Shell Game

Trump’s Phony Populism Rests on One Big Lie

The confusion of corporate liberty with individual liberty is the missing explanation for the president’s appeal to the white working class.



Most Republicans have voted against their own economic interests for the past 40 years, and the health care battle is but the latest example.

Repealing Obamacare would slash taxes on the richest and cut benefits to the middle class and working poor. Yet a majority of the white working class supports Trump, just as they supported Reagan and the Bushes, who did the same things. Why?

Three compelling, and interrelated, answers have been put forward in recent years: conservative values, American populism, and white resentment. All of these are true, but drawing on the work of political theorist Charles Reich, I’d like to propose a fourth: the confusion of corporate and individual liberty.

First, Thomas Frank, in What’s the Matter with Kansas? tracked how Republicans have used social and cultural issues to persuade working class voters to vote against their economic interests. This is a legacy of the civil rights era, when white Southerners abandoned the Democratic Party, first turning to George Wallace in 1968, and then to the GOP following Richard Nixon’s successful “Southern Strategy” of opposing civil rights laws and scaremongering about African Americans.

That strategy continues today, as Republican candidates use racialized messaging, whether in George H.W. Bush’s “Willie Horton” ad or in Donald Trump’s generalizations about Mexicans and Muslims, to attract conservative white votes. 

But since the politicization of the Christian right in the 1970s—itself, as Randall Balmer has shown, a reaction to desegregation and the civil rights movement—Republicans have also appealed to conservative religious values on issues like abortion, LGBT, and women’s rights. Today, over half of Republican voters are conservative Christians—which is why Donald Trump, an inveterate sinner, has worked so hard to maintain that base, from choosing Mike Pence and Neil Gorsuch to his latest move against transgender soldiers. Indeed, in the last few decades, as Sarah Posner has shown, Republicans have even made laissez-faire economics a religious tenet.

In short, working class and middle class voters support policies that hurt them because it’s not the economy, stupid. It’s values, too.

Second, this cultural divide has widened in the era of global contemporary populism, as John B. Judis describes in The Populist Explosion, his new, compact book on populism. The rhetorics of Trump, Marine LePen, Brexit, Narendra Modi, and even Vladimir Putin echo waves of populism which have periodically shaken America ever since industrialization. Now, as then, populist demagogues depict politics as a struggle between a corrupt, powerful elite and a good, patriotic “people.”

Judis’ book greatly helps to demystify the Trump phenomenon. Trump’s attacks on the press and Hollywood, his vulgarity, his “plain-spokenness” (even while lying more than any president in history)—we have seen all of these before. To be sure, the prompts for today’s populist surge are new—globalization, technology, multiculturalism, and the crash of 2008—but the response has been eerily similar.

At its extremes, the populist phenomenon leads to authoritarianism; other times, merely to patriotism, racism, nationalism, and xenophobia. It is an emotive politics of reptilian-brain appeals to group identity and belonging, the kind of patriotic appeals that Jonathan Haidt studied in The Righteous Mind

As such, populism is unmoored from facts. Judis quotes Michael D’Antonio, one of Trump’s biographers, who points out that Trump Svengali Roger Stone’s messaging was “intended to persuade voters that the GOP, which was traditionally the party of big business and the country-club set, was actually the anti-elite party of the working class.”

That is right-wing populism in a nutshell. Scapegoating not just Mexicans and Muslims but also the supposed “cultural elite” (a tactic Tom Frank himself bought into in a ridiculous piece in The Guardian last week), Trump purports to speak for “ordinary people” who are being screwed over by politicians, journalists, and the same wealthy elites who make up the Republican donor base. Like Reagan and Nixon before him, Trump has capitalized on resentment of the “effete corps of impudent snobs” (in Spiro Agnew’s words, written by Pat Buchanan) who drink lattes in San Francisco while the heartland languishes.

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But it’s not just values and populism. 

Third and finally, several writers, including sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild in Strangers in their own Land, have observed that while working class Republicans are in fact helped by government programs, they see themselves as being victimized by them. (One review of her bestselling book was titled “Why Do People Who Need Help From the Government Hate It So Much?”)

Data and the anecdotes collected in Hochschild’s book show that less affluent Republicans see “big government” as unfairly helping people poorer and lazier than themselves who game the system to avoid working. Often those people are black or brown, but they needn’t be—they are, rather, the undeserving poor who are unfairly favored over hard-working Americans by big government programs.

Of course, in actuality, those programs help the very people opposed to them, as the sudden support for Medicaid expansion suggests. But very few Americans want to admit that they themselves are the disadvantaged people in need of support, and Americans consistently place themselves in higher wealth brackets than they actually are in. Significant numbers of working class Americans believe that someone else is freeloading on the backs of hardworking taxpayers, and oppose the programs that enable them to do so.

That’s how Hochschild could interview Louisianans who opposed environmental and other regulations even though they, themselves, had been poisoned by pollution. It’s how farmers dependent on government assistance can resent poor people on food stamps. In Hochschild’s metaphor, these people believe that they’ve waited in line for the American Dream, but now others—immigrants, minorities, the undeserving poor—are cutting in line, collecting welfare checks, benefiting from affirmative action.

This last set of factors distinguishes right-wing populism like Trump’s from left-wing populism like Bernie Sanders’, Syriza’s in Greece, Podemos’ in Spain. Sanders (and Hochschild) rightly point to the lie at the heart of right-wing populism: In fact, the losses the white working class have experienced are not due to immigrants or African Americans, but to corporations polluting the environment, financial speculators crashing the housing market, and so on. 

In other words, scapegoating “line cutters” is a ruse. The great right-wing populist lie is that line-cutters are responsible for the woes of the working class, when in fact the responsible parties are the largest corporations and wealthiest individuals—precisely those who gain the most from a Republican administration.

How, though, to communicate this conundrum to the people who are perpetuating their own subjugation? It won’t happen in the “elite” pages of the liberal media, now poisoned by the rhetoric of Fox News and Donald Trump. But it has to happen somehow. And here I turn to the fourth reason for Trump’s success, and to the writings of a once-well-known political thinker, Charles Reich.

Reich was famous—twice, in fact. First, in The New Property, he pioneered the concept of “entitlements” as a kind of property that could not be taken away without due process. Then, in 1970, Reich became a countercultural hero for his bestselling book The Greening of America, which described the unrest of the time not as adolescent rebellion but as an embrace of new values like egalitarianism and human potential. For better or for worse, Reich was largely right.

In the 1990s, Reich attempted a comeback, but his later work did not achieve the prominence of his earlier material. That’s too bad, because his 1995 book Opposing the System is often quite useful.

For Reich, the dichotomy between “public sector” and “private sector” is misleading. Really, he wrote, there is the governmental sector, the corporate sector, and the individual sector. What conservatives decry as “big government taking away our freedom” is actually government preserving the freedom of the individual sector against the predation of the corporate sector. Minimum wage laws, for example, curtail corporate freedom to promote individual freedom. So do environmental laws, which curtail corporate freedom to pollute in order to promote individual freedom to, well, live

So when Hochschild’s Louisianans complain about “big government,” they are buying into a false dichotomy between “government” and “the people” (i.e., the public and private sector). Really, while government does sometimes curtail individual freedom, the modern state more often curtails corporate freedom to protect individual freedom. There are three sets of actors here, not two.

This has been true ever since corporations grew from the limited, tiny, chartered corporations that the Founders knew about into the giant trusts of the 19th century and giant multinationals today. Big government is mostly a response to big business, which didn’t exist when the country was founded. Remember, the original Tea Party was as much a rebellion against a corporation, the East India Tea Company, as against a government.

There’s no need to resort to caricatures. Corporations trample on individuals not because they or their leaders are evil, but because they are extremely powerful machines that will inevitably trample over less powerful individuals, if not held in check. Corporations are dangerous for the same reason they’re effective: they are powerful.

Left-wing populists make this claim all the time, but they are often rooted in ideologies that alienate the voters they are trying to reach (as John Lennon put it, “If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao / You ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow”). Pointing out the lie of Republican populism doesn’t have to be a socialist crusade. It has truth on its side; just look at who’s in Trump’s Cabinet, who’s writing the checks, and who stands to win the most. The swamp has not been drained.

And Reich is right: Corporate freedom is not only different from individual freedom, but is often diametrically opposed to it. Trump’s success depends on hiding that fact. His defeat will hinge on communicating it.