The United States exemplifies the global rise of populism. Once the flagship of democracy, it has become the hub of populism in the 21st century. Donald Trump’s election – and reluctance to leave after losing the 2020 election – have made right-wing nationalist populists the centre of American politics. However, the roots of populism pre-date Trump. Currently, the phenomenon has taken various shapes. Left-wing populism has also surfaced to oppose the right-wing populism fuelled by white supremacists and conspiracy theorists. While Trump has been voted out of the office, the Capitol Hill “coup” of January 6, 2021 goes to show the seriousness of populism in the country.
The United States of America (US) has a rich, centuries-long history rooted in the Indigenous American tradition. Various tribal communities inhabited the region until the first Europeans arrived at the end of the 15th century. The Spanish, British, French, and Dutch – all staked claims to some part of the North American continent (National Geographic, 2021).
Between 1775 and 1783, the American colonies went to war with the British Empire, gaining their independence following a final victory at Yorktown. The new country, the world’ first democracy, was not without its sins. America remained part of the Atlantic slave trade long after the practice was outlawed in Britain. The exploitation of African labour led to growing tensions between the industrial north and the agrarian south. This culminated in the American Civil War. The Union victory in 1865 ended slavery but not the exploitation of Black bodies and labour (Weisberger, 2021).
Gradually, the new American country expanded westward. American settlers engaged in a series of conflicts with Indigenous Americans, with the US government ultimately confining the remaining tribes to a series of small reservations, often on resource-poor land.
Rapid industrialization and innovation led to massive economic growth following the Civil War and up through the Great Depression. Capitalist forces drove growth with minimum government intervention (Pitruzzello, 2004). Following both World Wars, America emerged as a world leader. Unlike European countries, it remained mostly undamaged, strong militarily, and economically sound. The second half of the 20th century saw further economic and military growth; the US expanded its role internationally, become involved in multiple military conflicts.
Its prosperity combined with liberal democratic values have attracted many migrants to the country over the last two centuries, making the country a “melting pot” of different cultures (Frey, 2015).
While the US has enjoyed cultural diversity, world leadership and relative economic prosperity it is going through a turbulent time. The turn of the 21st century has seen several conflicts and challenges that have only intensified over the years. Democracy is declining due to political disillusionment over various issues. Income inequality, racism, external conflicts, and a host of other problems have created major rifts in American society. Together, these problems have created room for the growth of several populist movements (Funabashi, 2020; Yi, 2020).
Politically, the US is a two-party system, split between Democrats (liberals) and Republicans (conservatives). While the parties themselves do not officially endorse it, various public leaders – from both parties – have embraced populist rhetoric. Moreover, populist movements outside these two parties have also emerged, on both the left and the right. The Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements are two such examples.
Yet when the world thinks of American populism, it thinks of Donald Trump. It was Trump’s election, in 2016, and the insurrection of January 6, 2021, that highlighted the seriousness of American populism. Until Trump, American populism had hidden in plain sight.
It was always there. Following 9/11, US politicians routinely identified certain domestic and international groups as existential threats. In fact, the US has been doing this since the Cold War. After 9/11, Russo-phobia was replaced by Islamophobia. The government has used fear of the other counter the “threats” of Communism and Islamic radicalism. Just as McCarthyism defined the Cold War, so, too, has George W. Bush’s “war on terror” defined the new century. Both movements preyed on fears of the “other” – foreigners, non-Christians – to consolidate support at home.
These messages have been particular effective in rural, conservative areas. Many Americans feel isolated and let down by their government. They feel victimised by the arrival of migrants and anxious about dangers to their “white, Christian” way of life. These anxieties, insecurities, and fears have been skilfully manipulated by white supremacists employing right-wing populist rhetoric.
At the same time, the liberalized economy of a globalized world has led to the loss of jobs in blue-collar sectors of the economy. The income gap between rich and poor has widened; the “American dream” seems less and less achievable. The threat of the “others” is deeply rooted in this economic anxiety. Movements like the Tea Party have used this toxic mix of white supremacy, fear of the other, and economic anxiety to build support (Mudde, 2021; Pally, 2020).
It’s true that globalization has hit the “flyover” states hard. Manufacturing has declined; so have incomes and opportunities. However, the government has not provided an adequate social safety net. Years of neglect has led some factions to believe that the core of the government is “corrupt” and that a “deep state” is running the country. The interests of “the people” are not being heard (Margalit, 2019). Many Americans feel alienated – from each other and their government. The diplomatic and bureaucratic ways of the federal government have increasingly led people to feel “cheated” by the government. Many feel their money is being used for non-Americans, both at home and abroad. Their jobs are being “stolen.” Taxes are paying for wars that are not even “America’s wars” (McKeen, 2008; LeoGrande, 2005).
The Tea Party movement helped shape and consolidate these negative emotions, including the victimhood narratives and populist views. The members of the movement felt they were “the true people” being betrayed by the corrupt elite – what Trump came to call the “swamp.”
The Tea Party was a step ahead of the dog-whistling of conservative Republicans. By 2009, it and other populist movements were in the streets objecting to what they called “excessive” taxation, government intervention in the private sector, and lax immigration standards. While the party never had a leader, various key figures became its face. Once such figure was Sarah Palin; Rand Paul also enjoyed some time in the sun. Both became vocal politicians giving voice to the grassroots conservative movement (Ray, 2020).
The Tea Party views “the people” as those who merge conservatism and white victimhood with Christianity (particularly Southern evangelical Christianity) (Dochunk, 2012). While the movement faded away due to lack of organized leadership, the Republican party under Donald Trump drew support from same demographic. He was able to bank votes from highly evangelical and rural communities. In fact, his reason for selecting Mike Pence as his running mate was Pence’s appeal to this demographic (Pally, 2020).
Over the last two decades, right-wing political leaders and central figures have argued that “the others” are opportunistic “outsiders” who have infiltrated the core of the government at the expense of “the people.” This process has been supported by a host of digital and conventional media sources, such as Fox News and InfoWars, who have broadcast this message to millions (Mudde, 2021). Not only have “the people” in America been defined by right-wing populism; they have increasingly been positioned as “victims.” Measures such as affirmative action, pro-immigration laws, aid for overseas countries, and “anti-Christian” pro-abortion laws and same-sex marriage legislation are seen as an attack on these groups. Despite being the majority, they feel that they are an injured majority and that their way of life is under threat by “the others.” “White victimhood” has led people to white supremacy as they try to protect their rights (Salmela & von Scheve, 2018).
After Trump defeated the seasoned Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016, populism reached new heights in the American political mainstream. His journey to the White House was facilitated by his uniqueness as a political “outsider.” His status allowed him to promise to “drain the swamp” (the corrupt elite in Washington DC). His crude, unapologetic, and macho mannerisms appealed to millions who felt that a successful, brash businessman would address the country’s economic woes and fix the problems that technocrats and diplomats had let fester. Trump was widely associated with his simple, effective campaign slogan to, “Make America Great Again” (MAGA) (Fukuoka, 2020).
Trump successfully positioned himself as the last chance to save the county for “the pure people.” He rejected the pluralistic notion of society and globalization. He focused on withdrawing American support from central bodies of the United Nations (UN), pulling out of the climate deal signed in Paris, reducing America’s military presence in the Middle East, demanding renegotiations with the G5 and WTO. All of these policies were to “put America first.” He was scrapping “bad” deals, such as the Iran Nuclear Deal, for “good” deals, partly by limiting state aid to foreign countries. These acts were justified to the MAGA universe. The money was needed at home. They were being prioritized over the outsiders and others (Fukuoka, 2020).
Pro-Christian xenophobia (Brubaker 2017) was another populist aspect that pre-dates Trump but found its ideal mouthpiece in the former president. This attitude was reflected when he repeatedly targeted China, starting a trade war in the process. Trump also blamed China for spreading COVID-19. He called the virus the “Kung-flu” or “Chinese virus” and repeatedly threatened to sue China for “damages” caused by the pandemic. He promised to, and to some extent did, build a wall on the southern border to prevent “violent criminals” from illegally crossing the US-Mexican border. His administration also imposed a travel ban on Muslims from various countries. The xenophobic and protectionist moves enabled Trump to position himself as someone who lived up to his beliefs. People responded to his “tough” image; he was perceived as understanding the struggles of the Christian, white working class and was not afraid to take a stance to protect them (Fukuoka, 2020).
Trump ushered in the post-truth era in the US and successfully used populist rhetoric to deflect any failure or criticism from himself. His rhetoric frequently shifted blame to the Democrats. Trump also called any information discrediting him as “fake news.” It was information being spread by the “deep state” to hinder him. He used social media to directly engage with “the people.” His Twitter account transmitted “genuine” news and information directly to his supporters. Thus, he was able to bypass the media news networks that “lied” and “misled” people (Serhan, 2020).
Trump can be called a right-wing populist chameleon who provides voice to various conspiracy theorists and their ideas. He gave credibility to myths such as white genocide, the new world order, climate change denial, and the deep state. He claimed, falsely, that former President Obama spied on his campaign. Amongst many others, he also advanced false beliefs about Covid-19. He took many fringe ideas into the mainstream. These wildly crafted theories have no proof, yet they have been legitimized by right-wing social media and Trump. Alex Jones, Laura Loomer, and their ilk found a “creditable” voice to back their outlandish notions – and meanwhile, they sold Trump to their followers.
The peak of Trump’s populism came when he claimed that the 2020 election “was taken from him.” He insisted “the people” protest the election results. He also fired them up with populist rhetoric: “We beat them four years ago, we surprised them. We took him by surprise and this year they rigged an election, they rigged it like they have never rigged an election before… It’s just a great honour to have this kind of crowd and to be before you and hundreds of thousands of American patriots who are committed to the honesty of our elections and the integrity of our glorious Republic… Unbelievable, what we have to go through. What we have to go through – and you have to get your people to fight… But we look at the facts and our election was so corrupt that in the history of this country, we’ve never seen anything like it… You know what the world says about us now? They said we don’t have free and fair elections… We fight, we fight like hell, and if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore” (Jacobo, 2021).
Trump was not alone in calling out the “fake” elections. Republican Congressman Mo Brooks of Alabama also called out the crowds to “kick ass” – a call to assault those who supported the “stolen elections” (Hosey, 2021). Right-wing, far-right extremist groups emboldened by Trump attacked Capitol Hill on January 6, 2021, leaving five dead.
Trump’s administration has amplified populism on the political left, too. Younger, more educated, and urban voters have been attracted to Bernie Sanders, Elizbeth Warren, and younger representatives such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib. This group, members of the Democratic Party, have called for “democratic socialism” and to solve the country’s problems.
While Sanders has been a staunch socialist for most of his life, he only broke onto the national stage in 2016. His “the people” are those who recognize and condemn the country’s class divide. His ideology is cross-sectional when it comes to class. He has proposed a “Green New Deal” along with Ocasio-Cortez, bringing the rhetoric of class and justice to environmental issues. Sanders has talked of the struggles of working-class Americans, students burdened by college debt, and Americans without health care. He has particularly focused on health and education (Espenshade, 2020). Sander’s populism is left wing. Socialism is generally frowned upon in American politics, and he’s struggled to broaden his appeal.
Left-wing populism has not only found a voice in Sanders, but also surfaced in the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011. A series of protests took place, driven by anti-elite sentiment over income inequality in America. While the movement dissipated, it created space for left-wing populism to find a permanent voice in 21st century America – though in truth, that space was created by declining economic opportunities, racial divides, and growing income inequality.
Sanders and other left-wing populists are polar opposites of the right-wing populists. They believe in diversity, wealth equality, government supported social security, climate change solutions, and progressive taxation; they are pro-immigration and focused on globalism. They have become part of mainstream US politics (Espenshade, 2020). While this group lacks majority support, it continues to grow. It defines right-wing factions as the “other.”
Politicians now routinely use populism to maintain power and relevance. This use of populism led to disastrous consequences during the Trump administration. Trump has the opportunity to run for office again in the next presidential election, in 2024. As such, it seems likely right-wing and left-wing populism will remain prominent parts of the American political landscape.
By Ihsan Yilmaz
February 17, 2021
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