Why Is Populism Winning on the American Right?

The answer may have less to do with the Trump phenomenon, and more daunting implications, than it seems.

Trump rally, Houston, Texas, June 17, 2016 (Trish Badger / Reuters)

If your political tendencies disinclined you to favor the U.S. presidential candidacy of Donald Trump, you might be tempted to think that for all its initial implausibility, it’s in retrospect not that tough to explain: Trump’s doubters simply underestimated a contempt for reality and depth of bigotry among Republican Party voters. It’s an inversion of Trump’s apparent view of himself, really: His haters couldn’t comprehend how much true-believing Americans would love him for his authenticity, decisiveness, and straight-shooting demolition of nonsense.

Speaking on Thursday at the Aspen Ideas festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, however, Arthur C. Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute argued for separating out the broad, complex forces behind the current rise of populism in the U.S. and the narrow, contingent reasons for Trump’s success in picking off the GOP nomination. “There are are a couple of black-swan events that happened here,” Brooks said.

“One was that media are going bust, and they saw Donald Trump as bank. CNN gave Donald Trump an 80 percent market share of earned media. Eighty percent. They basically treated him like Anthony Bourdain, … as a reality-show star on CNN. Responsible fourth estate? It’s about money; it’s about not going out of business for another year. That’s what it comes down to,” he says. “The second was a field of 17 candidates on the Republican side.”

Without these black swans, Brooks suggests, Trump’s candidacy would be as implausible now as conventional wisdom saw it to be a year ago.

But the populist anger it draws its power from would be there just the same. According to New America’s Anne Marie Slaughter, for all the Trump campaign has used xenophobia and other modes of bigotry to draw out support from radical elements of the Republican base, they are not the real catalysts of populist revolt on the American right today. The real catalysts are a set of deep disruptions in the American economy—a constellation of forces that also accounts for much of the Bernie Sanders phenomenon, as far as it’s gone.

“What we are seeing is anger at a disruption of our economy and, really, our social order—of the magnitude we saw when the agricultural age gave way to the industrial age,” Slaughter says:

When the industrial age completely upended the way people lived and worked, from small cottage-industry, farming villages to going to factories, in another place from your family, to work—which is the same kind of profound upheaval we’re seeing now, we got Marxism. We got Marxism, and then we got World War I, and then we got World War II—that upheaval … was a direct outgrowth of the changes wrought by the industrial revolution.

That is what we are seeing the beginnings of today. The digital revolution … is completely upending how we work, what the sources of value are, how people can support their families, if they can at all, and creates tremendous fear and rage in the sense that you are at the mercy of forces you cannot control.

But as fraught as these feelings are, they’re not political problems on their own terms.

“There’s nothing inherently wrong with anger in American politics,” says Stephen L. Carter of Yale Law School. “It’s not inherently bad. If it were inherently bad, we’d be in a lot of trouble, because anger has been a feature of our political system since George Washington decided not to run for a third term and retired, and we had to decide who was going to replace him. Unreasoning anger has been a feature of politics for a very long time.”

Brooks emphasizes that political anger isn’t just chronic; it’s often fitting and politically vital. “We shouldn’t regret the presence of anger, necessarily, because anger, particularly justifiable anger, when we’re angry on behalf of people who have less power than we do, that’s a good thing,” Brooks says. “That’s actually the mark of a good society—that’s the nature of a politics that’s actually standing up for people who are powerless, people who are at the periphery of society.”

“The problem is when anger is the salient characteristic of a political system. And that has a name: It’s populism. And populism is driven by grievance; and grievance is the rocket fuel of an anger that becomes truly salient, that becomes truly central to the political system.”

If this is the right analytical framework, then, distinguishing between the prominence of anger and the dominance of populism, what’s the right comparative or historical framework for putting the current populist moment in context? There is, after all, a lot of freaking out about the idea of a Hitler in America these days.

Brooks cites a study out this year in the European Economic Review (“Going to Extremes: Politics After Financial Crises, 1870-2014,” by Manuel Funke, Moritz Schularick, and Christoph Trebesch) that looks at 20 advanced European economies across 154 years and more than 800 elections—and concludes that after a financial crisis (not a regular recession, but a full-blown financial crisis), the mean political impact has been a significant increase in support for right-wing populism: “After a crisis, voters seem to be particularly attracted to the political rhetoric of the extreme right, which often attributes blame to minorities or foreigners,” the authors write. “On average, far-right parties increase their vote share by 30% after a financial crisis.”

But as Brooks points out, populism has a distinctive and long history in America, where it’s “not necessarily just a right-wing phenomenon; it can be a left-wing phenomenon as well.” Following a pair of financial crises in the 1890s, for example (one when the railroads went bust on account of overbuilding and unsound financing, the other after a silver panic), and the deep recessionary effects that accompanied them, William Jennings Bryan became the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate in 1896—thundering, “You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold!”—and for two further cycles. Brooks quotes H.L. Mencken’s obituary of Bryan: “Imagine a gentleman, and you have imagined everything that he was not.”

“Sound familiar?”

Brooks’s view is that American populism is neither a historical anomaly nor a historical pattern the U.S. has shown itself unable to cope with over time. It’s essentially a recurring form of crisis—and one that, following the medical analogy, the American republic never died from, in the way Germany’s Weimar Republic did in 1933. It’s always recovered.

So how does it recover this time?

According to Brooks, “The answer is basically one thing, which is a moral consensus that comes from aspirational leadership.”

“The tendency among those of us who are center-left or center-right,” Brooks says, “is to say that we’ve got to come together in the middle. That’s not true. I think that you can hold the views that you hold. If you’re a big right-winger or a big left-winger, that’s great. But what we need to remember is the moral consensus of the American experiment, which is not an unprecedented historical event. In my view, that’s pushing opportunity to the people who need it the most.”

This is not, Brooks argues, a matter of an overarching political consensus; it’s a matter of a shared moral idiom. If the American public is not overwhelmed by outrage, and is capable of generating the political capital and political will for cooperative solutions and compromise, that’s because there’s a common understanding and common way of talking about moral priorities in political life. “When the moral consensus collapses, and we’re not talking about pushing opportunity to the people who need it the most, but rather militating for my rights, what happens?” he asks. “Opposing viewpoints hit each other head-on and become an ideological holy war, and that’s what we see.”

But if the restoration of such a moral consensus is the work of aspirational leadership, why couldn’t Barack Obama pull that off? Many Americans see him as the apotheosis of an aspirational leader. Brooks might argue that Obama’s style was more divisive than aspirational; but this would only point to a divergence of responses to Obama that illustrate the precise difficulty of relying on political leaders to bridge divides.

Carter sees a more forbidding challenge here. “There’s a problem with rebuilding this moral consensus, even with aspirational leadership, and the problem is not just that politics have changed but that we’ve changed as a people; we’ve changed in the sense of how we get along with each other.” Americans, Carter thinks, have naturalized themselves to a bumper-sticker way of thinking and talking about political disagreement that’s immune to moral consensus; and they have extended that way of thinking and talking across social media and virtually every other form of interaction.

“When I was a kid, my dad would never let us put bumper stickers on the family car,” Carter recalls. “My father hated bumper stickers. He said that they’re undemocratic. In fact, once he even said, they’re ‘fascistic.’ Now, that’s not my view, but … what bothered him was that a bumper sticker is a slogan. It’s a way of reducing a complex issue to an applause line. And that, he thought, was poisonous in our politics.”

Carter’s view is that you can’t have consensus without comity, and comity is disappearing from the American social repertoire around political disagreement—from barguments to high court. “If you look at the Supreme Court,” Carter says, “this is not a court that tries to find consensus; it’s a court that tries to find five votes. No one’s going in and doing the hard work anymore, as was the court’s long tradition, of trying to fashion views that can actually command majorities.”

So, he says, “It’s not clear how we’re going to come together under aspirational leadership, because we’re going to have a lot of trouble finding shared aspirations—because we’ve spent so much time at each other’s throats. And that’s not just Donald Trump; this is a trend that’s been getting worse for some time.”

Slaughter, meanwhile, warns that fundamental changes in the structure of the global economy are a whole other order of barrier to moral consensus: “I’m all for pushing opportunity to those who need it most,” she says. “But we’re looking at an economy where we have no idea what those jobs are. What we know is that there’s a bifurcation of great jobs with huge rewards and really bad jobs that do not even support a family.” Or for another unsettling analysis, you could look to Lawrence Lessig, also speaking here in Aspen, who warns that the U.S. political system has developed into an unrepresentative democracy that reifies increasingly toxic forms of disenfranchisement and inequality—which, unless radically reformed, can only breed more disaffection and anger. Or you could look to Jonathan Rauch, who warns, in our current cover story, that without somehow reversing the long decline of the American political establishment, the U.S. political system will be incapable of reform, or for that matter of effective governance at all. “Smoke-filled rooms, whatever their disadvantages, were good for brokering complex compromises in which nothing was settled until everything was settled,” he writes. Without an effective political class, Rauch says, the U.S. political system will be incapable of alleviating populist anger and protecting itself against entrepreneurial cynics who’d exploit it.

The whole skein of reasons for anxiety about the new surge of populist anger in America is of course more extensive still—and in some dimensions more troubling. It may be unlikely that any of them imply the coming of an extreme form of political doom, like fascism. Yet the important consideration isn’t what to fear, it’s what to know: Donald Trump may be defeated in November, but the anger and resentment behind him won’t be.