Donald Trump is an unlikely populist. The Republican nominee for U.S. president inherited a fortune, boasts about his wealth and his many properties, shuttles between his exclusive resorts and luxury hotels, and has adopted an economic plan that would, among other things, slash tax rates for rich people like himself. But a politician does not have to live among people of modest means, or even tout policies that would boost their incomes, to articulate their grievances and gain their support. Win or lose, Trump has tapped into a deep vein of distress and resentment among millions of white working- and middle-class Americans.Well, good luck with that.
Trump is hardly the first politician to bash elites and champion the interests of ordinary people. Two different, often competing populist traditions have long thrived in the United States. Pundits often speak of “left-wing” and “right-wing” populists. But those labels don’t capture the most meaningful distinction. The first type of American populist directs his or her ire exclusively upward: at corporate elites and their enablers in government who have allegedly betrayed the interests of the men and women who do the nation’s essential work. These populists embrace a conception of “the people” based on class and avoid identifying themselves as supporters or opponents of any particular ethnic group or religion. They belong to a broadly liberal current in American political life; they advance a version of “civic nationalism,” which the historian Gary Gerstle defines as the “belief in the fundamental equality of all human beings, in every individual’s inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and in a democratic government that derives its legitimacy from the people’s consent.”
Adherents of the second American populist tradition—the one to which Trump belongs—also blame elites in big business and government for undermining the common folk’s economic interests and political liberties. But this tradition’s definition of “the people” is narrower and more ethnically restrictive. For most of U.S. history, it meant only citizens of European heritage—“real Americans,” whose ethnicity alone afforded them a claim to share in the country’s bounty. Typically, this breed of populist alleges that there is a nefarious alliance between evil forces on high and the unworthy, dark-skinned poor below—a cabal that imperils the interests and values of the patriotic (white) majority in the middle. The suspicion of an unwritten pact between top and bottom derives from a belief in what Gerstle calls “racial nationalism,” a conception of “America in ethnoracial terms, as a people held together by common blood and skin color and by an inherited fitness for self-government.”
Both types of American populists have, from time to time, gained political influence. Their outbursts are not random. They arise in response to real grievances: an economic system that favors the rich, fear of losing jobs to new immigrants, and politicians who care more about their own advancement than the well-being of the majority. Ultimately, the only way to blunt their appeal is to take those problems seriously...