant sentiments — was always a possibility for the GOP.
The Conservative Movement
From one perspective, Trumpism is part of a worldwide phenomenon born from the wreckage of the Great Recession. In country after country, the financial crisis has pushed mainstream politics to the right.
Established governing parties, from mainstream conservatives to social democrats, have embraced neoliberal austerity. Meanwhile, right-wing parties like France’s National Front or Austria’s Freedom Party, who blame immigrants and Muslims for deteriorating living standards, have presented themselves as populist opponents of a corrupt status quo.
But there’s another way to understand Trump’s rise: he’s the Frankenstein’s monster born of a generation of conservative politics rooted in dog-whistle rhetoric.
In 1964, Barry Goldwater ran on a platform opposed to the Civil Rights Act, calling the legislation an infringement of private property rights. Although he ended up on the losing side of the biggest presidential landslide in American history, his campaign tested a new approach that the Republicans would later perfect.
Thanks to Goldwater, party operatives learned that what excited their constituency’s passion wasn’t property rights, but so-called “cultural issues” that concerned large sections of the public — particularly white southerners moving away from the Democratic Party as the Civil Rights Movement challenged the old order.
Later, Paul Weyrich, a leader of the New Right of the 1970s and 1980s, explained this strategy: “We talk about issues that people care about, like gun control, abortion, taxes and crime. Yes, they’re emotional issues, but that’s better than talking about capital formation.”
This allowed conservatives to pull off something that had eluded them in the past: they could bring together traditional conservatives, who wanted to stall social changes that were opposed to “conservative values,” and business conservatives, who were more interested in the bottom line.
They created an enemy — big government run by liberal elites — that both halves of their base hated. The business conservatives could oppose big government’s penchant for taxes and regulation, while traditionalists could oppose big government’s alliance with minorities — especially black people, women, welfare recipients, and so on.
"Populism" on the Right
The Marxist analysis of the political role of the middle class helps us understand this phenomenon.
Marx and Engels viewed the traditional middle class and small business owners as a swing group: their grievances against both big business and labor led them to oscillate between anti- and pro-business politics. They opposed policies that aided large corporations while supporting those that would help them grow their own enterprises.
In the Europe of the 1920s and 1930s, this vacillation led directly to the rise of fascism. These right-wing parties found large support in a middle class suffering from twin disasters: global economic collapse and revolutionary upheaval.
But even then, the Right did not have their base’s best interests at heart. As Trotsky explained, the Nazi regime, “though raised on the back of the petit bourgeoisie” was in fact “the most ruthless dictatorship of finance capital.”
There’s a clear lineage connecting these fascist movements to Europe’s contemporary far-right parties, some of which can trace themselves directly to World War II–era predecessors.
Although the United States has a much different context, this history will help us understand Trump’s rise. But before we turn to him, it’s useful to put Marx and Engels’s underlying critique of middle-class politics in the context of distinctly American social and political trends.
After World War II, large industrial concerns and a government-regulated capitalist economy displaced the social weight of small shopkeepers and farmers in favor of a middle class composed of salaried professionals and managers.
Yet as the radical sociologist C. Wright Mills wrote at the time, the ideology that the United States is a nation of small business — of hardworking entrepreneurs independent from the government — continued to prevail.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the New Right, embodied particularly in the Reagan administration, gave that ideology a huge boost. For much of the 1980s — especially as the neoliberal recovery from the 1982 recession expanded the economy — this ideology seemed to match reality, at least for the section of the middle class that it appealed to.
In fact, this ideology was so successful that Clinton Democrats adopted many of its tenets. In less than two decades, we went from Ronald Reagan declaring, “Government wasn’t the solution to our problems, government is the problem” to Bill Clinton saying, “The era of big government is over.”
But the New Right’s small-business ideology has devastated the American middle class. As Lee Sustar points out, the 2007–8 crash hit this sector particularly hard.
Job growth has recovered only very slowly, and most of its benefits have accrued not just to the richest 1 percent, but to the richest .01 percent. Millions in the middle class were ruined or suffered severe setbacks, from home foreclosures to evaporating pensions and retirement accounts. Many were forced out of stable jobs and into lower-paying ones; others, whose jobs were eliminated or outsourced, have yet to find replacements.
Hundreds of thousands of people in this social stratum are likely to support far-right politics.
The relative weakness of the American left only exacerbates this problem. Until the Wisconsin Uprising and Occupy in 2011, virtually no expression of politics challenged the status quo from the left. Unions have been largely inert or dedicated to closing ranks with the Democratic Party. In this context, the Right got a big head start in capturing and consolidating a base for the form of “populism” Trump represents.
Whither the Working Class?
But isn’t Trump’s base the “white working class”? That’s what the pundits tell us.
Compared to his Republican primary opponents, Trump’s strongest support does seem to come from white voters without a college degree, which has become the standard media and social science definition of the “working class.”
But the idea that the working class can be categorized by education level produces a number of problems. While it may be easier to count someone’s degrees than to classify her job, this method misrepresents a significant minority of Trump supporters, who cannot be labeled “working class” under any definition.
First, non-college-educated, non-Latino whites make up about 44 percent of the US population. This group is majority female, and, for the most part, works in what we might call white-collar jobs. A minority of this group (by some estimates, one in seven) are small business owners, who most likely approach politics from the point of view of the boss. This segment should be considered middle class, not working class.
Second, the range of political opinions among non-college-educated whites varies. The AFL-CIO’s Working America community outreach group — which is currently mobilizing a major anti-Trump effort in a number of swing states — breaks this demographic down into three sub-categories.
One-third seem impervious to liberal appeal. These are the stereotyped right-wing voters who hang on to Rush Limbaugh’s and Fox News’s every word. Another third might form the base for Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton (or maybe even Jill Stein). But the last third is up for grabs.
Working America has found that one-to-one outreach can effectively turn Trump supporters into Trump skeptics. Many Trump supporters reported rethinking their vote after speaking with a sympathetic canvasser who was willing to listen to their economic concerns and feelings of political neglect — but then responded by arguing that big business and its politicians, not Muslims and immigrants, are the enemy.
Union membership also matters. Unions inculcate a certain base level of class politics into workers’ discussions and represent one of the few institutions that unites people across racial, ethnic, gender, sexual orientation, religious, and other lines.
The influence of unions was obvious in 2012, when exit polls from the Rust Belt showed that white union members voted overwhelmingly for Obama, while their unorganized counterparts voted overwhelmingly for Romney.
All of this data shows that the “working-class whites” the media blames for Trump’s rise are neither homogenous nor committed conservatives.
Finally, the solid data we have from the primaries shows that much of his support comes from middle-income voters. Nate Silver of Five Thirty Eight found that Trump voters reported a median household income of approximately $72,000, much higher than the national average, which rests at about $56,000. (It also exceeds non-Hispanic whites’ income, which comes in at $62,000 annually.)
Further, just under half (about 44 percent) of Trump voters reported having at least a bachelor’s degree. While that is surely less than the number of college graduates who voted for Cruz or Kasich, it’s higher than both the national rate of college graduates (about 29 percent) or the rate among white adults (about 33 percent).
In other words, if you look closely at who actually voted for Trump, you’ll soon realize that his supporters look a lot more like the middle class than the working class.
This should not discount working-class support, nor argue that workers are immune to Trump’s appeals. Even in the heyday of New Deal liberalism — when 25 to 33 percent of workers belonged to unions — about a third of union members voted Republican.
What is sure, though, is that the group that has experienced the greatest downward mobility in the past forty years are those without four-year college degrees. According to a Pew report, non-college high school graduates are more than twice as likely to be in what Pew defines as “lower-income” households than they were in 1971.
These statistics show why Trump’s narrative of American decline can be so seductive — the living standards and working conditions for Americans in the middle of the income ladder have decreased.
At the same time, weakened union and social movement organization has mounted few challenges to the miserable conditions traditional workers face. Just like their middle-class counterparts, the American working class can easily fall into the despair that Trump converts into political capital.
Ending Lesser Evilism
Starting with her June attack on Trump, Hillary Clinton has sought to contrast her steady and experienced hand against an immature, unhinged Trump who can’t be trusted with the US nuclear arsenal. Just like Trump’s dog-whistle racism, this maneuver comes from an old playbook.
President Lyndon B. Johnson won his 1964 landslide after successfully convincing voters, including “moderate Republicans,” that Goldwater was a dangerous — and possibly unstable — warmonger. Of course, as we now know, Johnson was at the same time secretly readying the buildup for American intervention in Vietnam.
The socialist Hal Draper, in his classic “Who’s Going to Be the Lesser Evil in 1968?” explained the lessons of the 1964 election:
In 1964, you know all the people who convinced themselves that Lyndon Johnson was the lesser evil as against Goldwater . . . Many of them have realized that the spiked shoe was on the other foot; and they lacerate themselves with the thought that the man they voted for “actually carried out Goldwater’s policy.”
. . . Who was really the Lesser Evil in 1964? The point is that it is the question which is a disaster, not the answer. In setups in which the choice is between one capitalist politician and another, the defeat comes in accepting the limitation to this choice.
Danny Haiphong, writing for Black Agenda Report, puts the lesser evilists’ dilemma in a more contemporary light.
While Trump “has called Mexicans rapists and proposed that a wall be built along the US-Mexican border,” the “Obama Administration has deported more migrants than any other President and further militarized the US-Mexican border . . . Trump is indeed evil, but Obama and the Democratic Party remain the far more effective evil.”
This is the context in which we should understand Clinton’s campaign.
She’ll continue to focus on the disasters that would befall the country if the racist con-man somehow makes it to the Oval Office. Meanwhile, she can assure corporate boardrooms and the Pentagon that she intends to chart a steady course.
As should be obvious, Clinton has no intention of moving US politics to the left. Her chumminess with the likes of Henry Kissinger, as well as the endorsements she’s collected from various Bush administration officials, should underscore that.
The Democrats’ defense of the neoliberal status quo allows characters like Trump to pose as “populist” outsiders. If the unions and liberal organizations that are currently mobilizing for anyone but Trump refuse to challenge the Democrats in office, the Trump phenomenon may produce worse candidates to come. And the next time around, the figurehead of Trumpian populism might not be so easily dismissed.
In the face of this, the challenge for the Left is to build strong labor and social movements that will fight all of the evils that the bipartisan establishment continues to inflict on the working class.
Those struggles — from the successful Verizon strike to Black Lives Matter mobilizations — offer the most effective paths to defeating the twin agendas of Trump and Clinton, and to reversing the sense of powerlessness and despair that leads millions to look for scapegoats for the rotten conditions of their lives.