Baffled by Donald Trump’s popularity, some observers have sought to make sense of it with a familiar—and often misused—political label. “Trump is not really a Republican, he’s a populist,” historian Geoffrey Kabaservice told the Guardian. Sarah Palin, who herself often been described as a populist, wrote of the xenophobic real-estate magnate, "Trump has tapped into America’s great populist tradition by speaking to concerns of working class voters." And countless journalists have applied the P-word to Trump.
What is a populist, precisely? Is it someone who understands or represents ordinary people? Someone who speaks truth to power? Or who simply speaks the truth, unvarnished?
The term is a notoriously slippery one, yet there is no reason it should ever be applied to Trump.
The British scholar Peter Wiles, in a much-quoted 1969 definition, encapsulated populism as the belief that “virtue resides in the simple people, who are the overwhelming majority, and in their collective traditions.” Trump’s entire style, his gaudy bragging about his own wealth and achievements, is the opposite of the traditional populist celebration of ordinary humble people. Throughout Trump’s rhetoric runs the theme that wisdom is not to be found in ordinary people but in the leadership skills of Trump himself, who alone has the brains to squash the losers and make America great.
Moreover, as Daniel Drezner notes in The Washington Post, there’s little reason to think that Trump’s positions are popular ones outside the Republican base. Trump has called for the mass expulsion of undocumented immigrations and a reduction of the number of legal immigrants. Anti-immigrant nativism has been in a long-term secular decline since the early 1990s. In 1995, 65 percent of Americans told Gallup that the level of immigration should be decreased. By 2015, in a poll asking the same question, only 34 percent said immigration should go down (as against 65 percent who wanted to maintain the same level or increased).
As The New York Times reported on the weekend, Trump's actual supporters come from a broad demographic swath of the Republican Party. "He leads among moderates and college-educated voters, despite a populist and anti-immigrant message thought to resonate most with conservatives and less-affluent voters," the Times noted. College-educated Republicans hardly constitute a populist constituency, so there is good reason to think Trump's putative populism deserves another label.
Rather than a populist, Trump is the voice of aggrieved privilege—of those who already are doing well but feel threatened by social change from below, whether in the form of Hispanic immigrants or uppity women (hence the loud applause he got at the first GOP debate when he derided “political correctness”). Far from being a defender of the little people against the elites, Trump plays to the anxiety of those who fear that their status is being challenged by people they regard as their social inferiors. That’s why the word “loser” is such a big part of his vocabulary.
Trump is not the first authoritarian bigot to be mislabeled a populist. In truth, the term almost always gets misused to describe movements that are all about persevering (and enhancing) hierarchy, not about creating a more egalitarian society. Populism has been misused to describe Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist crusade, the John Birch Society, and David Duke’s white nationalism, among others.
The person most responsible for the word's misuse is the great American historian Richard Hofstadter, who died in 1970 but whose deeply flawed work on right-wing radicalism remains influential. Prior to Hofstadter, American historians tended to have a positive view of the original populists—the agrarian movement that emerged in the 1880s in the form of the People’s Party and other groups, and which eventually shaped, in attenuated form, the agenda of the Democratic Party of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. These original populists where radical small-d democrats who had a sweeping critique of the inequality of Gilded Age America, which saw the rise of giant corporations ruled by robber barons. They demanded government ownership of utilities like railroads, telephones, and telegraphs as well as a progressive income tax and democratic reforms like the direct election of senators and female suffrage.
In his 1955 Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Age of Reform, Hofstadter painted a much different picture of the original populists than had previously existed, arguing they were conspiracy-minded nativists and anti-Semites. For Hofstadter, populists were forerunners not of modern liberalism but of right-wing movements like McCarthyism. "My own interest has been drawn to that side of Populism and Progressivism—particularly of Populism—which seems very strongly to foreshadow some aspects of the cranky pseudo-conservatism of our time," he wrote (by "pseudo-conservatism," he meant McCarthyism).
Alan Brinkley of Columbia University described The Age of Reform as “the most influential book ever published on the history of twentieth-century America.” Yet its influence has been a curious one. For many educated Americans, it remains the main prism through which populism is understood. As historian Walter Nugent wrote in a 2013 preface to his 1963 book The Tolerant Populists, Hofstadter stood at the head of a revisionist scholarship which argued that “the 1890s Populists were the forerunners not of liberal movements but of nativism, anti-Semitism, the rants of radio priests Charles Coughlin in the 1930s and of Joseph R. McCarthy and McCarthyism in the 1950s. Until then, ‘populism’—with a small p—was not a dirty word. But it became one, and it has continued to carry the connotation of demagogic, unreasoning, narrow-minded, conspiratorial, fearful attitudes toward society and politics.”
Rare among historians, Hofstadter was a beautiful writer, which explains why his books have continued to shape perceptions decades after they’ve been released. But he wasn’t much of a researcher. As he once said, he considered himself “as much, maybe more, of an essayist than an historian.” His ideas about the populists rested on a very thin dive into the archives. While The Age of Reform enjoyed a brief vogue among fellow scholars after its initial publications, there soon emerged a strong, heavily researched literature that revealed it to be a deeply flawed text—that almost all of Hofstadter’s claims about both populism and McCarthyism were wrong, analytically and factually. Nugent’s work and Lawrence Goodwyn’s Democratic Promise, which were based on a much more thorough and systematic archival research, demonstrated that the original populists were not particularly bigoted or nativists. As historian Michael Kazin argued, summarizing this authoritative literature, anti-Semitism “a minor element of the movement’s language.” Actual hatred of immigrants, African-Americans, and Jews was as likely to be found among elite opponents of the populists.
If the original populists were not particularly bigoted, subsequent bigots were not particularly populist. In a 1955 essay for a book called The New American Right, Hofstadter blamed the rise of Joseph McCarthy on the fact that “in a populistic culture like ours, which seems to lack a responsible elite with political and moral autonomy... it is possible to exploit the widest currents of public sentiment for private purposes.” But the political scientist Michael Rogin, in his 1967 book The Intellectuals and McCarthy, showed that Hofstadter and other 1950s scholars were simply wrong in their understanding of the anti-communist demagogue. Using a sophisticated public polling data and a reexamination of McCarthy’s career, Rogin proved that far from being a product of a populist mass movement, McCarthy’s locus of support was the traditional Republican Party base of business owners, particularly those in small and medium-sized cities. McCarthy appealed to the business elite because his anti-communist crusade promised to roll back the New Deal and newly empowered labor unions. He, no less than Donald Trump, was the voice of aggrieved privilege, not the champion of the common person.1
What’s true of McCarthyism is also true of subsequent movements and figures like the John Birch Society, David Duke, Sarah Palin, the Tea Party movement and Donald Trump. As Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons noted in their 2000 book Right Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort, the Birch Society uses “populist rhetoric” but “Birchites distrust the idea of the sovereignty of the people and stress that the United States is a republic, not a democracy… Birchites want to replace the ‘bad’ elites with ‘good’ elites–presumably their allies.” Among the big backers of the Birch Society were the Koch family, who later underwrote the Tea Party movement. Members of the Tea Party, often described as populist, tend to be wealthier and better educated than most Americans, as well as being predominately white.
The word populist causes too much confusion when used to describe movements like McCarthyism, the Tea Party, or Trumpism. These are not mass movements of the people hoping to make a more democratic society. Rather they are political factions of authoritarian bigotry, backed by the rich, and designed to protect aggrieved privilege. Trump is best described not as a populist but as an authoritarian bigot, a quality best seen in his callous response to the news that two men evoked his name when they beat up a homeless Mexican man. "I will say that people who are following me are very passionate,” he said. “They love this country and they want this country to be great again.”
Richard Hofstadter was both a historian and a product of his times, and his dark view of the populists was a product of his own political evolution. He had been a leftist radical in the 1930s, but became a Cold War liberal after World War II. Traumatized by the rise of Stalinism and Nazism, he rejected his youthful Marxism as a mistake and became suspicious of mass movements, instead putting his faith in elite-guided consensus politics. This led him to misunderstand populism and rightwing authoritarianism—an understandable mistake, but one that we need to stop repeating today.
Moreover, as shown in the work of scholars like Ellen Schrecker and Athan Theoharis, the roots of anti-Communist paranoia go well beyond McCarthy himself. If we want to understand the anti-Communist purge of the late 1940s and 1950s, we have to give attention to such elite figures as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, Chicago Tribune owner Robert McCormick and indeed to President Harry Truman, who deliberately cultivated popular panic in order to justify an expanded national security state.