Donald Trump, the Perfect Populist
Is Donald Trump the Perfect Populist, one with broader appeal to the right and the center than his predecessors in recent American political history—so much so it could put him in the White House? In Trump, many of the kind of white working-class voters once called Reagan Democrats have found a tribune who represents their views and values more consistently than conservative populists like the Dixiecrat George Wallace, the Old Right paleo-conservative Pat Buchanan or the “theo-conservative” Pat Robertson, all of whom faltered in their bids for the presidency.
Trump, in fact, has more appeal to the center than the conservative populists of the last half century. Before Trump’s rise in this year’s Republican primary elections, the best-known populist presidential candidates were Alabama Governor Wallace and tycoon Ross Perot, along with Buchanan. Yet none of these past figures had broad enough appeal to hope to win the White House. Despite his folksy demeanor, Perot was more of a technocrat than a populist and did poorly in traditionally populist areas of the South and Midwest, where Trump is doing well. Wallace was an outspoken white supremacist, while Trump tends to speak in a kind of code, starting with his “birther” campaign against President Obama, and his criticism of illegal immigrants and proposed ban on Muslims may appeal to fringe white nationalists even if it has offended many if not most Latinos. Nor has Trump alienated large sections of the electorate by casting his lot with Old Right isolationism, as Buchanan did, or by adopting the religious right social agenda of Robertson.
Indeed, the best explanation of Trump’s surprising success is that the constituency he has mobilized has existed for decades but the right champion never came along. What conservative apparatchiks hate about Trump—his insufficient conservatism—may be his greatest strength in the general election. His populism cuts across party lines like few others before him. Like his fans, Trump is indifferent to the issues of sexual orientation that animate the declining religious right, even to the point of defending Planned Parenthood. Trump’s platform combines positions that are shared by many populists but are anathema to movement conservatives—a defense of Social Security, a guarantee of universal health care, economic nationalist trade policies. “We have expanded the Republican Party,” Trump claimed the night of his Super Tuesday victories.
He may well be right, though it’s not clear what that Republican Party will look like in the end.
While populism has a history in American politics dating back to Andrew Jackson and William Jennings Bryan, the modern era of American populism began half a century ago. In 1968, Wallace, running as candidate of the American Independent Party, won 13.5 percent of the popular vote and carried five Southern states—Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas and Louisiana. By receiving 45 electoral votes plus an additional electoral vote from a dissenting elector, he came close to throwing the three-way race between him, Democratic candidate Hubert Humphrey and Republican candidate Richard Nixon into the House of Representatives, which would have chosen the president if no candidate received an electoral vote majority.