With the rise (and now fall) of Donald J. Trump’s presidential candidacy, social scientists have moved quickly to understand the surprising levels of support for a person so widely recognized to be unfit for public office. Initial speculation suggested his support grew from multiple sources among the American populace, particularly among white males who feel social and economic change is leaving them behind. Yet, research indicates that Trump’s supporters are not from communities that are distinctively affected in negative ways by factors associated with globalization, immigration, corporate outsourcing, and offshoring of production. Instead, the best research is showing that racism, in particular the racial resentment toward the presidency of Barack Obama, is a major reason why so many people are channeling their rage into supporting Trump’s candidacy.
Trump has been falling in the polls at an accelerating rate since the major parties held their conventions; largely due to a constant barrage of self-inflicted wounds: criticizing parents who lost a son in the Iraq War, encouraging Russian President Vladimir Putin to hack Hillary Clinton’s email, intimating that gun-owners could resort to violence to stop the Supreme Court from being stacked with liberals should Clinton be elected, and the most recently, asserting that Obama and Clinton were the “co-founders” of ISIS. He now has returned to the claim that if he loses, the election must be “rigged,” thereby suggesting those in power (in the media, the government, and the corporate sector) are preventing the people from choosing the next president.
There is undoubtedly a populist thread that runs through Trump’s candidacy. This is witnessed by how all of these absurd accusations touch, in varying degrees and in different ways, on how ordinary people are on the outside and are being denied their right to have a voice in our collective decision-making. To them, their interests are being systematically ignored. Stefan Dolgart has maintained that the neoliberal political economy we have today its own kind of resentment generating machine, where people increasingly come to resent how they are being passed by in a changing society. This political economy creates a natural constituency for someone like Trump, who exhibits his own kind of resentment about how, in his own mind, those among the elite have never accepted him: an uncouth son of a Queens developer who came to Manhattan to make his success in real estate (by the most ethically and legally questionable ways possible). Trump stokes the resentment white voters have about how society is changing. His populism is of the racist variety that cultivates mass support for an authoritarian leader to stand up for the people at the expense of those deemed wholly other: immigrants, non-whites, non-Christians, and even women and people with disabilities to some extent. Trump might not be a fascist, but he certainly can be mistaken for one on the campaign trail.
This is most unfortunate for the new populism as a broader social movement. Ordinary people who are seeking to seize power from elites, democratically, in order to address the burgeoning problems associated with a government that fails to address how people are cast aside economically in the globalizing economy. The Bernie Sanders candidacy grew out of the Occupy Movement much like the Trump candidacy branched off of the Tea Party movement; together they represented the two sides of the new populist coin. The Sanders candidacy was the side that was more sensitive to issues of racial inclusion, but Sanders lost the black vote to Hillary, suggesting that the new populism has a race problem.
Should Hillary win the presidency, the new populism must confront this race problem head on. Thomas Frank has suggested that with Trump’s defeat all populist challenges to Clinton’s neoliberal policies will be dismissed as just more racial resentment, sour-grapes by people who refuse to own up to their white privilege. Defeating Trump, ironically, undermines all populism going forward as just more racial resentment. The cunning of history (as Hegel called it) sometimes leads us to producing the opposite of what we intended. We oppose Trump, only in the end, to discredit the populism he was associated with. As a result, we leave neoliberal hegemony unchallenged and the people’s calls for social justice unheeded.
Walter Benjamin once said, “Behind every fascism is a failed revolution.” If Trump were to win, that would seem most appropriate. You could argue that Trumpism has filled a vacuum. It rose as high as it did from building on the Tea Party; Occupy gave rise to a Sanders campaign that came close but ultimately failed. But Trump’s candidacy is not sufficient; Trump’s failure is creating its own vacuum.
The challenge for the new populism going forward is how to continue to push the populist agenda on a Clinton presidency. It must do this while avoiding the association with white nationalism. In this sense, it must be more, not less, populist. It must promote populism without racism. In the process, it can create a more robust political coalition of people in a precarious age of globalization. It can fill the vacuum left by neoliberalism by promoting, not denigrating issues of racial inclusion.