Trump is as American as Apple Pie

Yascha Mounk is a lecturer at Harvard and a columnist for Slate who specializes in European politics and authoritarian populism.  He also hosts a podcast entitled “The Good Fight,” and in his most recent episode interviewed reporter and columnist E.J. Dionne.  Midway through the discussion, Mounk and Dionne began debating the definitions of populism but managed to agree that Donald Trump harkens to a more sinister European tradition of authoritarian populism that is somewhat separate from a more democratic American populism.

The target of Trump’s populist fury has taken on a flavor more characteristic of his European counterparts (immigrants and urbanites, etc) and it has borrowed media strategies from more modern European parties, but Mounk and Dionne make a serious error based on two related assumptions.  The first is that Trump borrows his populism from Europe and the second is that authoritarian populism is a largely European phenomenon at all.

The American populist tradition is far from inherently democratic.  It is democratic only in the context of a country that already excluded majorities of its voting age population and where violent reaction against foreigners (including indigenous tribes being treated as foreigners) were the norm.  Their exclusionary definition of “the people” may have been less jarring at the time but coupling that definition with ruthless oppression of those who lay beyond it has deep roots in American politics.  In the sense that populist politicians like Andrew Jackson, the Know-Nothings, and white “Redeemers” paired invocations of popular rule, an exclusive definition of those eligible for that rule, rage against elite outsiders, and demonization (and violent oppression) of all those who fell out of the favored categories, Trump and authoritarian populism are as American as they are anything else.

Trump’s populism is further unique in its distinctly American leverage of racial dog whistles in the service of a completely elite agenda with little popular support.  This has roots in the apartheid quality of many parts of the redeemed South. Trump further draws on a racial and masculine populism, divorced of much affirmative economic message at all (we will protect your jobs from those people but we have little to say about how we’ll create new ones altogether, etc). This finds roots in the politics of George Wallace, Theodore Bilbo, Strom Thurmond, eventually the radical segregationist politicians and terrorists of the Jim Crow, Redemption, and the Reconstruction South.  Trump has only borrowed additional cultural, gendered, ethnic, and anti-media appeals and abandoned the subtlety that characterized dog-whistles in the first place, that have rocketed his very American politics into an overt form that, on a superficial level, more closely mirrors that of the European far right.

It’s important to extend our skepticism of the European far right populism to even the more rosey American forms because of their entanglement with exceedingly dark populist movements with profound implications for the subsequent passage of history.  Portraying Trump as “borrowing” the politics of other countries necessarily minimizes his substantial debt to the politics of Americans past.  He owes his racialized “law and order” dog-whistles to Clinton, Bush, Reagan, Nixon, Wallace, and Goldwater; his policy agenda and willingness to leverage racial grievance in its service to William F. Buckley (as well as Reagan and Goldwater); his exclusionary populism to the Dixiecrats; his manipulation of cultural anxiety, racial change, and skepticism of distant elites to Redeemers; the anti-immigrant and racialized religious anxiety to the nativist Know-Nothings; and his obsession with strong-arm image to Jacksonian Democrats.

Chopping off the tuft and leaving the roots all but guarantees the weed will grow back.  Ignoring the deep roots of our dysfunction lets us off easy and perpetuates the illusion that the problem will disappear with its current manifestation.  The illusion that one election solves it.  This is not the case and we need to reckon with the political traditions we regard as normal to ensure that we are prepared for the profound challenge that the state of the Republican right truly represents.