Donald Trump & The Populist Resurgence

There is much to be learned from Donald Trump’s famously unforeseen rise to the presidency that years removed from the whole upset, still remains untapped to some degree. One must admit, it is difficult to talk about the man at all without immediately incurring the vitriolic criticism of those that hate him — and I’m not certainly not saying whether you should hate him or not. But sole hatred towards our current president has a blinding effect, washing all nuance from the actually curious endeavor of exploring Trump’s ascendency. And the Trump question deserves some “curious exploration” — if only for the sake of national sanity, on the part of everyone involved.

It’s been said before, but Trump’s rise to the national pulpit is symptomatic of larger and more grievously structural issues. His election-cycle popularity and subsequent presidential win happened alongside a series of populist “revolts” sprouting up across the Western world. The American, British, French, and even Italian political scenes interestingly became gripped by populist sentiment, and all uncannily within a similar time frame. Something was obviously afoot. Anti-establishment ethos, a budding strain of nationalism, and anger at the elitist class were cropping up at alarming speeds.

We often forget that politics is a two-way street. More accurately, it’s a sort of vertical channel where top-down forces press against bottom-up forces, jointly molding the political reality in which we live. Top-down forces are the persuasive sells of politicians and their galvanizing messages and narrative spins. It’s what we think of when we accuse politicians of creating national trends in political sentiment. It’s what we think of when we say Trump has incited this or that emotion. In contrast, “bottom-up forces” can be construed as base human impulses that are stubbornly rooted in our DNA — some of them good, some of them bad — which certain political rhetoric can strike hotly at. It’s what we think of when we say that Trump has tapped into resentment, for example.

At cursory glance, these two “forces” appear more or less the same and there is often no distinction made between the two, but there is a difference if studied closely. Because despite the heavy media criticism of Trump and the “top-down” forces against him, there was an unexpectedly strong welling-up from the populace that had been sufficient to garner him the presidency and it is this force that was plainly forgotten about. Subsequent media shock about the presidential outcome revealed an embarrassing dearth of inquiry into, and understanding of, the other side.

What we are seeing in the populist revolution of the past few years is an upward pressure from disaffected individuals — a mass dissatisfaction on all sorts of levels — economic, cultural, even psychological. It’s the sort of disillusionment that is probably best allowed some expression. What good would it do if an angry citizenry — that is in many ways justifiably angry — were proffered no outlet at all and no regards for their angst? I know that sounds like a strange question, but why not ask it? When there’s national unrest on so many levels, eliminating it is a tremendously hard task.

Humans were wired to be autonomous, and will instinctively recognize an infringement on that autonomy. Which is precisely why the political environment was so disruptively angry in the 2016 election. Trump’s platform was an assault on the establishment — an establishment that many people had harbored preexisting suspicion for, and perhaps rightfully so.

American citizens have a history of being latently sensitive to encroachments on their autonomy. Seen in this way, a populist “revolt” is a perfectly natural response of an electorate to a political representative class that is out of touch with fulfilling people’s basic psychological needs to frankly, feel in-control of their own lives. Why do you think “power to the people” resonates so strongly and cleanly?

It’s this chord that populism touches more than anything: people want to feel in-control of their own lives.

Populist movements are indeed the natural consequence of disaffected voters who feel (and probably correctly) that an “elite” is suffocating their voices. Nobody wants to feel ineffectual and taken advantage of. Populism and the election of Donald Trump had something important to do with this aspect of human nature, and if we look at the political events in this context, they are bracingly understandable.

If people found empowerment in Trump’s message, then that’s worth giving some real analysis and consideration — and not lobbing simplistic, polemical explanations at — such as blaming the “anti-intellectualism” of Trump voters or the supposedly irredeemable character of Donald Trump. Maybe people do feel historic levels of disillusionment with the institutions of government, media, academia, etc. So the question should be, what were people not getting?(That, implicitly, they believed Trump would deliver.) And can we ask that question with curious inquiry instead of demonization? I don’t think Trump represents some pathological distortion of political thought. I think he’s the natural reaction — the pendulum swung a bit forcefully, one could say — to perfectly understandable disillusionment with the political process on an even psychological level.

In the days following the 2016 election, the words “the biggest political upset in modern American history” were reverberating across the nation as a collective shock was settling in. In addition to plenty of rage and horror from the left side of the political spectrum, the media appeared just as genuinely dumbfounded. The result was surprising. But maybe it shouldn’t have been. Amidst some people’s personal outrage at the outcome, there should have been something sharply humbling contained within it all. Simply put, the outcome showed that the will of the people is hard to dissuade — and it is at its most honest in moments like these. And maybe, in the election’s stunning culmination, it was telling us something we ought to know.

Populist movements have a way of re-centering nations in a manner that while disruptive in the short-term, can be healthy for a country in the long-term. It’s an expelling of discord, much in the same way that a fever is symptomatic of the body’s need to heal itself.

In Trump’s case, his brand of populism was largely centered around issues such as immigration and economic nationalism — matters that pertained to the preservation of domestic life. He (and the things he stood for) were roundly dismissed as “divisive” — a word that would be uttered so repeatedly throughout the campaign season that it seemed to echo relentlessly in the cultural sphere. But what one side labeled a grotesque form of schismatic fervor, the other side saw as reassuringly solid.

This is another profoundly humbling aspect of politics: All too often the two sides are simply talking about different things. They think they are standing on common ground and both arguing their merits and their anger mounts about the seeming incomprehensibility emanating from their opponents. One side cannot imagine how the other side thinks the way that they do and thereafter comes to the conclusion that the other side must be intellectually inferior or otherwise wed too strongly to rigid, hollow ideology.

In reality, on many political issues, the two factions are on opposite sides of a riverbank hollering over the divide, all the while supposing they’re on the same ground. And they’re not — all too often if you pick apart the language involved, you realize that they are not even talking about the same thing. And this is inevitable. There will always be those that are more conservative and those that are more progressive. Political attitude travels down to the level of personality. It’s an inextricable part of our identities and more deeply rooted and less subject to superficial convincing arguments than many of us realize.

And so part of the blame rests on our shoulders if we do, in fact, perceive the political climate as divisive: Let people have their views and don’t instinctively dismiss them. They may not be yours, but just as you do, the other side has their reasons. Politicians are not the only ones supposedly slicing up society with “inflammatory rhetoric” (another tired phrase) — we do the same when we stare at the other side stony-faced and impenetrable as to why they believe the things they do. Acknowledging the human reality that we have different temperaments — that is, conservative and liberal in different doses and types — as a basic fact of existence can potentially collapse a lot of the cultural tension that is usually present.

And so there ought to be some respectful recognition in order for this human feature in our societies. If about half the nation was so disquieted by the going-ons in Washington and the shifting sands of domestic life that they did the unthinkable, almost desperate deed of electing Donald Trump, then so be it!

Furthermore, there’s something appalling about the slashing accusations made against Trump voters that subsequently rose up out of the smoke: racist, sexist, homophobic, misogynist, etc. Not only were they alarming claims to make of an entire half of the country, they summarily dismissed the motivations of Trump voters that deserved to be thoughtfully considered.

Invoking these adjectives — which became such a common practice — encouraged a strange, distant view of the other side that importantly, seemed to steal from them their humanity. And what I mean by that: It was as if people were convinced they were of different species. It is easy, I would add, to label masses in the slap-adjective manner described above, but who among us honestly believes that if we individually probed the millions of Trump voters that we would find nothing but the above motivations squirreled away in their hearts? Realistically, it’s far too reductionist and a cold, dehumanizing dismissal, at that.

David Goodheart writing in Prospect in March of 2015 and referencing his country’s UK Independence Party noted the following — a perspective that applies just as well to the U.S. situation:

“The modern social and economic liberalism, that dominates all the main political parties, has produced an economically abandoned bottom third of the population with no real chance of ever gaining a share in the prosperity; and an even larger group who feels a vague sense of loss in today’s atomized society in which the stability of family and the identity of place and nation has been eroded.”

Indeed, this “vague sense of loss” could be located in droves on American soil. It is part of the reason why the nostalgic narrative of a “lost America” struck such a strong chord. Now, it’s very easy to demonize that particular sentiment. But it bears mentioning that it’s actually a good idea for a populace to feel that they have some stake of ownership in their own country — that they are represented, heard, and not trampled on. People are thus more apt to experience identity and security as opposed to the restlessness and irritability of feeling no ownership.

For quite a long time, the natural resentment built for what one might call a crisis of ownership and autonomy and Trump happened to be a particularly effective conduit for it. Above all — and I’m really speculating here — people have a visceral aversion to feeling buried or suffocated or anything of that sort. And populism is perhaps the natural retaliation — a fight instinct that wants to ward against that happening.

This “fight instinct” — a sort of spurring fear about being stifled — an anxiety about being forgotten or otherwise smothered by an elite — was very much bound up in the persona of Donald Trump. His was a vigorous, certain and dauntless persona. Evidently, there was something vicariously exciting about Trump’s shove to political correctness for many. Maybe it was long overdue. Maybe it was a necessary, painful, jolting “correction” to culture at large. This attitude is very common of populist leaders — who have a piercing suspicion about the status quo, who are hard and forceful with their aims and who do not mince their words.

The ardency of Trump’s support could also have something to do with his hyper-masculine persona encapsulated in his bold, crude language, the quick jabs, the hard-hitting “truth-telling”. He was filling a void — a void of politicians who seemingly lacked this hyper-masculine quality and who would be willing to seriously ruffle some feathers. This daring, vigorous quality is largely what made people so convinced of Trump’s effectiveness. He will get something done, countless voters — whether enthusiastic or reluctant — privately mused in their own heads.

As well, people were interestingly convinced of his authenticity. Authenticity, you see, is the preoccupation of our current era — an era of faltering levels of trust worming through the cracks in society, institutions, and government. One of the strongest currencies in the 2016 election was indeed trust.

And out of Trump’s assertive, bold demeanor and compelling campaign message was derived a certain confidence in his authenticity — ordinarily a tricky task for the political class. Of course, Trump did not emerge out of the political class and instead, had blundered his way in from the outside and this actually added to his appeal — which makes sense considering that politicians have seemingly soiled their reputation by virtue of being closely shouldered with “governmental corruption”. Trump had many faults — and nearly everyone could admit to this — but if anything, his audacious, virile approach actually read as genuine.

Trump’s appeal curiously did not spring from any kind of coherent ideology — which in some ways he appeared to lack. Instead, his appeal was trussed around an attitude. And people found this attitude enormously compelling. Ultimately, Trump’s pragmatism and bracing bluntness felt reassuring to many amidst a sea of predictable, banal Republicans that thought espousing equanimity would garner them some appeal. The nation frequently found themselves either aghast or in awe (or some combination of the two) of Trump’s brazen style, the astonishing way he razed his opponents to the ground. There was obviously something different about him — and it should have given everyone serious pause in the moment. Stripped of intellectual-speak, Trump’s message was decisive and energetically forceful, thrumming with the energy of a “fight” that many of the citizenry felt entitled to have (and that’s interesting to note).

Trump’s rise and the populist revolt means something beyond the crude, simplistic labels of regressivism. Widespread political unrest was stemming from a frustration with what was seen as governmental corruption, elitist power, and the present futility of the democratic endeavor, all of which meant people were particularly responsive to an honest, rousing clear-cut message with energy to compensate for their persistent frustration. And in a way, it’s only understandable. And no one should really have been appalled. Sudden, startling events always have deeper roots than we realize and we ought to be asking questions more than claiming astonishment.

Writer of economics, psychology, and lots in between.

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