Donald Trump, a Frightening Window Into the American Present
By Jelani Cobb March 15, 2016 newyorker.com
The old adage holds that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, but the candidacy of Donald Trump suggests an alternate possibility—that sometimes we repeat history precisely because we understood it the first time. Trump’s ascent to the top of the Republican field was initially amusing, then confounding, and has now reached its full flourish as a frightening window into the American present. Trump has not simply emerged suddenly as a representative of populist white anger—the G.O.P. has been tilling those fields for decades—he has stripped the old structure down to the studs and, in its place, offered a garish new architecture, a populism unrestrained by convention or code words. It is honest, or at least frank, in its intent. As Jill Lepore pointed out in The New Yorker, the lines between the crowds drawn to Bernie Sanders and those drawn to Donald Trump tend to blur, each defining themselves against establishment candidates whose positions were cemented by their familial ties to Presidencies past. Those lines became a bit more distinct last week after a multiracial group of protesters disrupted a scheduled Trump rally in Chicago. Believing the unrest was the work of the Sanders’s campaign, Trump tweeted, “Bernie is lying when he says disruptors aren’t told to go to my events. Be careful Bernie, or my supporters will go to yours!” But, in a real sense, we are seeing in the Trump and Sanders phenomena not only the expression of frustrations in which the electorate has been steeped during the Obama years but also the clearest statement of the problems of populism since its inception.
The default presumption about populism holds that its appeal peaks in times of economic crisis, and this is partly true, as suggested by the populist upsurge of the 1890's, when disgruntled farmers transformed their anger at banks seizing their land into the populist People’s Party, and the insurgent campaign of Ross Perot, a century later. But, 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. The populism of the eighteen-nineties flirted with racial liberalism, organizing impoverished black farmers as well as white ones before being consumed by such Negrophobic zeal that Tom Watson, its chief proponent, was implicated in the mass lynching of African-Americans during the 1906 Atlanta race riot. Bigotry has generally been part of the lingua franca of American populism, if in varying degrees, since that point.
Sixty-eight years ago, the public watched a dynamic similar to the Trump-Sanders moment play out as Harry Truman sought the Presidency, an office he had held since Franklin Roosevelt’s death, in 1945. Truman was pitted against the Republican Thomas Dewey but faced additional challenges from Henry Wallace, whom he had replaced as F.D.R.’s Vice-President, in 1941, and Strom Thurmond, the populist segregationist and South Carolina governor. Both Wallace and Thurmond purported to speak for the common man whose interests had been compromised by the Democratic Party, yet this presumption led them to strikingly different places. Wallace’s Progressive Party campaign denounced big banks, countenanced the support of socialists and communists, and, notably, advocated equal rights for African-Americans and an end to segregation. When the Democratic Party—motivated in part by Wallace’s left-flank candidacy and partly by the Great Migration, which had delivered millions of Republican-leaning African-Americans to Democratic strongholds in the North—adopted a strong civil-rights plank at its convention, Southern segregationists bolted and formed the States’ Rights (Dixiecrat) Party.
In his speech protesting the civil-rights plank, Thurmond stated, “We do not intend that our constitutional rights shall be sacrificed for the selfish and sordid purpose of gaining minority votes.” It’s worth noting that the 1948 Dixiecrat platform called for two things: segregation of the races and “social and economic justice.” This was not accidental—in the logic of Southern populism, the former was a prerequisite for the latter. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s frequent conflicts with the Southern wing of his party hinged not on the creation of a welfare state but on segregationist demands that only one race be the beneficiary of it.
Faced with the reality of its limited geographic appeal, the Dixiecrat Party sought to leverage its authority by denying both Truman and Dewey a majority in the electoral college, thereby throwing the election in the House of Representatives, where the Dixiecrats could broker a tie-breaking alliance in return for the abandonment of civil-rights enforcement. Instead, Truman won three hundred and three electoral votes, far more than the hundred and eighty-nine captured by the Republican, Thomas Dewey. Still, Wallace and Thurmond each won about a 1.2 million votes, and while Wallace did not win any single state Thurmond won Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina—all states, coincidentally, that Donald Trump has won in this year’s primaries.
Trump is not drawing upon an entirely hallucinatory anxiety—many of the concerns of his voters are real. The difference between Bernie Sanders’s version of populism and Trump’s is simply where you lay the blame for this state of affairs. Bill Clinton once said of Ross Perot that you “can’t be a billionaire populist,” and that objection would seem equally applicable to Trump, a man who made his millions building housing for the monied classes, and casinos and golf courses where they could gamble that money away and then cut deals to make more. But Clinton was relying on an outmoded idea of populism. Trump’s is not a populism of economics or even religion, as his success with Christian voters, despite his scriptural ineptitude, demonstrates. It is, rather, a populism of identity. In this regard, his wealth doesn’t contradict his ability to function as a populist symbol; it’s exactly the point. Here is a billionaire validating the fears of economically vulnerable white people. Who better than a symbol of wealth to explain how the pathway to similar attainment has been blocked, and who is responsible for it? Trump is not religious, but that has not disqualified him from being an evangelist of his own sort.
Last summer, large numbers of Sanders supporters took offense at the serial disruption of his campaign events by Black Lives Matter protesters. In retrospect, they appear to have done Sanders a favor. To the extent that his brand of populism is viable, it is dependent on the kind of cross-racial appeal to common economic despair that Henry Wallace understood nearly seventy years ago. In forcing his campaign to court African-Americans earlier and more aggressively than it otherwise would have, Black Lives Matter facilitated Sanders’s upset of Clinton in Michigan—a state where he garnered nearly a third of black votes. The civil-rights movement in which Sanders was a proud participant was itself a response to the identity populism of Southern whites.
George Wallace—no relation to Henry—another Southern populist to whom Trump draws frequent comparisons, blamed his own racial leniency for his loss in Alabama’s 1958 Democratic gubernatorial primary and reportedly told an aide that he would “never be outniggered again.”
He was elected four years later, on a platform of segregation. This is not the United States of 1948 or 1958. The country is both larger and more diverse. It has been transformed by successive movements for a more inclusive society, even if, a black Presidency notwithstanding, political power remains overwhelmingly in the hands of whites. This diversity is commonly heralded as a sign of progress, but it’s also the reason a New York-born one-per-center can appeal to Southern whites in such tremendous numbers. Trump’s brand of populism is cemented in the ideal that he will not be out-Muslimed, out-Latinoed, or out-baited regarding any other signpost of American change. And it’s selling. They are all Dixiecrats now.