The New Faces of Populism

The Left Flank has a new piece on what they dub the “Trump Paradox” that tries to draw our attention to a Donald Trump that deviates from his usual depiction as a bellicose proto-fascistic. Without ignoring the more extreme positions through which he draws most of his attention (illegal immigration, namely), the Left Flank points out that he appears to have a strong support base in GOP voters who identify as moderate or liberal-leaning. Indeed, many of his policies reflect those that might appear equitable to those on the left: protectionist trade policies to shore up a crumbling manufacturing base and promote job growth, large investments to alleviate our shoddy infrastructure, subsidies for education and health.

So why the right-baiting, Left Flank asks?

But why does he not use other — that is, less racialised — issues to make his pitch? Firstly, because illegal immigration and Islamist terrorism have long been issues dominated by politicking, spin, and hypocrisy, but which politicians have failed to find solutions to (for example, “pro-immigrant” Obama deports more people annually than any previous US president). Thus, such issues give Trump concrete examples with which to make his more general claims about the weakness of the political class. Secondly, with issues this politically charged the possibility of attracting attention by causing an uproar is simply too good to pass up. Finally, Trump is running for the Republican and not the Democratic nomination, so he has to appeal to the debates that have caused havoc within that party. Nevertheless, the intractability of these issues means that voters are likely to hold contradictory positions on them and so it is the political decisiveness of Trump’s position rather than his (often contradictory) policy detail that will stand out.

Good for the Left Flank for bringing a more complex dimension to the ongoing American political circus. Unfortunately for the Left Flank, however, the position they advance is a rather weak analysis. Yes, Trump is taking advantage of political discontent, and probably doesn’t believe in the full range of vitriolic he spills out on the daily. It’s instead the notion that his full range of positions are bound up contradiction that is faulty.

Consider the following quotes:

… despite the academic consensus that free trade is win-win for all, free trade is not free.

Undeniably, free trade has been a bonanza for the top 1 percent and many among our top 10 percent. As U.S. manufacturers shut down scores of thousands of U.S. factories to finance new plants in Asia, their production costs plummeted. Wages and benefits for Asians were, and are still, but a fraction of those of American workers.

After having shifted production overseas and dramatically lowered costs, U.S. transnationals saw a surge in profits. These were used to push corporate salaries into the stratosphere, increase dividends to shareholders, and keep the Washington lobbyists working the Hill day and night for fast track and free trade. And the lifestyle of our corporate elites changed. Where their fathers walked sooty factory floors in smokestack towns in World War II, these masters of the universe fly Gulfstream Vs to Davos and Dubai to dine with titled Europeans, Saudi princes and Chinese billionaires.

These may sound like they come from the pages of Mother Jones, The Nation, or Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine, and they may sound like something you’d hear at a Sanders’ rally. Quite the contrary: they’re from a 2014 article published in The American Conservative, written by Pat Buchanan.

For the unfamiliar, Buchanan (who recently declared that “Trump is the future of America”) ran for president under the mantle of the Republican Party in 1992 and 1996, before departing the Republicans to run again as the candidate for the Reform Party of the United States. The Reform Party, which had been founded in 1995 by Ross Perot (who had rocketed to the political limelight a few years prior for his opposition to the NAFTA free trade deal), went through considerations for several other candidates before landing on Buchanan – including Ron Paul and Donald Trump. In 2004, the Reform Party candidate would Ralph Nader, a clear illustration of the deviation from the traditionally-held political coordinates by this coterie of individuals.

Buchanan’s positions are very similar to those we see today espoused by Trump and his followers: a strong suspicion towards free trade, calls for a more isolationist foreign policy, anti-immigration, shades of racism (he fell under fire, for example, by flirting with Holocaust denial), and more general social conservatism. While these might sound contradictory and scattered across the left-right political compass, they all in fact sit quite cozily together under the rubric of paleoconservatism. In the contemporary era, paleoconservatism’s most stalwart defender – and primary theorist – was Samuel T. Francis, himself known for his opposition to neoliberal capitalism, extreme nationalist, an unrepentant racism (in one instance going so far as to castigate humanist philosophy as a “war against the white race”). Here is he on Buchanan’s 1992 president campaign:

[Buchanan] appealed to a particular identity, embodied in the concepts of America as a nation with discrete national political and economic interests and of the Middle American stratum as the political, economic, and cultural core of the nation. In adopting such themes, Mr. Buchanan decisively broke with the universalist and cosmopolitan ideology that has been masquerading as conservatism and which has marched up and down the land armed with a variety of universalist slogans and standards: natural rights; equality as a conservative principle; the export of global democracy as the primary goal of American foreign policy; unqualified support for much of the civil rights agenda, unlimited immigration, and free trade; the defense of one version or another of “one-worldism”; enthusiastic worship of an abstract “opportunity” and unrestricted economic growth through acquisitive individualism; and the adulation of the purported patron saints of all these causes in the persons of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.

This “particular identity” that he refers to is what he calls the “Middle American Radicals”, a class of disaffected middle class Americans who adhere to traditionalist values, oppose ‘big government’, and reject the forces of big business. Today this concept is very much alive, and is being rearticulated by Trump as the “Silent Majority” who are “fed up with what’s going on.”

Francis was by no means the founder of the paleoconservative ideology, which in fact stretches quite far back in American political history: antecedents can be found in the John Birch Society during the 1950s, right-wing groups that opposed American entry in World War 2 in the 1930s, and Huey Long’s southern populism that opposed the New Deal policies. Prior to these, it can be traced back to producerism, which in Chip Berlet’s account

begins in the US with the Jacksonians, who wove together intra-elite factionalism and lower-class Whites’ double-edged resentments. Producerism became a staple of repressive populist ideology.  Producerism sought to rally the middle strata together with certain sections of the elite. Specifically, it championed the so-called producing classes (including White farmers, laborers, artisans, slaveowning planters, and “productive” capitalists) against “unproductive” bankers, speculators, and monopolists above—and people of color below. After the Jacksonian era, producerism was a central tenet of the anti-Chinese crusade in the late nineteenth century. In the 1920s industrial philosophy of Henry Ford, and Father Coughlin’s fascist doctrine in the 1930s, producerism fused with antisemitic attacks against “parasitic” Jews.

Producerism, at its core, is the placement of a high social value on those who produce material goods, and by extension the wealth the society. Berlet rightfully draws our attention to how in American’s coding of social value along ethnic lines, producerism became quickly assimilated into the general atmosphere of racial prejudice and violence. It also gives critical insight into how Trump’s campaign operates: the appeals to a disenfranchised, primarily white middle class who are presumed to the hard-working, mind-your-own-business backbone of the nation, the castigation of the immigrant for embodying values that run contrary to this value set, and the call to tame capitalism the conditions it imposes upon it.

By the same token, Berlet’s history of producerism falters by strictly focusing on the right-wing articulation of the perspective. Indeed, there is perhaps no greater producerist than Marx, who analyzed the role of the proletariat – the industrial working class – as producing value through their labor. While the right-wing producerists aligned their valuing of labor with perceived ‘traditional values’, America saw a powerful alignment of labor with socialism in the early-to-mid 1900s. The Knights of Labor union, for example, reiterated the Marxist dictum that “labor creates all wealth”, while Eugene Debs, a president candidate for the Socialist Party five times over, declared that labor “is alone the source of revenue among men, since all value is born of labor.” As Nick Salvatore writes in his biography of Deb (who, incidentally, was a strong support of rights for African-Americans), the socialist’s political campaigns “emphasized the intimate connection between producerism and political action.”

It is uncanny, then, that in 1979 a documentary about Debs was made by none other than Bernie Sanders. It is a stark reminder that today, in 2016 America, we’re seeing the playing out a struggle between competing populisms that have re-encountered one another for over a century. But it also speaks to something else. Producerist ideologies, left and right alike, have appeared in times of severe discontent with the dominant order, particularly under the sway of systemic political and economic crisis or transformation. Like today, the heyday of the Knights of Labor and Debs – but also Henry Ford, Huey Long, and Father Coughlin – was marked by laissez-faire markets, extreme income inequality, and a general lack of opportunity across the population. The re-emergence of distinctively producerist outlooks in the 1990s, by contrast, were motivated by transformation: the end of the Cold War unilateralism, triggering on the right the perception of a decline in American sovereignty, and the ushering in neoliberal consensus between the two parties. In 1999, when the Left took to the streets of Seattle to protest the World Trade Organization, they were joined by groups of Reform Party supporters, using the opportunity to try and garner support for Buchanan. Again, in the resurgence of leftist populism during 2011’s Occupy Wall Street, a different sort of right-wing populist – the Tea Partier – could be found, trying desperately to educate the left that big business existed because of big government.

What these instances reinforce is another hard realization that the left has run up against time and time again: that crisis does not necessarily lead to the emergence of progressive social movements, but will just as likely light the fuse under a powder keg of reactionary ideologies.

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9 Responses to The New Faces of Populism

  1. dmf says:–and-why-his-legendary-ministers-son-now-rejects-him/2016/01/21/37bae16e-bb02-11e5-829c-26ffb874a18d_story.html
    “Fifty years ago in a classic essay, American political scientist Richard Hofstadter, explored the Paranoid Style – “an old and recurrent phenomenon in our public life which has been frequently linked with movements of suspicious discontent”. In this documentary, Michael Goldfarb looks at the history of America’s politics of paranoia backwards from Donald Trump’s current campaign through the McCarthy era to the foundation era of the US and fears of Freemasons and the Illuminati seizing control of the government.”

  2. S.C. Hickman says:

    What’s funny is that Trump speaks much like Debs but for the middle-class populists rather than the poor and weak. As you say he seems to come out of depression era Republicanism with all those like the Southern Agrarians, John T. Flynn, Albert Jay Nock, Garet Garrett, Robert R. McCormick, Felix Morley, and Richard M. Weaver among others…

    Strange how the Leftist scholars just don’t get it as if they’ve been given a script and forgotten that there really was a history to all this.

    • edmundberger says:

      Yeah, I don’t get it at all. For starters – how can they be so surprised at Trump? This *precisely* the sort of thing that happens in conditions like the current one. Analyses of these patterns used to be the mainstay of leftist discourse and it was ESSENTIAL for the generating of broad leftist social movements. Publishers like South End Press cranked out book after book of hard-hitting social history and investigative research from the 1980s into the 1990s… likewise, the people affiliated with Zcommunications provided great information to people along these lines down through the War on Terror. I think the general loss of concrete sociological study has grievously wounded the left in terms of both action and theory.

      Not trying to sound smarter-than-thou against the left, but if I have to see another shitty social analysis I might get sick.

      • S.C. Hickman says:

        You’ve discovered the blip-world at last… people live in the Symbolic Blipsphere, they don’t know, they don’t read, they are not educated any longer… they feed each other the blog noise, twitter bombs, the Instagram buzzballs, the youtube gallery of imbecility… the Left like the Right has amnesia: the young figure education, reading, culture are a waste of time, so they pick up their pop-Marxism on the fly and waste their time in duck-soup cafes.

        Sadly the Left has killed itself through progressive ideologues who preach the neoliberal message of Sameness… while the truth hiding in all the books and literature you spoke of lies dormant on some dustbin in a library of ruins for Old Radicals like us…

      • edmundberger says:

        The irony for me is that I’ve encountered and met personally so much inventive, exciting, and dynamic radicalism, especially in the last two years – enough to feel invigorated and inspired by the possibilities, sort of like that wonderful Guattari quote: “I think we’re in a period of productivity, proliferation, creation, utterly fabulous revolutions from the viewpoint of the emergence of a people.”

        Even if there are such a people (and it’s probably not as romantic as Guattari made it even then), there is no ‘we’. The explosion of creativity appears isolated on the margins, even at the margins of the left – despite the fact they are in plain sight at the center of the (non-governmental) left!

        That’s why I think that the best we can really do at the moment is to work in our communities, align ourselves as much as possible with like-minded people to work towards righting wrongs where we can, and reach out to others when possible. Against wild dreams the most meager of ambitions, for now at least…

      • S.C. Hickman says:

        Even the people who comment on my posts on Zizek have for the most part no clue, have never bothered truly reading him or Lacan, Badiou, Johnston, Marcuse, Adorno, Lenin, Mao, Stalin, Marx, Engels… or the early utopian socialists… And, when I do get the occasional comment I know very well they misunderstand what Zizek is saying, or why the notion of the Subject, Real, Symbolic, Imaginary, Lack, etc… are important concepts to actually work through; or, why we should bother to read the German Idealists as pre-cursors of Transcendental Materialism… etc. Why most of what we see going for philosophy has little to do with political change and is for the most part just an academic parlor game for misfits and wannabe philosophers. For the most part people seem to drift aimlessly through Nietzsche’s nihilistic stage or adamantly propose it as the ultimate path, like my friend Scott Bakker and his Semantic Apocalypse – an end game scenario for nihilism to the nth degree.

        That I’ve agreed more with Zizek is that what he’s discovered aligns with my own experience of the Real. This notion of the Void as the Real is something I have affirmed long before reading his works. He just puts an organized rhetoric to it… as well as the path out and through the ‘vanishing mediator’ or gap of the Subject situated between the Symbolic and the Real. Without this Gap in Being we would ultimately be reduced to the determinisms of either networks or the naturalisms of science. It’s this sense of Freedom as the self-reflecting nothingness or gap between the Symbolic and the Real that keeps us from being determined by one or the other, yet caught up in oscillating between the two without being ensnared in the one or the other. It’s those that try to fill this gap with fantasies that fall away into the beliefs of religion, noosphere, obscuranstism, or New Age crapology… the rest of us sit here like Keat’s in negative capability: neither reaching after reasons, or reaching after God, but affirming the truth of the incomplete and open Void.

  3. Pingback: Exodus and Countereconomics, Part 2: The Rise and Fall of the Left-Right Alliance – marginalsynthesis

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