The easy critique of Donald Trump’s campaign – easy, because it only requires a casual vilification of the working class – places blame squarely at the feet of poor white voters. In the words of Max Weber and Joseph Schumpeter, they are too “inarticulate”, “unintelligent”, “irresponsible”, and “infantile” to determine the course of politics. Weber and Schumpeter wrote in the context of social discontent in the 1900s and fascist fervor in the 1940s, but the same argument has long been raised against populist politics more generally. According to its logic, rational governance appears to require an elite that has partially insulated itself against the whims of public opinion, and has channeled demands for accountability and legitimacy into regular elections and irregular press conferences.
Yet the coalition behind Trump’s populism resists easy mischaracterization as ignorant or niche. Trump has polled very well among voters with less than a college degree—who account for around 72 percent of the US population, according to a recent longitudinal study by the US Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics—but he has also consistently done better than his Republican opponents among college-educated voters across the United States. But many of his supporters tend to be older whites who were born into a world of assumed inter-generational mobility and have, over the course of three decades, been confronted with a persistent stagnation of real incomes, declining household wealth, and rising personal debt. US social mobility, measured as the probability of ascending into a higher quintile of the income distribution during one’s life, is lower today than it has been for most of the 20th century.
So far, these voters have flocked to the primary polls in record numbers. But studies of social movements suggest that economic grievances and stunted social aspirations alone are insufficient to explain political engagement on a mass scale. The caravans of the dispossessed that carved furrows into westward roads during the Dust Bowl years, or the ephemerality of social relations that scholars have chronicled among America’s contemporary poor give credence to this assertion: A common response to the hardships of life and society is coping, not collective action.
Historically, the success of populist coalitions has had more to do with mobilization and political opportunities than with the disenchantment and disadvantage of their constituents. They gather steam when individual grievances are revealed as shared frustrations, when resources are efficiently mobilized, when the dispersed energies of the street are cajoled and channeled into collective action (sometimes under the aegis of powerful elites and charismatic leaders), and when the combination of plentiful bodies and powerful rhetoric widens the crevasses that exist within the political system.
But to speak about “the people” or for “the people” presupposes a definition of “the people”. Long before Benedict Anderson supplied an analytical language to study the making of communal identity and imagined homogeneity, the “Omaha Platform” of the surging People’s Party could thus declare in the 1890s that “we condemn the fallacy of protecting American labor under the present system, which opens our ports to the pauper and criminal classes of the world and crowds out our wage-earners”, and also demand the prohibition of land ownership by financiers and immigrants. The populist movement’s progressivism was not only critical of East Coast financiers and corporations but also sought to reaffirm the racial boundaries of the “imagined community” of America. Likewise in the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan – then a mass organization with an estimated four million members, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center – made it clear who was excluded from the category of “the people” when it distributed election flyers that read:
When cotton grows on the fig tree
And alfalfa hangs on the rose
When the aliens run the United States
And the Jews grow a straight nose
When the Pope is praised by every one
In the land of Uncle Sam
And a Greek is elected President
THEN–the Ku Klux won’t be worth a damn.
Populism includes, but it excludes as well. Indeed, the racialization of political discourses is perhaps the most distinguishing feature of American populism. For much of this country’s history, populist consciousness-raising implied the reaffirmation of boundaries between and hierarchies among whites and non-whites; mobilization meant recruitment along racial lines; and collective action suggested agitation in defense of segregated lunch counters. Arguably, the civil rights movement was unique not only in its political efficacy but in its insistence on racial integration rather than racial division.
Historically, the racialization of discourses has also been the most potent and prominent strategy for channeling the grievances of the working class – and, increasingly, the status anxieties of a stagnating and shrinking middle class – away from economic or intersectional critique. As Jelani Cobb recently observed,
in America, populism is driven not solely by distress at economic malaise but also by fears inspired by racial progress—and the belief that these two things are synonymous. This is the reason the Tea Party took hold not amid the economic collapse that occurred during George W. Bush’s tenure but in the midst of Barack Obama’s Presidency, its anger siphoned into conspiracy theories about the President’s Kenyan origins rather than Wall Street cronyism.
This has relatively little to do with the alleged ignorance of the masses, and comparatively much with the framing of social issues. As Erving Goffman observed in 1974, events within the life-course and life-world of people are perceived, identified, labeled, and thus rendered intelligible through “schemata of interpretation.” The placing of blame on racialized others—on blacks or on immigrant groups that never quite passed as “white” unless they hailed from Western Europe—actively entrenches existing racialized boundaries, reassembles coalitions along racial lines, and thus forecloses alternative forms of engagement.
In his essay on bureaucracy, Max Weber famously worried that the demos was merely an “inarticulate” and “shapeless mass”. But he added: While popular grievances were perhaps rooted in the perpetuation of substantive social and economic difference despite formal legal equality, “as demanded by bourgeois interests”, the anger of the masses could be manipulated and redirected towards specific social groups. That concern still seems broadly applicable but for one modification: In the United States, the racialized discourse of populism was not birthed by charismatic appeals of any individual candidate but is rooted in several centuries of boundary-drawing and hierarchization.