The meteoric rise of Donald Trump in the 2016 Republican Party Presidential race produced many early and conflicting explanations in the corporate and alternative media. Analyses started making more sense when scholars and journalists began describing Trump as leading a right-wing populist revolt against the established bureaucracy in Washington, DC. In the past few years right-wing populism has spread across Europe and the United States and bolstered the rise of right-wing political parties and politicians. Populist political traditions are deeply rooted in American history.
Most of us in the United States first heard of the Left-leaning populist People’s Party that spread across America in the late 1800s. Just after the Civil War, however, the White Supremacist and murderous Ku Klux Klan emerged in 1865 as the first regressive right-wing populist movement in the United States.
Peter Bookbinder, who studies the rise of Nazi Germany warns that “right now our society is facing some of the same tensions as seen in the Weimar Republic. People didn’t take seriously the threat to democracy when they could have; and when they did see the dangers it was too late.” Bookbinder says Trump during the campaign displayed some of the characteristics of a fascist demagogue, playing to an “audience of angry white men who have held a privileged status as a group, but now see their status being challenged by people who they see as undeserving.”
While studying the Tea Party, Arlie Hochschild found similar sentiments. Across America White men and women in middle class and working class communities feel they are being displaced and shoved aside by a mob of lazy, sinful and subversive others. They feel they’re being shoved down the economic ladder of success and being ignored by a government that has promoted a system where the rich get richer and everyone else is poorer And how wrong are they? They have accurately analyzed their falling social and economic position. Yet they live in a media environment awash with right-wing propaganda that suggests they blame scapegoats with targets painted on their backs by right-wing demagogues like Trump.
We should not let people we work with or try to organize off the hook for their biases and bigotry—nor should we toss them out of the lifeboat we build to carry us all toward real democracy. Some history will help us do that.
Early analysis of populism in the United States tended to described it as a broad movement of agricultural and industrial workers for more democracy and economic fairness. Then some centrist scholars said it was composed of irrational & paranoid troublemakers undermining civil society. Now the trend is toward a more complicated analysis.
Margaret Canovan in 1980 defined different forms of leftwing and rightwing populism around the world. She identified several types of populism, including calls for more political participation in the form of populist democracy; the use of populist rhetoric by politicians claiming to represent the interests of “the people;” and reactionary populism which tends to mobilize a specific racial or ethnic group by scapegoating an alien “other”, seen as subverting the idealized society. This idea of defending against subversion by “people not like us” is what links right-wing populism to Fascism and neofascism.
Michael Kazin speaks of populism as a rhetorical style that can be applied to multiple situations from multiple political and ideological perspectives. Populism typically has a firm base in the United States as well as Europe among people in the White working class and middle class who fear—often accurately—that they are being pushed down the ladder of success. Yet populism also draws support from multiple sectors in a society.
There is no evidence that the folks attracted to right-wing populism are any more or less “stupid” or “crazy” than their neighbors. Helping organizers and strategists to understanding the lure of right-wing populism and how it bends people toward bigotry is the goal of what follows in this study. If we seek to organize working people to join unions or social movement collective action, we need to know how populism works and its historic influences.
Professor Cas Mudde, who has written extensively on the subject of populism, has emerged as a leading authority. Mudde argues that all populist movements utilize an ideology that portrays society as “ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups” consisting of the “the pure people” and “the corrupt elite.” Populism argues that “politics should express “the general will of the people,” says Mudde, and this “means that populism is a particular view on how society is and should be structured.”
To some readers this may sound like a simplified form of Marxism, which is why a few on the political Left sometimes greet right-wing populism with applause. But wait for the analytical punchline: the “pure” people of the populist nation must display some form of homogeneity. The “real people” must be the same ethnic group, or religion, or race. Not acceptable as part of the “proper” nation are people with the “wrong” skin color or an immigrant from a “inferior” country of origin. If you think this sounds like a typical Trump tirade, you have hit the nail on its head.
The central populist motif of many historic right-wing dissident movements in the United States is the claim that the current government regime is indifferent, corrupt, or traitorous. Episodes of right-wing populism are often caused by economic, social, or cultural stress that assists right-wing organizers mobilizing an alienated cross-class sector of the population. Rory McVeigh has demonstrated that right-wing movements tend to defend pre-existing power and privilege in three arenas: political, economic, and social status. Periods of conspiracist subversion panics are woven through US history.
In the United States, populism often involves a “producerist” narrative that portrays a noble middle class of hard-working productive citizens being squeezed by a conspiracy involving secret elites above and lazy, sinful, and subversive parasites below. This often targets people of color and immigrants. Contemporary right-wing populism diverts attention from White supremacism by using coded language to reframe racism as a concern about specific issues, such as welfare, immigration, tax, or education policies. In some historic circumstances, racialized coding is replaced by overt bigotry. For example, White supremacists used producerist narratives to fuel the overtly-racist attack on the freed Black former slaves in the U.S. South after the Civil War.
An American Creed?
Right-wing populism echoes themes woven into the tapestry of the American experience. The idea of an essentially American “civil religion,” according to Swatos, originates in the work of Rousseau, is echoed by de Tocqueville, and then “made its major impact on the social scientific study of religion with the publication of an essay titled ‘Civil Religion in America,’ written by Robert Bellah in Daedalus in 1967.” The idea of American Exceptionalism is credited to de Tocqueville, and Myrdal suggested this became the basis of a unique “American Creed.”
Bellah explained “there actually exists alongside of and rather clearly differentiated from the churches an elaborate and well-institutionalized civil religion in America.” The core elements are limited government, religious belief, patriotism, rugged individualism, a constitutional republic, and a “free market.”
Some critics of the contemporary Christian Right add a millennialist mission, Godly moralism, and a Divine right to police the world. Labor activist Joanne Ricca unmasks the elitist 1% version of the Creed:
Survival of the Fittest. The Right believes that anyone who does not succeed or prosper in the system lacks the necessary self-discipline, or was born with the wrong genes. There are no flaws in the system or in institutions; the flaws are in the individual. Because the term “survival of the fittest” sounds too cruel, the Right has popularized the concept of “personal responsibility”.
Capital Should Be Served by Government. The Right believes that the forces of free enterprise should run the economy. It is opposed to regulations in the interest of workers, the environment, consumers, the elderly and the powerless. The role of government is basically to provide a military defense, to protect and promote business and investor interests, and to structure the economy so that income and wealth concentrate at the top.
Property Rights Supersede Human Rights. The Right is determined to protect the property rights of investors and corporate owners. Russell Kirk, a major conservative theorist who wrote The Conservative Mind, emphasized that property ownership is what separates humans from other animals….
Decisions Should Be Made By The Elite. It follows then that those who accumulate the most wealth deserve to make the decisions. Contrary to its populist rhetoric, the Right believes that the masses have a persistent and basic incompetence, and its theorists often refer to democracy as “mob rule.” Consistent with this view, the Right will oppose any policy to expand citizen participation and create a more informed electorate …. The movement to defund and privatize public education (taxpayer support for private school vouchers) reflects this ideology. The Right is especially opposed to unions…..
It seldom matters if a person views the American Creed thesis favorably or not—it is the default position from which organizers on the Left or Right build support or opposition.
The Right Moment
Trump regenerated a right-wing populist movement, but Trump himself is not a populist. He uses populist-sounding rhetoric as part of an outsider faction of wealthy power elites seeking control of government policies seen as far too liberal, whether or not the current elected officials are Democrats or Republicans. It’s a power struggle that needs votes. While the support among working people for Donald Trump was often exaggerated or mischaracterized, it was nonetheless significant.
How did Trump’s angry base coalesce so quickly? Jean V. Hardisty, who founded Political Research Associates, argued in 1995 that the right-wing backlash were are now experiencing was being built by skilled right-wing strategists exploiting several factors:
• white racial resentment and bigotry;
• conservative religious revitalization primarily within the Christian Right;
• economic contraction and restructuring via “Free Market” neoliberalism;
• organized right-wing backlash movements reacting against calls for equality and fairness based on gender, race, and class; which generated widespread political cleavages and social stress; and
• a network of national, state, and grassroots right-wing organizations funded by foundations and wealthy individuals.
Right-wing organizers operationize the factors above by “mobilizing resentment” in the words of Hardisty. One way they do this is to use factually-false conspiracy theories about “tax-and-spend” liberals and the “makers versus the takers” spread within right-wing subcultures—which now is spread widely by national right-wing media such as Fox news and which pollutes the Internet.
Working people who vote for right-wing Republicans and support Trump are not “voting against their self-interest” as is often claimed. They are voting for what they believe is their self-interest as defined and shaped by right-wing media messaging ranging from national television demagogues, to regional AM radio shock-talk hosts, to pamphlets passed out at their local Protestant or Roman Catholic church.
God, Country, and “Free Markets”
Organized wealth has been trying to crush organized labor since the late 1800s when labor unions began to gain power and push back against onerous working conditions. As the union movement grew in the late 1800s so did a theological argument that socialism and unionism undermined an individual’s relationship with God. Following a railway strike in 1877, the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher blasted union collectivism and stated, “God has intended the great to be great and the little to be little.” The contemporary Christian Right in American is influenced by Protestant Calvinism twisted to claim that wealth is a sign of God’s grace; that and people only change antisocial and criminal behavior through punishment shame and discipline. Big government social welfare programs therefore are not just misguided but pointless.
Is the proper role of government that of a limited night watchman or should it be providing a social and economic safety net that benefits the majority of people? That was a key issue in the 1932 Presidential election race during the “Great Depression,” and pitted Republican Herbert Hoover against Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt. Union support for Roosevelt was strong while “Free Market” ideologues supported Hoover, who lost the race. Two anti-union institutions that carried on this ideological battle were the US Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers. This same period saw the roots of the big business and agribusiness alliance in California that emerged in the 1970s as a force that built the New Right.
In the 1930s European economists Ludwig von Mises and Hayek warned of the “collectivism” of big government (and big labor) as not just misguided but potentially greasing a slide into the totalitarian rule of fascism and communism. The ongoing debate between social welfare economic policies and the Free Market “Austrian School” libertarians was interrupted by World War Two. The debate resumed in the early 1950s, with support from economists from the University of Chicago, including Milton Friedman.
Meanwhile, Republican strategists, Frank Meyer, M. Stanton Evans, and William F. Buckley, Jr. sought to re-energize the conservative wing of the Republican Party; in part by specifically rejecting the legacy of overt White supremacy and antisemitism. Buckley, Evans, and Meyer sought a working coalition—a fusion—bridging three tendencies: economic libertarianism, social traditionalism, and militant anticommunism.
According to Jerome L. Himmelstein, “The core assumption that binds these three elements is the belief that American society on all levels has an organic order––harmonious, beneficent, and self–regulating––disturbed only by misguided ideas and policies, especially those propagated by a liberal elite in the government, the media, and the universities.”
Buckley, who had written for the libertarian journal Freeman, in 1955 founded the influential National Review magazine. That same year the anti-union National Right to Work Committee founded. Further to the Right, in 1959 the John Birch society was established built around a theme of anti-collectivism and the restoration of morality under the banner of defending God and country. From the beginning the Birch society claimed there was a communist conspiracy to promote creeping collectivism exemplified by big government and big unions. They also asserted a conspiracy to promote themes of moral decay.
New Right and White Racism
By 1964 a rebuilt conservative movement propelled Sen. Barry Goldwater into the Republican candidacy for President. Goldwater lost in a landslide. Savvy right-wing intellectuals, skillful party operatives, and a small army of grassroots organizers had built Goldwater campaign, but never connected it to a mass political or social movement. They learned that lesson and went back to work. In 1965, M. Stanton Evans wrote a book titled: The Liberal Establishment Who Runs America…and How. Conservatives, therefore, needed to set up a “Counter-Establishment.” Political strategist Kevin Phillips soon outlined a plan for building an “Emerging Republican Majority.” It would be built on a populist base.
When Richard Nixon was elected President in 1968 the Democratic Party in the South was controlled by White “Dixiecrats” opposed to the Civil Rights movement and government intervention to desegregate public facilities and schools. By 1972 Nixon felt he needed a “Southern Strategy” to woo those voters to the Republican Party. Nixon’s aide, H. R. Haldeman wrote a note to use “Phillips as an analyst—study his strategy—don’t think in terms of old-time ethnics, go for Poles, Italians, Irish, must learn to understand Silent Majority . . . don’t go for Jews & Blacks.”
The late 1960s and early 1970s was also a tumultuous time as waves of progressive social and political movements emerged. The Civil Rights Movement for black equality helped create the student rights movement. This and pre-existing opposition to the nuclear arms race and militarism helped launch the movement against the war in Vietnam. There was the women’s movement, the environmental movement, the gay rights movement, and demands for LGBTG equality and respect.
In 1971 corporate attorney, Lewis F. Powell, Jr. wrote a memo claiming that radical leftists had launched an organized “Attack on the American Free Enterprise System.” To counter this Powell suggested a coordinated corporate-backed campaign to reshape the ideological debate in the media, on the college campuses, and in the political and legal arenas. The memo was widely circulated among business and political leaders and reached the White House. Within a few months, Powell was named by Nixon to a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.
The 1970s also changed the political terrain with the creation and growth of a massive conservative Christian evangelical movement. The trigger event for the rise of the Christian right in the 1970s is not abortion but race. The Justice Department under President Jimmy Carter had demanded that the all-White private schools prove that they were not segregated by design or else face the loss of their tax-exempt status. This sparked a low visibility national organizing campaign to save the tax exempt status of white segregated Christian academies established after Brown V Board of Education so that white children would not have to go to school with black children.
Political operatives, many of whom had gained experience during the Goldwater campaign, approached a popular evangelical preacher Jerry Falwell and suggest he form a movement called the Moral Majority. It was untenable that this movement be based on supporting school segregation, so they chose to attack the US Supreme Court for its ruling on abortion rights to focus on the federal government as the enemy. In 1980 President Reagan harvested these new Christian right voters which placed him in the White House where he paid back their support with policies and programs.
The New Right became an interlocking network of groups and individuals on the national, state, and local level. Perhaps the most important strategist in this network was Paul Weyrich who built the “Free Market” Heritage Foundation and then the Christian Right Free Congress Foundation. Weyrich helped create the American Legislative Exchange Council which writes bills introduced in state legislatures across the country.
A critical look at US history reveals us to be a nation founded on White nationalism, Christian demands for heterosexual patriarchy, the rape of the land for farming, mining, oil and more, an obsession with the swaggering strong cowboy figure, and an apocalyptic view of a struggle between good and evil. Why are we surprised that Trump may grab the Presidency?
(1) See the following for background. Analytical overviews: Ernesto Laclau, Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory: Capitalism, Fascism, Populism (London: NLB/Atlantic Highlands Humanities Press, 1977); Margaret Canovan, Populism (New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981); Ruth Wodak, The Politics of Fear: What Right-Wing Populist Discourses Mean. London: Sage, 2015. The United States: Allen D. Hertzke, Echoes of Discontent: Jesse Jackson, Pat Robertson, and the Resurgence of Populism (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press), 1993; Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons. Right–Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort. New York, N.Y.: Guilford Press, 2000. …Europe, Hans-Georg Betz. Radical Right-wing Populism in Western Europe, New York: St. Martins Press, 1994; Hans-Georg Betz and Stefan Immerfall, eds. 1998. The New Politics of the Right: Neo-Populist Parties and Movements in Established Democracies. New York: St. Martin’s Press; Cas Mudde, Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Canada, Trevor Harrison, Of Passionate Intensity: Right-Wing Populism and the Reform Party of Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995).
(2) Berlet and Lyons, Right–Wing Populism in America.
(3) Peter Bookbinder, telephone interview and e-mail correspondence with the author, November 9, 2015.
(4) Arlie Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (New York: The New Press, forthcoming, September 2016); Hochschild, e-mail correspondence with the author, November 2015.
(5) Canovan, Populism.
(6) Kazin, The Populist Persuasion; Canovan, Populism, 13, 128–138, 289-294.
(7) Cas Mudde, “Populism in Europe: A Primer,” Open Democracy Website, May 2, 2015, available at https://www.opendemocracy.net/can-europe-make-it/cas-mudde/populism-in-europe-primer.
(8) Hans-Georg Betz, Radical Right-wing Populism in Western Europe (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994); Kazin, The Populist Persuasion.
(9) Laclau, Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory.
(10) Rory McVeigh, 2004. “Structured Ignorance and Organized Racism in the United States.” Social Forces 82: 895–936.
(11) Richard Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” in The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965) 3–40; David Brion Davis, ed., The Fear of Conspiracy: Images of Un–American Subversion from the Revolution to the Present (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1972); Richard O. Curry and Thomas M. Brown (eds.), “Introduction”, Conspiracy: The Fear of Subversion in American History (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1972); George Johnson, Architects of Fear: Conspiracy Theories and Paranoia in American Politics (Los Angeles: Tarcher/Houghton Mifflin, 1983); Frank Mintz, The Liberty Lobby and the American Right: Race, Conspiracy, and Culture (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1985); David H. Bennett, The Party of Fear: The American Far Right from Nativism to the Militia Movement (New York: Vintage Books, revised  1995); Joel Kovel, Red Hunting in the Promised Land: Anticommunism and the Making of America (London: Cassell, 1997); Robert Alan Goldberg, Enemies Within: The Culture of Conspiracy in Modern America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001).
(12) Canovan, Populism, 54-55; Kazin , The Populist Persuasion, 35-36, 52-54, 143-144; Catherine McNicol Stock. Rural Radicals: Righteous Rage in the American Grain (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1996), 15-86;
(13) Stephen David Kantrowitz, Ben Tillman & the Reconstruction of White Supremacy (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina, 2000), 4-6, 109-114, 153.
(14) William H. Swatos, Jr., “Civil Religion”, Encyclopedia of Religion and Society, William H. Swatos, Jr. editor, available at http://hirr.hartsem.edu/ency/civilrel.htm; quoting Robert N. Bellah, “Civil Religion in America,” Daedalus, 96, no. 1 (1967): 1-21.
(15) Gunnar Myrdal, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, New York: Harper & Brothers, 1944); and Seymour Martin Lipset, American Exceptionalism: A Double–Edged Sword (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997) 18; referring to Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, translated, edited, and with an introduction by H.C. Mansfield and D. Winthrop (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2000; originally published as De La Démocratie En Amérique, in two volumes, Paris: C. Gosselin. 1835).
(16) Bellah, “Civil Religion in America.”
(18) Jon Pahl, “The Core of Lutheran CORE: American Civil Religion and White Male Backlash, Journal of Lutheran Ethics, May 1, 2010, footnotes 36 and 37, available at https://www.elca.org/JLE/Articles/306.
(19) Joanne Ricca, no date, revised November 2011, “Politics in America: The Right Wing Attack on the American Labor Movement,” Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, available at http://www.wisaflcio.org/political_action/rightwing.htm (Ricca wrote the study while Legislative Research and Policy Director for the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO).
(20) Jean V. Hardisty, “The Resurgent Right: Why Now?” The Public Eye, Political Research Associates, Fall–Winter 1995. Revised (included in Hardisty, Mobilizing Resentment).
(21) Jean V. Hardisty, 1999. Mobilizing Resentment: Conservative Resurgence from the John Birch Society to the Promise Keepers (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1999).
(22) Beecher quoted in, Michael J. Heale, American Anticommunism: Combating the Enemy within 1830-1970 (Baltimore & London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), p.28.
(23) Kim Phillips-Fein, Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009).
(24) Kathryn S. Olmsted, Right Out of California: The 1930s and the Big Business Roots of Modern Conservatism (New York: The New Press, 2015).
(25) See for example Friedrich August von Hayek and N. G. Pierson, Collectivist Economic Planning: Critical Studies on the Possibilities of Socialism (London: Routledge, 1935); Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (London: Routledge, 1943); Ludwig von Mises, Socialism: An Economic and Social Analysis (London: Cape, 1936). Both von Mises and Hayek are considered the founders of the “Austrian School” of libertarian “Free Market” economics.
(26) Angus Burgin, The Great Persuasion: Reinventing Free Markets Since the Depression. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2012).
(27) Jerome L. Himmelstein, To The Right: The Transformation of American Conservatism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 43-44.
(28) Ibid., 43-60.
(29) Rick Perlstein, Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001).
(30) M. Stanton Evans, The Liberal Establishment Who Runs America…and How (New York: Devin-Adair, 1965).
(31) Kevin Phillips, The Emerging Republican Majority (New Rochelle, NY, Arlington House, 1969).
(32) Dan T. Carter, The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 380, citing Haldeman notes from the Nixon presidential archives.
(33) Lewis F. Powell, Jr, “Attack on the American Free Enterprise System.” A copy of the original typescript memo and other resources are provided at the Washington and Lee School of Law website as part of the Powell archives, available at http://law2.wlu.edu/powellarchives/page.asp?pageid=1251. A detailed critique was published by the Alliance for Justice, Justice for Sale: Shortchanging the Public Interest for Private Gain (Washington, D.C.: by the author, 1993). A pdf is online at the website of Greenpeace as of May 4, 2016, available at http://tinyurl.com/jfs-1993.