Throughout his campaign, Donald Trump frequently appealed to ‘the people’ and vowed to help them take back their power. But how has populism moved so far from its roots in the left as to be useful as a strategy for today’s ultra-right wing?
WASHINGTON — (Analysis) Donald Trump’s ascendency to the White House involved endless appeals to “the people” and denunciations of the elite.
During an October rally, for example, Trump said:
“It’s a global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities.”
His inauguration speech was laced in similar rhetoric:
“The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories. Their triumphs have not been your triumphs. And while they celebrated in our nation’s Capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land. That all changes — starting right here and right now because this moment is your moment: it belongs to you.”
Populism is defined as political rhetoric championing the common person, the working class, or the disenfranchised. While in the present period populism is associated with right-wing nationalism, the nature of populism has shifted and evolved throughout U.S. history. Right-wing populism in the 21st century is just the latest incarnation of a quite diverse trend.
‘You are a worker’
“You are a worker,” a widely read pamphlet begins.
“One nice morning you are told your services are no longer needed. In plain words: you are fired. You are thrown out. … The employer has no more work for you. He cuts operations or he shuts his plant altogether. While you remain without a livelihood, he goes to his country estate or abroad to have a good time. …
And yet, come to think of it, you are not a stranger to this factory or mill or shop. You and the like of you have built it. You and the like of you have created all the machinery, all the raw material and all the fuel which is necessary to run an industry. … It is your blood, your sweat, your muscle and your brain that is sunk into every piece of goods produced.
You have much at stake in this establishment — your whole life. It is yours, more than the owner’s. It is part of your very self. …
Has it ever occurred to you that such a state of affairs is wrong?”
This isn’t from a Donald Trump speech. This isn’t from an alt-right rant against globalism. The above text comes from “Why Communism? Plain Talk on Vital Questions,” published in 1933 by Moissaye J. Olgin, a leader of the New York City branch of the Communist Party.
The Communist Party and the unemployed councils it directed involved hundreds of thousands of working class people, black and white, both native-born and immigrants. Together they stopped evictions. Later in the decade, they organized industrial unions in a wave of sit-down strikes.
With slogans like “Fight or Starve!” they pushed the Roosevelt administration to create many key reforms, such as Social Security, unemployment insurance, food assistance, and the Works Progress Administration.
Olgin and the Communist Party’s methods of agitation were not new in 1933. A generation prior, the activist, union leader, and Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene Debs had traveled the country on bright red train car, making similar arguments. Prior to the United States’ entrance into World War I, the Socialist Party was a mass political formation that received over 900,000 votes — roughly 6 percent of the popular vote — in the 1912 presidential election.
Socialism: The original populism
However, the political discourse is quite different today. When I was in Wheeling, West Virginia in November, just after the election, I met a former steelworker, who preferred to remain anonymous. He told me how angry he was about the closing of steel mills and the deindustrialization of his hometown. He told me he had voted for Donald Trump because “the Democrats don’t care about the working people anymore. Now they are a bunch of socialists.”
The local United Steelworkers chapter apparently agreed. Local 2911 parted ways with the national leaders of the union and endorsed Trump.
An entire issue of Foreign Affairs, the publication of the Council on Foreign Relations, was dedicated to “The Power of Populism.” The cover was donned with Grant Wood’s famous “American Gothic” painting, showing a rural American couple, the husband clutching a pitchfork. The text of the publication describes a global confrontation between “populism” and the “open international system.” Extensive analysis of 1930s fascism is included, and an article on Latin America describes Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and Bolivian President Evo Morales as “populists” and equates them with each other.
It is subtly sifting into the American consciousness that talk of the “working class” and “the common people” is inherently right wing. While talk of racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression or intolerance is associated with the political left, concerns about those who suffer on a class basis are now being labelled “right wing.” Left-wing voices describe Trump supporters as “ignorant” and inform us that “educated” people are anti-racist. Meanwhile, observers say Trump is transforming Republicans into a “party of the working class.”
The concept of the political left can trace its roots back to the French Revolution. The seating in the National Assembly was politically arranged, with the most radical sections sitting on the left side. “Leftism” emerged as a continent-wide current with the “spring of nations” in 1848.
Communism and socialism emerged as the most powerful ideological currents in a movement that encouraged the “working class” or the “proletariat” to rise up and overthrowing the “bourgeoisie,” the owners of the banks and factories. Can any political ideology be more populist than this?
The political left saw racism, sexism, and national chauvinism as methods used by the rich to divide the working people and prevent them from rising up. While slogans like “workers of the world, unite!” were employed, the first communist seizure of power in 1871 was done under very nationalistic auspices. The workers of Paris saw the French state surrendering to foreign invaders. The Paris Commune was created as working class people waved the red, white, and blue flag and sought to defend the gains and ideals of the French Revolution from the Prussians.
The leftist origins of the Republican Party
The Republican Party certainly has populist roots, but this populism had a left-wing character. The very name “Republican” was taken from the various uprisings throughout Europe in the 1800s, in which “Republicanism” was the battle cry. The Republican Party emerged as the party of smaller farmers who opposed slavery, known as the “Free Soilers.” It was also the party of religious abolitionists and labor unions. The slogan was, “Free Land, Free Labor, Free Men!”
In the 1860s, New York City’s Republican Party-aligned newspaper was the New York Tribune, whose London correspondent was none other than the influential socialist thought-leader Karl Marx. August Willich and Joseph Wedemeyer, key leaders of the Union Army during the Civil War, served openly as members of Marx’s International Workingmen’s Association. In the 1864 presidential election, the global Marxist movement put its support behind Abraham Lincoln.
Following the Civil War, the “Radical Republicans” were considered the far left of American politics. They advocated racial equality and supported reconstruction. Republican President Ulysses S. Grant sent federal troops to fight the Ku Klux Klan, and even worked to restrict the atrocities against Native Americans in the western territories.
As the Republican Party moved away from the radical politics of its origins, what is commonly called the Populist movement emerged with the “People’s Party” being formed during the 1890s. These were small-scale farmers, labor activists, feminists, and others who wanted to advance the fight for social equality. The Populists called for the nationalization of railroads, public control of banking, and other left-wing economic measures. Many populists condemned racism and lynching, while others openly embraced it.
The Populist upsurge included Henry George, known as a radical social reformer when he ran for mayor of New York in 1886. The Socialist Labor Party, led by Daniel De Leon, and eventually, the much larger Socialist Party of America, emerged from political upsurge. The Anti-Imperialist League of 1898 was a mass, populist anti-war organization that opposed the U.S. war with Spain.
The myth of right-wing populism
Until the 1930s, populism was something shunned by those on the far right.
The father of the European far right was Oswald Spengler. His text, “The Decline of the West,” was considered the ideological basis of Nazism, Italian fascism, and other mass right-wing movements in 20th century Europe. Spengler’s writings describe the need for a tightly organized society in which everyone is assigned a place, authority is sacred, and traditions are unquestioned.
He saw mass popular movements as a sign of societal decay. Julius Evola, the widely influential Italian right-wing ideologue, held similar sentiments. As Marxism and class struggle arose in Europe, those on the far right studied ancient civilizations in India, Tibet, and elsewhere, hoping to discover a “traditionalist” anecdote to rising social chaos.
Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, and other fascist leaders adopted a populist language in the 1930s, seeing it as a way to compete with the mass socialist and communist movements. At this point, one-fifth of the planet was living under a Marxist-Leninist government in the Soviet Union.
Breaking with the anti-populism and elitism of the right wing, fascists portrayed the political left as a plot by Russia to take over the world. Economic theories like national socialism and corporatism were seen as a way to correct the problems of capitalism, but not surrender to “menace of Bolshevism.” “Hitler’s Banker,” John Weitz’s 1997 biography of the Nazi economist and banker Hjalmar Schacht, describes how even as Hitler was emerging in the 1920s, the European right wing was uncomfortable with the populism of the Nazi Party. Weitz quotes German President Paul Hindenburg as commenting “there is too much red on the flag” when seeing the Nazi Party colors.
As the fascists took power, it became pretty clear that the national socialism theory was largely a fiction. In the famous “Night of the Long Knives” Hitler purged the Nazi Party of the more socialistic elements. Figures like Ernst Rohm and Gregor Strasser, who seemed to emphasize the populist rhetoric, were executed.
The economic changes brought about by Hitler’s “revolution” involved a lot of military spending, the construction of the autobahn highways, a refusal to pay back foreign debts, and not much else. The industries were not nationalized, though private corporations like Volkswagen certainly benefited from the free labor of prisoners held in concentration camps.
The mass, militant German labor movement was crushed, and workers were forced to join government-controlled unions that were forbidden to strike. The bulk of Germany’s wealthy capitalist class — families such as the Krupps, Thyssens, and Schachts — never had their property confiscated. Private bankers continued to enrich themselves. There was really nothing “socialist” about national socialism, aside from some of the pre-1933 rhetoric.
In the United States, the largest mass fascist organization, the Ku Klux Klan, never really raised economic populist demands. Its base was rural whites, and it preached rabid racism, anti-communism, and anti-unionism, and it upheld the sacredness of private property amid its xenophobia.
Among urban anti-communist Catholics in the 1930s, the Silver Legion of America, the Black Legion, the German American Bund, and a variety of bizarre attempts to create a fascist party were carried out. None of these groups were able to gain much traction. Occult novelist William Dudley Pelley’s American fascist organization, the Silver Legion of America, focused on anti-Semitism and glorified Mussolini’s Italy. Fr. Charles Coughlin’s radio broadcasts contained rants about the immorality of capitalism, but always insisted that the answer was a revival of Christianity, not economic reforms.
“Dreamer of the Day,” Kevin Coogan’s 1999 biography of the fascist ideologue Francis Parker Yockey, emphasizes how uncomfortable many on the far right were with any form of populism. From Oswald Spengler to Julius Evola, the right wing loved authority, order, tradition, obedience, and stability. Class struggle, even waged in the name of nationalism and Christianity, created extreme discomfort among those on the far right.
The major populist voices during the 1930s were not right-wing fascists or nationalists, but socialists and Communists. William Z. Foster campaigned for president in 1932 on a platform of building a “Soviet America” in which everyone was guaranteed a job, housing, and education. The Communist Party grew to be a major player in American politics during this period. Foster’s campaign won over 103,000 votes in the 1932 election, despite being banned from the ballot in many Southern states for advocating racial equality.
Foster was arrested scores of times throughout the campaign, and was even describes being tortured for hours by the Los Angeles Police Department in his memoir, “Pages from a Worker’s Life.” After the campaign he fled to the Soviet Union to recover from extreme physical stress of being arrested nearly 100 times within the span of just a few months.
During this tumultuous decade many well-known figures like Charlie Chaplin, Lillian Hellman, John Steinbeck, Richard Wright, and Paul Robeson joined or worked closely with the massive, left-wing, populist organization known as the Communist Party USA. Starting in 1935, Communists began to emphasize American patriotism, downplaying the idea that they were agents of Moscow, saying “Communism is 20th Century Americanism” and arguing that Presidents Lincoln, Jefferson and Washington might be members of the Communist Party of the time.
The emergence of left-wing anti-populism
After World War II, “populism” became kind of a derogatory term in American discourse. Films like “All The King’s Men” showed appeals to the common man against the elites as a dangerous demagogic ploy. Books like “Anthem” by Ayn Rand and “1984” by George Orwell glorified the individual, and portrayed communism and fascism as being cut from the same cloth — totalitarian “mass movements” that suppressed individual liberty and freedom.
Alabama Gov. George Wallace, the racist, right-wing, four-time presidential candidate who appealed to Southern whites as working class people and opposed the anti-war and civil rights movements, was deemed a “populist” and denounced by both the leaders of both the Republican and Democratic parties.
In the 1970s, the Republican Party adopted some of Wallace’s rhetorical style, including his appeal to “common people” against the “cultural elites” who preached anti-racism and social justice. Much has been written about the “Southern Strategy” employed by Republicans, firing up white working class people into a “backlash” against civil rights, and how it contained populistic overtones.
While the right wing toyed with populism during the Cold War, the political left moved away from the messaging style that had defined the Communist Party of the 1930s and the Roosevelt administration. Herbert Marcuse, the well-known Marxist academic of the Frankfurt School, argued that intellectuals, not the working class, were the makers of history.
In May of 1970, New York City witnessed the Hard Hat Riots, in which construction workers attacked anti-war protesters, decrying the left as being middle class and unpatriotic. In this atmosphere, the Weathermen faction of Students for a Democratic Society and other New Left Marxists argued that white Americans were inherently right wing and complicit in the crimes of American imperialism. They sought to organize white, middle-class, counterculture youth to align with the Black Panthers. One of the anthems in the Weatherpeople Songbook, “I’m Dreaming of a White Riot,” ends with the couplet: “May you learn to struggle and fight, or the world will off you because you’re white.”
While the Weathermen approach was less academic, work like J. Sakai’s 2014 book, “Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat,” and Zak Cope’s 2014 book, “Divided World, Divided Class,” put forward the position that white Americans are not workers at all, but exploiters of the third world with no revolutionary potential.
During the Cold War, the U.S. left seemed more to appeal to a kind of alienation among nonconformists than to actual economic suffering. While certain Marxist-Leninist groups will raise slogans like “Make the Rich Pay” and “A Job Is A Right,” to many leftists even today, “anti-capitalism” is a synonym for “anti-consumerism.” Radicals and revolutionaries are those who have figuratively “taken the red pill” in the 2000 film “The Matrix.” The solution to problems of capitalism is socially conscious shopping and ecology, not organizing the working class against the rich and fighting to seize control the means of production.
The CIA brags on its website about its program known as the “Congress for Cultural Freedom,” founded in June of 1950 and dissolved in 1979. The program involved the covert funding of left-wing political activism, music, and art all aimed at redirecting dissidents away from Marxism-Leninism and pro-Soviet politics. The CIA decided it would recruit “a cadre of energetic and well-connected staffers willing to experiment with unorthodox ideas and controversial individuals if that was what it took to challenge the Communists at their own game.”
What’s next for American populism?
Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign was a rare moment in recent U.S. history. Sanders, who openly called himself a “socialist,” was a serious contender for the presidency. He spoke against the “billionaire class” and called for a “political revolution” by the common people, not against gay marriage or flag burning, but against government policies favoring the ultra-rich.
Oddly, articles in U.S. media compared Sanders to Eugene Debs. While both had a left-wing populist appeal, Debs called for an entirely new economic system in which the economy was centrally planned. Sanders called merely for free college and universal health care, paid for with corporate and capital gains taxes.
With Sanders out of the race, and longtime establishment figure Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee, many white working class Sanders supporters voted for Trump, especially in Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. To many disaffected white workers, populism was all that mattered, whether it had a leftist or right-wing appeal. They were against “the rich” and “the elites.” They supported whomever appeared to be most opposed to them.
But will Trump secure populism’s place as part of the political right wing? Is left-wing populism dead? Was Sanders’ campaign a meaningless outlier?
A lot of this depends on what Trump is able to achieve, not in terms of deportations and police repression, but in terms of reviving the economy. If Trump is able to vastly improve the standard of living among the white working class, especially in the Rust Belt, right-wing nationalist populism will most likely become a longstanding, powerful staple of American politics.
The political left practically invented populism, but since the dawn of the Cold War, socialism, communism, and anti-capitalism have been considered to be largely middle class bohemian trends. However, the changing face of American politics could reverse this. Figures who speak like William Z. Foster, Eugene Debs, or Daniel DeLeon, and rally workers of all different races fight for their livelihoods and to oppose wars, racism, and empire could re-emerge.
The future character of populism in America is quite unclear, but the next four years are likely to be quite definitive for it.