by Akim Reinhardt
Progressives, moderates, and even many conservatives are aghast at Donald Trump's populist appeal. As this cantankerous oaf flashes ever brighter in the political pan, they fret that his demagoguery might land him the Republican presidential nomination, and perhaps even carry him all the to White House.
I'm not worried about the prospect of a Hail to the Trump scenario and never have been. As far back as August, I opined on this very website that he has virtually no chance of becoming president. I still believe that. He lost to Ted Cruz in Iowa, just like I said he would. And I'm sticking with my prediction that he'll be done by the Ides of March. Should Trump actually make it to the Oval Office, I'll buy you all plane tickets to Canada, as promised.
That being said, it's certainly worth investigating the Trump phenomenon. After all, how are we to explain the dramatic success of this heinous cretin? How could this man, who is not just a walking punch line, but also thoroughly repulsive in almost every way, be so popular, not just on a silly reality TV show with a dumb catch phrase, but also in the supposedly serious world of presidential politics?
As has been pointed out elsewhere, The Donald's popularity is far from universal. He does poorly among women, independent moderates, and the educated. He is almost universally loathed by minorities and Liberals. In particular, he is scoring high marks with the white working class, a category we need to understand in both social and economic terms.
More than nine-tenths of Trump's supporters are white. Almost 85% are 45 or older. Almost 60% are male. Nearly half have no more than a high school diploma, while fewer than a fifth graduated college. More than 40% of them favor of bombing Agrabah, a fictional country from the Disney animated children's film Aladdin. More than 60% think Barack Obama was not born in the United States; two-thirds believe Obama's Muslim; well over four-fifths support Trump's proposed ban on Muslims (as opposed a little over half of Republicans generally). Seventy-two percent are in households earning less than $100,000 per year, and a third are in households earning less than $50,000. [source]
It would seem that the cuff linked billionaire has surged to the front of GOP polls (if not its delegate count) by using populist appeals to attract white working class voters. But really, this is nothing new. There is a long tradition of populist politics in U.S. history, and it hearkens all the way back to Andrew Jackson. A brief review of that tradition not only puts Trump into historical context, but can also reveal both the perils and possibilities of populism.
During the early days of the republic, voting was very restricted. Aside from their obvious racism and sexism, the founders were also quite classist. Voting rights were generally reserved for the well-to-do, who were seen as stakeholders in society. The poor, on the other hand, were thought to be vulnerable to manipulation from the rich. Initially, every state had wealth requirements for voting eligibility, either in the form of owning property or paying a certain threshold of taxes.
As a result, it wasn't just most free blacks and women who were denied the franchise. So too were most white men, depending on the state.
All of this was in line with the fear many founders had of democracy. The associated rule by the people with rule by mobs and an inevitable descent into tyranny. Thus, beyond greatly restricting access to the ballot box, there also wasn't much to vote for at the federal level. Early on, many state legislatures chose not only U.S. senators, but also state governors, and even presidential electors. In most states, only the House of Representatives was open to direct vote by the small number of people with sufficient wealth to cast ballots.
But that all began to change during the early 19th century. One state after another liberalized their voting laws, lowering or even removing property requirements altogether. But only for white men. At the same time, states such as New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey actually toughened voting qualifications for free blacks and women, or withdrew their suffrage altogether.
By the 1820s, the trend was becoming clear: the United States was a white man's country, marked by universal white, male suffrage. Everyone else was, at best, secondary.
The first presidential candidate to earnestly court the expanded rolls of poor and working class white male voters was a slave owner and Indian killer, General Andrew Jackson, who ran in 1824. In particular, Jackson appealed to men in the new trans-Appalachian states, like Kentucky and his home state of Tennessee, who favored American expansion at the expense of Native nations.
But beyond policy debates over expansion, taxes, and monetary policy, Old Hickory played to the crowd. He stirred the passions of the common (white) man, casting himself as the frontier everyman despite his fabulous wealth. He framed his main opponent, Massachusetts blue blood John Quincy Adams, as an elitist dandy uninterested in their concerns. It got nasty.
Jackson's people even claimed that Adams wore silken underwear. What a poof! And it worked. Kinda.
Jackson received the most electoral votes: 99. But in a crowded field with five candidates, his total was short of the majority needed for victory. That threw the election into the House of Representatives, where Adams, the second place finisher with 84 electoral votes, successfully politicked and cobbled together a winning coalition.
Jackson and his supporters were outraged. Everything had been perfectly legal, the constitutional process had played out as designed. But they referred to the result as “The Corrupt Bargain.”
Mr. Twenty Dollar Bill returned with a vengeance in 1828, however. He ratcheted up the populist heat and won handily, defeating the incumbent Adams 178-83, and then gaining re-election in 1832. Andrew Jackson went on to become arguably the worst president in American history. But his supporters loved him as he stayed true to his word, ethnically cleansing the South of American Indians and destroying the national bank.
Ever since, the race for white working class voters has been fierce. And it has, from time to time, brought out the worst in American politics. The pull of populism has been a siren call to countless politicians who have, to one degree or another over the past 190 years, employed demagoguery to attract white working class voters.
In the aftermath of Jackson's success, populist appeals to the white working class often centered around issues of immigration. From the 1840s – 1920s, American politicians pandered to white workingmen who feared the effects of immigration on their wages and job security. It began with movements against the Irish and Germans who arrived in large numbers in the 1840s and 1850s.
In the run up to the Civil War, this nativist populism took its fullest form under The American Party, nicknamed the Know Nothing Party due to its secretive rituals. As a third party to the Whigs and Democrats, the Known Nothings found success as an anti-immigrant movement, until they were eventually overwhelmed by national divisions on the issue of slavery. Their followers were largely co-opted by the new Republican Party on the eve of the Civil War.
But even during the war itself, populist appeals to the white working class on labor issues endured. Northern Democrats riled white working class voters through racial resentment. Do you really want to fight and die in a war, they asked, just to free black slaves who will then come north, compete for your jobs, and drive down wages?
Popular ambivalence and anger among Northern white workers hindered the Union effort. The resentment reached its furious apex in the 1864 New York City draft riots.
During the 1880s, when foreign immigration grew to unparalleled heights, nativist appeals to the white working class took various forms. A particularly successful political manipulation arose in California, a state that held an outsized influence on the national electorate.
Although it had far fewer electoral votes than today, California was nonetheless one of the few swing states in a nation fiercely divided after the Civil War. This allowed demagogues like Dennis Kearney (himself an immigrant, ironically enough) to successfully push a nativist platform under the aegis of new third party: The California Workingmen's Party. Their single issue? Prohibiting Chinese workers from entering the United States.
They were successful. In 1882, Congress passed and President Chester Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned nearly all Chinese immigration. The policy would remain in place for over 80 years.
When Japanese immigrants filled the labor void on the West Coast, President Teddy Roosevelt negotiated the Gentleman's Agreement with Japan in 1907. The United States would not shame the Land of the Rising Sun by officially banning Japanese immigrants to America. Japan would reciprocate by not allowing its workers to emigrate to the United States.
The working class by no means had a monopoly on nativist hysteria in turn of the century America. For example, the Immigration Restriction League, which favored a literacy test requirement for immigrants, was founded and led by the type of Boston Brahmans who would have been in John Quincy Adams' silk panty demographic a century earlier. But politicians had found appeals to white working class voters on the issue dating back decades, and they continue to today.
The nativist movement of this era culminated with passage of the Johnson-Reed Act in 1924. The new law not only slashed U.S. immigration to a fraction of what it had been, but also instituted a national quota system that heavily favored “white” countries such as Great Britain and France. These anti-immigration policies would largely remain in effect until 1965.
Meanwhile, the immigrants themselves, many of them also white and working class, had their own populist angles. Political rings and machines in cities across the country counted on ethnic loyalties to rally immigrants and their children at the polling place. In light of the nativist bigotry infecting the nation, it wasn't a hard sell. But the result was decades of rampant corruption in urban and state governments.
If immigration was the populist lever used to rally white working class voters in the North and parts of the West, then it was the subordination and segregation of blacks that lured white working class voters in the South.
From the end of the Civil War (1865) until the apex of the Civil Rights movement (1965), the South largely remained under one-party rule. Democrats generally competed more with each other than they did with the stillborn Republican Party. In order to maintain this dominance, the Southern elite governing the region took a two-pronged approach.
First, they disenfranchised many poor and working class whites through the same laws that disenfranchised African Americans. Fewer voters are easier to manipulate. Meanwhile, many of those who could still vote were seduced by promises of racial and social superiority despite their relatively meager economic standing. The South continued languishing behind the North economically, and those working class whites who maintained their voting rights were essentially offered a corrupt racial deal: You won't get very far, but you'll be above the blacks.
Populist racial appeals remained the driving force in Southern politics for a century.
During the turn of the century, Republicans successfully courted white working class whites by stoking fears of inflation and by playing the immigration card. The Democratic appeal was based in urban machines and Southern segregation. During the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal further cemented the Democratic hold on workers through pro-union legislation and various job and aid programs.
By the 1960s, however, white working class votes came up for grabs in a flurry of opportunism not seen perhaps since the days of Andrew Jackson. Several factors contributed to the de-stabilization of white working class voters, particularly those loyal to the Democrats.
The Vietnam War was the centerpiece of several social forces that divided families along generational lines. Deindustrialization and mechanization savaged working class employment. White flight emptied cities of white working class voters, transporting them to new political netherworld of suburbia. Meanwhile, and in some ways most important, Civil Rights upset the Southern apple cart.
Discontent among the white working class was rampant and could be seen in countless cultural moments. Perhaps most pointedly dramatic were the Hard Hat Riots in New York City. On May 8, 1970, about 200 construction workers attacked a thousand high school and college student war protesters. It lasted for two hours. More than 70 people were injured, including 4 police officers.
By 1971, a patron saint of white working male discontent had emerged in popular culture: The character of Archie Bunker took America by storm with the 1971 debut of All in the Family. The character may have been satirical, and the actor who played him a flaming liberal in real life, but the joke was lost on some. The overtly racist and sexist Bunker lived in New York City and worked at a loading dock. And he was very unhappy with all the changes in society, summed up by the show's opening theme song, “Those Were the Days.”
By the end of the 1970s, white working class voters across the country were ripe to be picked. The man who fully harvested them for the Republican Party was Ronald Reagan. The phenomenon of discontented white working class voters deserting the Democrats for the GOP in 1980 and 1984 was so profound that pundits coined a new term to describe the defectors: Reagan Democrats.
It is from this populist tradition, of appealing to the fears and resentments of the white working class, that Donald Trump is descended from. But does that mean we should return to the original vision of the United States and restrict voting rights to the well-to-do and educated? Hardly.
It is important to note that there is also a progressive populist in tradition. Indeed, the word populist comes from the People's Party, a late nineteenth century third party that advocated issues such as:
-The direct election of U.S. Senators (they had been chosen by corrupt state legislatures)
-The introduction of a progressive income tax on wealthy individuals (there was no income tax)
-Seizing excess land holdings from private corporations (in particular railroads)
-Government regulation or ownership of important services (communication, transportation)
-Government owned alternatives to private banks (distrust of for-profit financial institutions)
And it is from that progressive populist tradition, of striving to improve American society by reigning the power of the wealthy and the elite, that Ralph Nader, Jill Stein, and Bernie Sanders are descended from.
P.S. Why are you worrying about Trump anyway? The real nightmare scenario is Marco Rubio getting the nod. Unlike Trump, he can actually win in November.
Akim Reinhardt's website is ThePublicProfessor.com