Jan-Werner Mueller has written an excellent editorial for Al Jazeera America, entitled “Trump is a far right populist, not a fascist.” I like this analysis because it goes into a few distinct and important areas when talking about politics, especially to an American audience. Essentially, it’s an attempt to counter the easy ‘fascist’ descriptor with something more rooted in history and ideology.
While the term ‘populist’ has a progressive connotation in the United States, in Europe is applied to race-baiting demagogues like Marine Le Pen of the National Front in France. Populism itself is not an ideology. It’s an approach to politics, relying on relating to the struggles of the common people and rallying them towards a goal. This goal can be anything- Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump can both be considered populists in their anti-establishment stance. In the late 19th century, the People’s Party gained traction by stirring up farmers to oppose urban finance capital that exploited them. All the variation in populism comes from who the villain is. For the Trump campaign, Latinos were the initial target. Now it’s expanded to Muslims, both groups being linked by their ‘foreignness’. Trump appeals to poor whites, the same who have been behind the spike in popularity of far-right groups like the National Front, along with Golden Dawn in Greece and the Danish People’s Party.
As with populism itself, “people’s party” reflects tactics rather than ideology.
But calling the Trump campaign populist is problematic. On the surface level, his rhetoric fits the bill. Yet the entire structure of the campaign is different. American populism grew at the grassroots level- it was a bunch of broke common people up against a small clique of bankers and politicians that created this inequity in the first place. Zach Carter is right to deem him a ‘plutocrat populist.’ I don’t think of Teddy Roosevelt and Huey Long when Trump floats into conversation. I think of Charles Foster Kane, a man who has profited from exploitation and claims that as experience for office.
His campaign apparatus has been slow in becoming anything other than a planning team for rallies. In populist fashion he stirs up his followers, but their zeal doesn’t carry. Big turnout, yes, but a noncommittal base. There has been no effort to change this; for a front-running campaign there is no systemic gathering of data and follow-up. What makes supporters of populist parties and figures distinct is their commitment above and beyond the normal politics of voting. In America, they battled the banks over monetary policy, and many fought and died in labor actions against mining and timber interests. Far-right supporters in Europe often engage in street protests and sometimes open conflict with political opponents. Despite the left and right selling very different ideas of what a just society is, and who is keeping it unjust, populism creates rabid followers. I don’t recognize what we call populism at anything beyond a surface level.
Even with mass support, this is still a Trump vanity campaign. His political shifts haven’t been justified by new experiences or ideas. Right-wing rhetoric is just the easiest way to get noticed- especially in a Republican Party that lacks high-caliber figures that could steal the spotlight. Thus just like ‘populist,’ the label ‘fascist’ also falters beyond a surface basis. Yes, in Italy and Germany there was physical violence between true believers and the opposition. Xenophobia was strong then and continues to be. Be that as it may, fascist ideology was complex and sophisticated, and those that crafted it were serious about everything they said and did. Trump’s politics are scattershot and shallow- the xenophobia is present, but it’s not directed in any way.
I don’t get the feeling that if he was elected, the fascist-seeming aspects of his stump speeches would be formalized and put into law. Some people advocate extreme ideology because they believe mainstream politics has failed and radical measures must be taken to reforge society. Others use it to gain attention and power, because they are no different in mindset than the discredited mainstream. Trump seems to be the latter.
So I take a third option on who Donald Trump is in this election cycle. His campaign isn’t the work of common people at all, and while his nominally populist outlook draws big crowds, it hasn’t created the warriors for the cause. While Trump rallies do often resemble fascism, or something just as odious, there isn’t any ideas about the role of the state and the nation. Trump is a consummate opportunist who taps into the energy of an alienated white working class, but not for any larger purpose. Populists, then and now, used these tactics to further a particular cause. Movements were populist and then something else. He is just one shade of the fallout from gridlock and corruption in the mainstream. Hollow demagogues have the same opportunity to harness popular anger as everyone else.