Trump and the Populist Counterrevolution

By John Peeler

Donald Trump is not going away. He stands a very good chance of winning the Republican nomination, and the polls suggest that he would be competitive with either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders in November.

He is not a conservative in any normal sense of the word: rather, he proposes to shake up everything, beginning with the Republican Party itself. His answer to every problem is, of course, himself. He has little to offer by way of practical policies (the Wall, bombing the hell out of ISIS), but he’s articulating with great fidelity the complaints of white working class men (and a minority of white women) typically voiced in the semi-privacy of the neighborhood bar.

The Wall Street and Main Street elite of the Republican Party, having nurtured this white working class base since Reagan, are suddenly discovering that it has escaped their control. The bridge-players of the elite may stand for “no-Trump,” but the lottery players of the base are having none of that anymore. Jeb Bush, who was expected to waltz to the nomination, is stuck in single digits. Casting about for a golden stake to drive into Trump’s heart, they are left with—Marco Rubio (who is barely in double digits himself). Ted Cruz, who has managed to alienate virtually every party leader and elected official he has dealt with, has a strategy of waiting for Trump to fail so he can pick up has supporters. But Trump is not failing!

It’s a scene to warm the hearts of liberals and Democrats, but they shouldn’t get too comfortable. If Trump does get the nomination, he could lose in a landslide, but maybe not. His ability to say almost anything and get his listeners to believe it means that he might be able somehow to broaden his appeal to sectors that he’s dissed up to now: women, blacks, Hispanics.

Can he do that without alienating his faithful, white male base? Maybe. They might cut him some slack. They might think that, when he was speaking to them, in the GOP primary race, he was saying what he really meant, while in the general election, he’ll have to say something different to broaden his appeal. His base would say, “Regardless of what he says to get elected, we know who he really is, and he’s with us.” They don’t—and won’t—accept the charge that he’s a calculating showman and salesman who will say whatever he needs to say to get support.

The fact is that Trump has captured a wave of discontent in white America that has been building for half a century or more. While the New Deal reforms of the 1930s were carefully tailored to benefit benefit whites (Social Security, for example, initially excluded agricultural and domestic workers, fields largely occupied by southern blacks), the Supreme Court decisions of the 1950s, the civil rights laws of the 1960s, and the affirmative action of the 1970s, all worked to the disadvantage of white males.

Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 marked the rise to power of an aggressive conservative movement seeking to undo as much of the civil rights revolution as possible, and to bring back a society in which white men ruled. It is that counterrevolution whose culmination we witness today in Donald Trump.

The stakes of this election thus could not be higher. Shall this nation continue to move toward a more open, diverse, and egalitarian society, or shall it turn backward and inward, reaffirming the values of its formerly dominant minority? Either Sanders or Clinton should be able to win the presidential election (the Senate and House are another story) by appealing to and mobilizing the two-thirds of the country who are not white males. But they will then confront an even more alienated population, a small minority of whom are increasingly drawn to violence, defending, as they see it, their rights as the rightful custodians of the nation against the tyranny of the emerging majority.

Clinton and Sanders thus also need to reach out to the Trump constituency, to show that they understand what these people are going through, and what they are feeling. They need to emphasize that their proposals will benefit everyone, not just minorities and women. They probably won’t convince many Trump supporters, but they might draw in some of the two-thirds of Republicans who are not Trump people, that they should vote for the grown-ups.

Back to home ]