Donald Trump’s Populism Decoded: How a Billionaire Became the Voice of the “Little People”

Roundup
tags: populism, Trump



Leonard Steinhorn is a professor of communication and affiliate professor of history at American University, a CBS News political analyst, author of The Greater Generation: In Defense of the Baby Boom Legacy (2007) and co-author of By the Color of Our Skin: The Illusion of Integration and the Reality of Race (2000).

A key factor in understanding American populists is their drive to regain a lost status they once held but no longer claim in our economy and culture.

Behavioral economics teaches us that people are far more motivated to avoid a loss than acquire a gain — and invest far more emotion to prevent a loss than benefit from a gain — which suggests that politicians who promise to reaffirm the status of erstwhile dominant constituencies will gain far more enthusiastic support than those who simply promise new and bigger programs to help people pursue their American dream.

And that was precisely the magic behind Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign: he promised his supporters that the only way to “make America great again” was by restoring their status as the ones who made America great in the first place — which is exactly how they see themselves.

In particular, white working-class Americans — Donald Trump’s base — were a constituency ripe for this message. To them, they were the real heroes of post-World War II America, the ones who made our prosperity and pre-eminence possible. Theirs is a narrative of an American century built by smokestack industries and sturdy white men with a blue-collar, lunch-pail ethic that would come to define the middle class of the post-war years.

White men especially saw their role as special. They were the breadwinners, the unrivaled heads of families, the ones America called upon to keep us prosperous and safe. Popular culture and politicians celebrated them as the good, virtuous, hard-working souls on whose broad shoulders America became great. That they may have benefited from the racial and gender discrimination of those years is immaterial to how they saw themselves. They played by the rules and they earned it.

But then those seemingly bedrock blue-collar jobs began to disappear. What was once a dominant manufacturing sector that in the 1950s accounted for nearly a third of all employment has declined to fewer than 10 percent of all jobs today — and with it the decent middle-class livelihood that came from these jobs. As The New York Times observed in 2016, “Anyone younger than 35 has never lived in a world where more than 1 in 5 jobs were in factories.”

Nor was it merely the loss of jobs. It was also the loss of prestige that came with the membership in the working class. In our post-industrial knowledge economy today, we celebrate brains over brawn, the creative class over the working class, the bespectacled geek who constructs algorithms over the hard hat who constructs their high tech campuses.

Politicians may troll the white working class for votes, but except for an occasional art deco version of working-class heroes and their machines, our cultural arbiters have deemed them benighted and even bigoted throwbacks to a rusted out, less enlightened era. Much as farmers of the earlier populist moment resented their own loss of status as our culture drifted away from the agrarian ideal, today’s white working-class men stew over their diminishing place in the contemporary American pantheon.

But populism has always been about more than a loss of jobs, status and prestige. It’s also about who they blame for that loss. And typically they train their fire on those they view as elites. ...





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