The Paradox of Trump's Populism

The president’s remarks at a recent rally inflating his wealth illuminate how his particular brand of populism works.

Trump at a campaign rally in Fargo, North Dakota
Jim Mone / AP

Throughout the 2016 presidential election, there persisted among his opponents a Millenarian faith in the silver bullet that would end Donald Trump’s presidential hopes. There were multiple failed prophets and prophecies of this faith: Trump’s comments about Senator John McCain not being a war hero were going to take down his campaign. Then his feud with Megyn Kelly. Then his kid-glove treatment of David Duke. His attacks on Khizr Khan. The Access Hollywood tape. Some rumored but never delivered opposition-research in the last weeks of the campaign. Needless to say, none of these incidents were fatal to Trump’s campaign.

The underlying principle of this faith, shared by Democrats and never-Trump Republicans, was simple: Trump is a fraud, and eventually people are going to realize this. For the most part, those who believed Trump was a fraud have not changed their mind. Surprisingly, however, some of them still retain hope at this late date that something will make scales fall from Trump supporters’ eyes so that they will realize it too.

Wednesday night in Fargo, North Dakota, Trump took a shot at these critics, and some of them heard in his words yet another opportunity for Trump to be revealed as a fraud.

“They call them the elite. These people. I look at them, I say, that’s elite?” the president said. “We’ve got more money and more brains and better houses and apartments and nicer boats. We are smarter than they are. They say the elite. We are the elite. You are the elite.”

He added: “They’ve been stone-cold losers, the elite. Let’s keep calling them the elite … Let’s call ourselves the super elite.”

This was not the first time Trump has delivered a riff along these lines, but the specific wording—nicer boats? Better houses? More money?—makes it stick out as seeming to contradict the message that got him elected president. Jonathan Chait sees it as proof that Trump “doesn’t understand how populism works.” He writes:

This is not, of course, how populism works. It trades on either cultural or economic grievance. One’s enemies possess all the privilege, and we the people must take it back. Once you have declared that you already possess the privilege, the whole basis for it disintegrates. While Trump performed perfectly well among the rich, most of his supporters are not rich (because most Americans are not rich) and would have trouble recognizing themselves in his portrait of lavish apartments and boats.

There are many things that Trump seems not to understand, but he clearly has a strong grasp on using populist grievance as a political tool. In fact, the president’s remarks illuminate how his particular brand of populism works. Trump trades on cultural and economic grievances, and he uses his own status to prove his credibility. During the GOP primary, for example, he turned his past donations to politicians, including Hillary Clinton, from a weakness into an asset, saying it showed how corrupt the campaign-finance system was.

“I will tell you that our system is broken,” he said. “I gave to many people. Before this, before two months ago, I was a businessman. I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And you know what? When I need something from them, two years later, three years later, I call them. They are there for me. And that's a broken system.”

The nice homes and nice boats Trump conjured in Fargo might seem to be at odds with cultural and economic grievance, but that misunderstands who really voted for Trump. Contrary to the superficial glosses that have circulated since November 2016, most members of the white-working class actually voted for Hillary Clinton, according to a poll by The Atlantic and the Public Religion Research Institute. The truly poor voted for the Democrat. The people who voted for Trump are not those with no economic status—it is those who are worried they could lose the status they already hold.

As my colleague Olga Khazan reported, Trump voters had a “desire for their group to be dominant... Trump supporters were also more likely than Clinton voters to feel that ‘the American way of life is threatened,’ and that high-status groups, like men, Christians, and whites, are discriminated against.”

Seeing the famously opulent Trump talk about boats, one might think of superyachts. But there are some 18 million recreational boats in the U.S. It’s very easy to imagine a guy who owns a small fishing boat that he takes out on the lake on weekends from his home in Rust Belt Ohio. He has a good job now, and it got him that boat, but he’s terrified that people like him—white, middle-class men—are losing their place in American society. He worries that his son won’t be able to afford the same boat.

This voter sees Trump sneering at elites and he appreciates that the president shares his disdain. Nor does Trump’s invocation of his own luxury apartment alienate him. After all, Trump has never made a secret of his wealth. In fact, he’s spent most of his career inflating it. Liberal pundits sometimes argue that poorer voters support Republicans whose policies enrich the wealthy because they hope to someday join the ranks of the wealthy. That may be a factor here, but there’s another dimension, too: The elites may look down on the heartlanders, either in reality or in the minds of the heartlanders, but Trump looks down on the elites. Just as when Trump bragged that he had bought politicians with his campaign donations, he’s better off than these people, so he has special credibility to criticize them.

The president is vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy. Having promised to self-fund his campaign, he changed his mind and took the cash he said was corrupting. The policies he has pursued, especially a slate of tax cuts, benefit the wealthy more than they do the average Trump supporter in Fargo. But rather than debunk his populism, the christening of a “super-elite” demonstrates how that populism works.