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How Donald Trump Peddles Populism for the Rich

Dominick Reuter/Agence France-Presse

Donald Trump is a walking contradiction that still needs explaining. He's a first-time campaigner who's never held high office (or any office) but is trouncing accomplished politicians in the polls; an insult comedian who seems only more beloved by his fans with every wildly inappropriate remark; a habitual liar who somehow has a reputation of being unvarnished and candid. And he's running, with success that few would have ventured to predict, as a “populist billionaire”—a phrase used as early as 1988 by New York magazine and revived during his current run for the presidency. "I'm not a populist," Trump has averred, but the populist label still clings to him, in part because of own cultivation of his image as blunt-spoken man who echews elite refinement. 

Both sides of the "populist billionaire" equation can called into question, of course, and often have. Trump’s populist rhetoric is belied by his constant defense of privilege. It's not absolutely clear how rich he really is—and it is certainly true that his fortune is due to the luck of having a rich dad rather than any actual business acumen. Still, even if “populist billionaire” doesn’t quite describe the reality of Trump, it certainly captures the image he’s crafted of someone who embodies both the common-sense wisdom of the average person and the supposed leadership skills of the wealth-creating elite.

But how has he fit together populism and plutocracy into an appealing formula for so voters? Two sturdy books of political science offer us a way of understanding the two sides of Trump’s contradictory appeal: Donald I. Warren’s The Radical Center: Middle Americans and the Politics of Alienation (1976) and Isaac William Martin’s Rich People’s Movements: Grassroots Campaigns to Untax the One Percent (2013). The two political traditions outlined in these books are very different—one being lower-middle-class populism, and the other upper-class plutocracy. Trump has found a formula for combining them. But he's not the first. 

The Radical Center grew out of the 1970s fascination with the phenomenon of blue-collar conservatism, reflected in everything from the political campaigns of George Wallace to clashes between construction workers and anti-war demonstrators. Archie Bunker, the loudmouth working-class bigot on All in the Family (1971-1979), memorably encapsulated the grassroots version of this policital character. Using extensive polling data, Warren argued that the Archie Bunkers of the world were a distinct ideological cohort; he labelled them Middle American Radicals, or MARS.

MARS were lower-middle-class white Americans who didn’t fit the familiar patterns of either the left or right: They were hostile to black Americans, but also to the corporate elite; they supported government programs like Social Security and Medicare, but opposed efforts to help the black poor. They were, Warren wrote, "caught in the middle between those whose wealth gives them access to power and those whose militant organization in the face of deprivation gains special treatment from the government.” These voters tended to be extremely nationalistic, while also believing that the Washington elite was corrupt and the rich had too much power. Opposing both the rich and the poor, MARS felt alienated from both the Republicans and Democrats, and preferred an outsider candidate like Wallace, who combined strong support of segregation with an equally vigorous defines of New Deal style economic policies.

John Judis has argued that Trump is the latest in a line of outsiders who've rallied the MARS demographic—from Wallace to Ross Perot to Pat Buchanan. The case Judis makes is partially persuasive. Certainly, Trump's rhetoric is similar to that of Wallace, Perot, and Buchanan. Like them, Trump paints a grim picture of a once-great America being brought low by a corrupt elite, with ordinary middle-class citizens being squeezed by both the poor and the rich. MARS have a deep distrust for the Washington elite. That's why Trump's blistering critique of George W. Bush's handling of 9/11 and the Iraq War, seen as gaffes likely to turn off GOP primary voters, are only likely to endear him more to MARS. 

But Trump, no matter how he talks, is a far cry from an old-style, right-wing populist. He may complain about hedge-fund speculators “get­ting away with murder," but the actual tax policies he rolled out in late September are standard GOP tax cuts that would overwhelmingly benefit the rich. As Matthew Yglesias noted on Vox, “after months of faking that he was going to break with GOP orthodoxy on taxes, Donald Trump proposed a plan to cut income tax rates across the board, a structure that necessarily delivers especially large tax cuts to the highest-income taxpayers.” Such is the power of rhetoric, even so, that news outlets like ABC and the Financial Times described Trump’s brazenly plutocratic tax policies as “populist.”

The root problem is that too many analysts conflate movements and campaigns that use populist rhetoric with actual populism. Even the astute Judis falls into this error when he tries conflates the support many Tea Party activists are giving to Trump with the MARS demographic. “There is, as it turns out, con­sid­er­able over­lap between the tea-party world­view and Middle Amer­ic­an Rad­ic­al­ism,” Judis writes. (He adds the proviso that “I would dis­tin­guish between loc­al tea-party groups, which line up with the MARS out­look, and na­tion­al busi­ness front or­gan­iz­a­tions that took on the tea-party mantle, which do not.”) 

But the MARS demographic and Tea Party diverge greatly. As Warren defined them, MARS voters weren't college-educated or financially well-off. They struggled to make ends meet. Tea Party activists, as we know from extensive polling, are actually weathier and better-educated than average Americans. The MARS model of disgruntled lower-middle-class voters hemmed in by both the poor and rich doesn’t fit the Tea Party—nor, as far as the sketchy data we have, does it fit Trump supporters who, like Republicans in general, are likely to be the the top half of the economic divide. Trump supporters might be poorer than other Republicans, but they aren’t poorer than average Americans. 

Trump’s tax plan was the giveaway, if we needed one: the sure sign that while he might be talking populism to MARS voters, his real political pedigree is different—and better explained by Martin’s Rich People’s Movements. RPMs, which Martin finds have been around for a century, are political activist groups made up by the rich for the purposes of lowering their tax burden—and supported by both their fellow rich and those who hope to get rich. RPMs are typically organized by political entrepreneurs in pseudo-populist campaigns to shift the Republican party to the right. That describes Trump's campaign as aptly as Warren's MARS theory describes his appeal. 

At the beginning of his book, Martin provides a vivid picture of vintage RPM politics: “On September 4, 1962, hundreds of conservative activists crowded into the Wilshire Ebell Theatre in Los Angeles for a protest meeting that they called the California T Party. These protestors were unusually well-heeled and unusually radical. They were there to support a constitutional amendment that would outlaw all federal taxation of income and inherited wealth, and would further require the federal government to sell off virtually all its assets in order to pay for a massive, one-time transfer of wealth to the richest Americans.”

These days, the most powerful RPMs are the Tea Party and Grover Norquest’s Americans for Tax Reform. There had briefly been signs of tension between Trump and Norquist, but the candidates tax plan won Norquist's blessing. (Trump, as is his wont, does continue to feud with another prominent RPM group, the Club for Growth.)

Ultimately, Trump’s politics are defined by the fact that he talks like a MARS, but serves the interests of the rich. One of the crucial points Martin makes is that Rich People's Movements emerge at times when the rich face the “policy threat” of steeply increased taxes. This is certainly true right now, as the Occupy Movement and the rise of Bernie Sanders have raised the specter of using taxes for redistribution for the first time in a generation. If Trump, following in the path of earlier RPM, decided to respond to the “policy threat” of new taxes against his ilk by creating a new political movement, he showed particular shrewdness by cloaking himself in the guise of MARS populism. 

Combined together, the theories of MARS and RPMs go a long way toward explaining Trump's strategy—how he's wielding right-wing populism to keep tax cuts for the rich at the core of American politics. As sui generis as his campaign message has often seemed, understanding the roots of his fusion of populist and plutocratic politics ultimately makes Trump seem much less contradictory and unusual. For all his bluster and crudeness, he’s actually part of the mainstream of Republican politics stretching back to Goldwater and Reagan.