Why Populism is so Popular

Why Populism is so Popular

The election of Donald Trump as US president is the most spectacular example of the success which political populism has been enjoying worldwide in the past years. But the simple solutions populists put forward do not offer serious strategies for dealing with any of the challenges facing our globalised, networked, post-industrial societies.

At the beginning of this, I feel I should first clarify my own position. I am, and always have been, a left-leaning liberal. If I were an American, I would not have voted for Donald Trump, and like many hundreds of millions worldwide, I am horrified by, and deeply afraid of what the new US president means for the future. But, dear reader, if you are a Trump supporter, or someone who voted for Trump as president, I hope that you will not immediately click away from this. Because this essay is (hopefully) not just another piece criticising or attacking the new occupant of the White House. In fact, this piece is only peripherally about Trump. In fact, it’s much more about you, about who you are, where you’re coming from, and what might have given you reason to take the positions you do.

One of Hillary Clinton’s lowest points in the presidential campaign was on September 9, when she said, “to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables.” The reaction to the speech caused her to desperately backpedal as fast as she could, but the damage was done. If you let her statement stand, it would mean that half of those who voted for Trump (62,979,636), around 31.5 million Americans[1], are “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic — you name it.”

Now, for those who opposed and still oppose Trump, taking this view is certainly an option. It means there’s very little point in trying to engage with these people. The lesson for 2020 is very simple; be louder and shriller than your opponents, get better organised, win the argument with a fairly small number of swing voters (particularly in the battleground states), persuade a proportion of those who didn’t vote in 2016 to do so for your candidate this time, and pull out all the stops to get your vote out. Hell, it might even work.

But it ignores the larger question. Why did nearly 63 million Americans vote for Donald Trump? It seems clear to me that the “deplorable” explanation isn’t sufficient. Psychologically, I can look into myself and see some deeply buried parts which guiltily, thrillingly applaud him; the pubescent teenager who enjoyed the mayhem caused in a boring classroom when the anarchistic clown reduced a young female teacher to tears. We all have a dark, Dionysian part to us which instinctively responds to the pipes of Pan; part of the process of growing up involves bringing that part under the control of the superego. Build a wall, lock her up, grab ‘em by the pussy – the shocking entertainer, the pied piper whose music pushes those buried buttons is powerful.

Still, I don’t believe that such animalistic provocation was what led Trump to victory; most people do have functioning superegos and most Trump voters undoubtedly felt that they had good rational reasons for choosing him. You can certainly argue about the grounds for what they considered to be their rational self-interest, but not that this was how they perceived it.

You can surf the web and find a plethora of demographic analyses regarding the “typical” Trump voter. White, male, older, without a college degree, not a big city resident. But voters are generally not hermits; they live in communities and define themselves through the various networks through which they daily move and act – families, work, friends, interests, churches, etc. And these voters can be found particularly in two kinds of communities which Trump won, rural and small-town Middle America (where his victory was predictable and decisive), and the rust belt (where his margin was much smaller, but where the presidential contest was actually decided).

Call it Main Street, USA – actually Marceline, Missouri[2] – (as Disney did), call it Mount Airy, North Carolina[3] (the template for the fictional town of Mayberry in “The Andy Griffith Show”), call it Smallville, Kansas (the place where Clark Kent/Superman grew up), a vision of small-town/rural Middle America is one of the most potent and deep-rooted of the many narratives which express the American Dream. It was, after all, the dream of most immigrants, at least until the end of the 19th Century – those who were determined to get beyond the big cities, at any rate, the dream behind the iconic picture of the covered wagon, bravely heading west. A dream realised for so many millions, a dream of freedom, community, (modest) prosperity and security – finally secured and consolidated in the prosperous decades after World War II. And a dream which has been increasingly turning sour for so many in the past twenty years.

The towns are shrinking in population. Industries have closed, or relocated (sometimes to Mexico). Small farmers have sold out, as agriculture becomes increasingly mechanised and geared towards mass production, involving major capital investment and dependence on corporations like Monsanto. Many of the young people have moved to the cities to find work. The mom and pop stores on the corner have closed, unable to compete with Walmart and the other big retailers, and every dollar spent online is a dollar missing on Main Street. A fundamental aspiration behind Middle America’s American Dream, that your kids would have it better than you did, has broken down. Instead, what they have to look forward to is uncertain work for bad pay, and, increasingly, some oxy to take off the edge and dull the pain. When the finger is pointed at NAFTA, Mexico, and free trade as the source of their woes, that makes sense to these people. “Make America great again” resonates with them, because their experience is that their communities have been in decline for the past 20 years, and particularly since 2008. The economy may have picked up, unemployment may have gone down, but the recovery and growth is often confined to the major metropoles on the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts. That’s where all the immigrants are taking the jobs that should be going to Mayberry.

For these people, voting for Trump made sense. He offered clear and simple solutions to their problems. That his solutions won’t work, that his analysis is simplistic, that was the message that Clinton failed to get across to these people – in fact, she didn’t seem to address their reality at all. It was, after all, the other Clinton who was responsible for NAFTA. Trump offered them hope.

Blaming NAFTA and immigration across the Mexican border for the woes falls ludicrously short of any serious explanation for why Middle America is in decline. The world has changed enormously in the past quarter century, and free trade is only one aspect of it. The world wide networking of goods and services and the incredibly complex international chains of supply and distribution involved in this networking are just a part of the wider phenomenon known as globalisation. Transnational corporations are organised on a world-wide basis and not even the threat of a protectionist USA will be able to force them to centre themselves in America. Free capital and commodified financial products and services have long escaped the control of any national jurisdictions. Automation continues to spread through all aspects of every production and distribution process, and the next leap forward is already gathering pace; Industry 4.0, “in which computers and automation will come together in an entirely new way, with robotics connected remotely to computer systems equipped with machine learning algorithms that can learn and control the robotics with very little input from human operators.”

The consequences of this are very clear; even returning some industrial production from the developing world to the developed world won’t bring the jobs back. The basic reason for concerns to move their production capacity to the developing world was labour costs. As long as you can get people to do stuff cheaper than a machine that makes sense. Even if the imposition of tariffs forces some concerns to decide to move their production back to the USA, then the end result will be to increase the pressure to deepen the processes involved in Industry 4.0. In some areas, consistent development in this area would lead to savings which could even offset the increased costs caused by the tariffs, so that relocation might not even be necessary. In a McKinsey survey, conducted two years ago, business executives “said that correcting … data inefficiencies [alone] should improve productivity by about 25 percent.” And the number of jobs in agriculture in the USA has been declining steadily for decades to a current level of around 1.5% of the total labour force.

The strategy of a populist and nationalist appeal to rural and small town voters in order to gain power is not an exclusively American phenomenon. Eastern Europe has already paved the way, with politicians like Viktor Orban in Hungary and Jarosław Kaczynski in Poland successfully using most of the same themes and memes – national identity, hostility to immigrants, ridiculing of liberals, appeals to the basic Christian nature of society, threats to revisit the “classical” liberal themes of abortion and LGBT rights, hatred for the “elites” at the centre of political administration (for Washington just substitute Brussels) – that were to be so effective for Donald Trump. In Poland, in particular, the appeal to a rural heartland, whose values and identity were under threat, brought the Law and Justice (PiS) party to government in 2015. And since they came to power, both Orban’s Fidesz Party and the PiS have been unceasingly hostile to what they see as a biased, liberal media.

The economic arguments which attracted so much of Middle America to Trump’s message are just as applicable to the Rust Belt, battleground states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan, where Clinton actually lost the election. The blue-collar, working-class voters who swung from Obama to Trump have felt the disappearance of jobs and a secure existence just as much, if not more, than the communities in Missouri, North Carolina and all the inland red states. And in this respect, also, there is nothing unique about the USA. The very same shift took place in England[4]. Generally speaking, the British working class revolted against the position taken by the Labour Party (traditionally the party that claims to represent them) and voted decisively to leave the EU.

The parallel between Britain and the US goes even farther. An analysis of Brexit voters shows that it was the same coalition of working-class voters in post-industrial cities and rural and small town electors as was responsible for Donald Trump becoming the 45th president. And the arguments put forward by the Leave campaign in Britain were, in many cases, identical with those put forward by Trump.

Up to this point, I’ve concentrated on the economic arguments – largely expressed as some kind of protectionism, and a promise of restoring jobs and regaining control of national destiny – which are being successfully used by populists throughout the developed world[5]. These provide rational reasons, for substantial numbers of the population, for supporting them. That the arguments are too simplistic, and that they won’t work, is not the issue; for many people they still form a consistent, credible, and attractive narrative.

Of course, the experience of economic decline and uncertainty is only one aspect of a deeper existential anxiety felt by many individuals and communities. They feel that their whole ways of life, their values, and their cultural identities are threatened. This makes them more susceptible for arguments that there are particular agents responsible for their justified state of uncertainty and angst; scapegoats, in other words. Immigrants. Moslems. Homosexuals. Elitist professional politicians and bureaucrats. Having someone particular to blame, especially when they are different and easily identified, makes the populist analysis more credible and offers concrete strategies for making things better – deporting them, forbidding them, keeping them out. Build a wall. Lock her up.

What practically no politician – and certainly not any populist – has been prepared to do is to tell many of those who live in Middle America, or in the Rust Belt, that the way of life which they have had is doomed, that it has already become obsolete. We all live on a globalised planet, with 7.5 billion inhabitants, where all our lives are interconnected in myriads of ways, through incredibly complicated intermeshing chains of interdependency. For over 250 years now, since the beginning of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, the momentum of change has become the paradigm reality of life.

We already live in a post-industrial age. Once a machine can do a job more cheaply and efficiently than a human being, that job is gone. Automation and Industry 4.0 cannot be reversed, instead they will continue and spread further and deeper. The more simple the job, the less qualification and training necessary to do it, the easier it is to design a machine to do the same thing. One IT engineer, supervising a mechanised robotic process, can replace hundreds of workers on an assembly line. And as Industry 4.0 gathers pace, even many of those engineers will become redundant as the process of networked machines designing and building other machines becomes ever more sophisticated.

There are claims that the manufacturing jobs being lost in the post-industrial era will be replaced in the service industry. But here too automation will continue. Cleaning robots. Thousands of jobs in the already huge logistic sector being replaced by robots, drones and self-driving vehicles. And a large proportion of other service sector jobs, including many of those being newly created by concerns like Uber, are low-paid, irregular occupations – entry-level jobs, with (at best) minimum wage hourly pay. Moreover, such jobs are mostly being created in the ever-growing metropolitan centres, cities like New York, Seattle, London, Miami, Berlin, San Francisco, Tokyo, Los Angeles, Paris, etc. Jobs for which, in these centres, there are often no takers other than immigrants.

The growth of cities is one of the constant and continuing trends of the modern era. In 1800, 3% of the world’s population lived in cities, by the end of the 20th Century it was 47%, the UN estimates that by 2030 three fifths of all people will be urban dwellers. By 2050, 85.9% of the inhabitants of the developed world will be urbanites. And these ever growing metropoles will continue to be creative, chaotic, multi-cultural melting-pots; environments which, of their very nature, continue to defy the simplistic, backward-looking agendas of today’s populists.[6]

But in the end, more than anything else, it is our interconnectivity which has made the old certainties of Middle America, and rural Poland, and working-class Britain, obsolete. The normative quality of common identities, the (frequently coercive) shared values of community narratives crumble in the face of the ubiquitous World Wide Web. If a twelve year old boy has a smartphone he will, sooner or later, investigate online porn. If a fifteen year old girl feels unsure about her sexuality it’s not unlikely that she will make contact with the rainbow-coloured LGBT world on social media. You may (perhaps) be able to build a wall between the USA and Mexico; it’s much harder to build a permanent wall around young peoples’ minds.

Modernity is characterised by change, and change brings uncertainty. That change has brought us to our complex, interdependent, knowledge-based economy world of today, a world which will unfold further in this direction in the future. Those best geared to deal with it, those at home in it, are young, educated, urban, flexible, multi-cultural, and postmodern; comfortable with ideas of fluid sexuality, and changing, multiple identities and values. Everything the typical Trump voter (white, male, older, without a college degree, not a big city resident) is not. And, indeed, he is right to feel threatened by today’s world, because there is some truth to his suspicion that there is little room for him there. Progress, that strange and slippery concept, has brought things to a stage where physical strength, the willingness to work hard, and honest simplicity are no longer enough to secure and support a (stay-at-home) wife and a family. Even in the military, one geek, operating a remote-controlled drone from behind a desk ten thousand miles away, can replace a platoon of marines. The future belongs to the nerds.

And so, from his point of view, voting for Trump (or Orban, or Erdogan, or any of the other purveyors of populism) is the way to go. The problem is that the recipes they offer aren’t going to work for him, certainly not in the long term. They promise certainties, the fulfilment of nostalgic dreams, simplicity as an answer to complexity. But in the end, their visions are nothing more than (dark and dangerous) versions of The Truman Show (not surprising, I suppose, given Trump’s history in reality TV). Remember that, in the 1998 film, Truman finally comes to the realisation that his comfortable, predictable life is a sham – a 24/7 reality show – and discovers the courage within himself to break out of the dome which, up to now, has encapsulated his existence.

Only in our 2017 reality TV show, it’s not a dome, it’s a wall.

“All alone, or in twos,
The ones who really love you
Walk up and down outside the wall.
Some hand in hand
And some gathered together in bands.
The bleeding hearts and artists
Make their stand.

And when they’ve given you their all
Some stagger and fall, after all it’s not easy
Banging your heart against some mad bugger’s wall.”

Pink Floyd, Outside the Wall


[1] This would be about 10% of the entire US population, from the cradle to the grave.

[2] In Linn County, Missouri, where Marceline is situated, Trump took 73.3% of the vote

[3] In Surry County, NC (Mount Airy) Trump had 74.2%

[4] I use this term deliberately, rather than refer to Britain as a whole. Both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted Remain – in both these cases, the particular influence of nationalist/independence aspirations provided a series of reasons, not present in England, to reject Brexit.

[5] Populists are also enjoying success in “less developed” parts of the world; Putin in Russia, Erdogan in Turkey, Duterte in the Philippines, to mention some of them. But that’s a somewhat different story, though there are similarities as well (the appeal to national identity, for example). In this context, I should also mention that in a number of countries where the crisis of 2008 has caused serious disruption, and even existential danger, at the national state level, like Greece, Ireland, and Spain, the populist momentum has tended to take a left-wing, anti-austerity direction.

[6] It is ironic that Donald Trump is, in fact, an urban New Yorker to the bone. However, Hillary Clinton took 80% of the vote in the five boroughs of New York City, compared to 17% for Trump.

Written By: Francis Hunt

I was born in Ireland in 1960 and got my B.A. (Hons) in History and Philosophy from University College Dublin in 1982. I was a member of the Dominican Order of the Catholic Church for nine years, during which time I studied theology in Dublin and Rome. I left the order in 1986 and moved to Germany, where I have lived ever since. I trained as a nurse and spent many years working in care management but am much happier today doing honest nursing work once more with children in need of long-term intensive care. For the past two years I've been enrolled in a Masters programme at the Fernuniversität Hagen studying the "europäische Moderne". In January 2017 I joined the German Green Party. I have two daughters and one grandson.

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