Populism is always a surprise to those in power. It erupts from time to time, not as regularly as clockwork, but as inevitably as a volcano. Yet even those who live in the shadow of the caldera, those who should be most aware of what looms nearby, are taken unawares. That’s not poor planning, nor is it ignorance of history. It is a necessary component of the blast: Populism comes from forgotten people. If those in power paid them any mind, the pressure would never build up and the explosion would never come.
In The Great Revolt: Inside the Populist Coalition Reshaping American Politics, Salina Zito and Brad Todd explore the politics of the latest populist explosion and talk to the people who brought it forth in small cities and towns from Scranton to Sioux Falls. Many of those interviewed were lifelong Democrats until 2016, and their stories should shake the establishment Democrats to the core. Though party insiders may not have seen Donald Trump coming, there is still time to correct their error. But just as it is the nature of populism to surprise, it is the nature of an establishment to stay established. The Democratic establishment, built as it is on the shifting sands of intersectionality and the latest trends in activism, will have a hard time adapting to the challenge of Trumpian populism.
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Articles and books about political trends often rely on anecdote, but Zito and Todd also base their analysis on a survey of Trump voters in the states whose swing to the GOP in 2016 broke the Democrats’ fabled “blue wall” and gave Trump his victory: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa. They distilled the results into six archetypes of Midwestern Trump voters, and each section of the book comprises interviews with people fitting each archetype.
Insofar as Trump came out ahead, it is particularly interesting how many people, after reluctantly voting for him, now back him more enthusiastically than ever.
The results are illuminating. Some of the interviewees were Republicans already, so their votes for Trump were not completely surprising. They do, however, fly in the face of the idea, pushed by the Clinton campaign, that Trump alienated too many moderate, suburban Republicans to win. It was clear then that this was no mere talking point: Clinton targeted suburban Republicans, especially women, pleading with them to abandon the candidate who had said and done so many grotesque things over the years.
They failed to consider how grotesque Clinton herself appeared to these same Republican women. The authors quote pollster Wes Anderson to establish a point that sums up these voters and their decision process: “These women may not have decided to vote for Trump until late in the race, but most had decided much earlier that they were definitely not voting for Clinton.” For many, Clinton’s stances on issues like abortion and gun rights ruled her out from the beginning. Many others were repelled by her inauthenticity and dishonesty.
This mostly female cohort is an interesting group, and it shows the power of the two-party system in America. Faced with two odious candidates, most people picked the less obnoxious of the pair. Despite the considerable aversion to both Clinton and Trump, more than 94 percent of voters chose one of the two. Insofar as Trump came out ahead, it is particularly interesting how many people, after reluctantly voting for him, now back him more enthusiastically than ever. Picking a side changes how we think about things, and it could be that the shrieking #Resistance is making things worse on itself by forcing once-persuadable voters to choose between the candidate they have already voted for and the parade of bitter-enders constantly criticizing him on television.
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Another theme running through the book’s interviews is how so many voters abandoned the Democratic party, or, as they would likely describe it, how the party abandoned them. Democrats earned their reputation as the workingman’s friend in the New Deal, and exploited it to great political effect for decades thereafter. In a country where most voters are people who work for a living — or retirees who used to do so — being seen as pro-worker is a definite electoral advantage.
The problem with that reputation is that to keep it, the party must continue, at least some of the time, to act in the interests of workers. Or, more specifically, it must promote policies that workers themselves see as in their interests; telling people what their interests really are does not do the job and may actually alienate those voters the party claims to cherish. Ignore this requirement long enough, and eventually even voters who hung pictures of John F. Kennedy on their living-room walls will abandon their political faith.
One man Zito talked to in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., exemplifies this trend. A union employee and Clinton delegate at the 1992 Democratic National Convention, he explained, “I wasn’t just a guy who voted straight Democrat up and down the ballot, it was religion to me, it was my identity, and it was also an essential part of my job.” It is hard to imagine anything that could make such a man pull the lever for a billionaire Republican from New York City, let alone do so enthusiastically. Yet this book is full of tales like his.
Part of the shift has been subtle. Democrats once identified with workers qua workers, in contrast to the bosses and owners for whom they labored. That gradually shifted to “the working class,” and then to “working families.” By 2016, the Clinton camp spoke of “everyday Americans,” a term completely removed from the idea of labor and so vague and anodyne as to be completely meaningless. Democrats used to have what pollster Anderson called “the echo of labor.” Now that echo resounded in a Trump campaign that spoke of work itself and the importance of good jobs, railing against outsourcing and free trade with a striking intensity of purpose.
It is difficult to describe Trump as a workingman, but he sounds like a workingman. That’s a distinction that led to derision from politicos, but for people less deeply connected to the day-to-day goings-on in Washington, it was oddly refreshing. The man had inherited millions and was worth billions, but somehow he sounded like he understood the plight of people whose pleas were not heard in Chappaqua. Meanwhile, the Democrats increasingly became associated with the non-working class, identifying more with the lifelong welfare recipient than with the worker whose taxes pay for that government program. As another lifelong Democrat told Zito, “I used to think that the Republican party stood for country-club folks in nice suburban homes who talked about bottom lines and stock prices. Not anymore; they are for the blue-collar worker, they are for me, and the irony is not lost on me.”
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One question the book necessarily leaves unanswered is how deep the shift has been. Was 2016 a one-off reaction against Clinton’s shortcomings, or the first blast of a sustained backlash against neoliberalism? Zito and Todd’s title echoes that of another famous work by John D. Hicks, The Populist Revolt: A History of the Farmers’ Alliance and the People’s Party, and there are similarities between Hicks’s 1890s populists and Trump’s movement. Both were rural, although the older movement was necessarily more so, given the far greater number of farmers in late 19th-century America. Both were also reactions to the concentration of wealth and power, the perceived duopoly of the major parties, and the parties’ collective inattention to the concerns of people outside the major coastal cities.
Populists then and now fixated on Big versus Small, a third theme that runs through Zito and Todd’s book. Whether big banks, big business, big government, or big labor, any organization that swells to a massive size can feel threatening to an individual. That is especially true for people far removed — geographically and figuratively — from the centers of power. This theme of being crushed by bigness resounded among many of the Trump voters interviewed in the book.
“Big banks, big media, big corporations, I want nothing to do with them,” one man said. Another linked the what Justice Louis Brandeis called the “curse of bigness” to a culture of dependency: “We are Americans, that means something, that means figuring it out without the government giving us free stuff, without the big banks and big companies making us need them so much, and not feeling as though we are entitled to something once we get it.”
All of this is clearly heartfelt and certainly directed against a real problem in our modern, industrialized nation. The confusing part for those who do not buy it is that it makes Trump the representative of the little guy. That is harder to swallow than William Jennings Bryan’s leadership of the 1890s populists. It clearly wrong-footed the Clinton camp, as evidenced by the supreme effort taken to remind the voters just how often Trump had shortchanged, bamboozled, and defrauded various little guys in his long business career.
None of that mattered. With Clinton as the obvious representative of the Left’s establishment, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and the rest as representatives of the Right’s establishment, and Trump as the eager antagonist of both, the answer was clear to many forgotten men and women: This guy, whatever his past, is in my corner. That is the larger message that comes through time and again in this book. In voting for Trump, as one man put it, “we voted for ourselves.”
Some readers will never be able to wrap their brains around the Trumpist phenomenon, but, again, populism is often incomprehensible and unpredictable. Whether Trumpism becomes a real strain of conservatism, or whether the populist wave transforms the Republican party the way it transformed the Democrats a century ago, only time can tell. But understanding the people who propelled Trump to the most powerful office on Earth is a good start, and The Great Revolt can certainly help with that.