Tag Archives: populism

Our love affair with dissent

What’s interesting about Trump is that he won, not that his strain of politics is new. It’s always been around. Let’s not go wild trying to figure out what happened: The crazy train of American history happened. The lineage that winds from Andrew Jackson to Tom Watson to Joe McCarthy to George Wallace to Pat Buchanan to Trump is not just “conservative,” nor is it just “working class” in any way an intellectually driven conservative or Marxist or liberal would recognize or celebrate. The conservative/liberal divide is a deeply tenuous construct. Looking for a populist savior, however, is bedrock Americana.

Historians need to reconcile their intellectual frameworks with a “real-world” America that is a messy stew of populist, communitarian, reactionary, progressive, racist, patriarchal, and nativist ingredients. Any historical era has its own mix of these elements, which play in different ways. We should embrace Thompson’s admonition to understand class as a continuing, sometimes volatile happening, and not be blinded by our love affair with dissent as a left-wing movement. Trump voters are dissenters, after all.

–Jefferson Cowie, How Labor Scholars Missed the Trump Revolt

A mixture misunderstood by many

Like other Socialists with a national audience, Bohn misunderstood the basic social foundation of his own movement’s appeal. In the person of Debs, in the vibrant movement in the Southwest, and in communities such as St. Mary’s, religious belief and a deep-rooted patriotism did not inhibit the growth of a strong class awareness. That awareness developed within a specific political and cultural context that provided it with a most powerful ally: through these men and women and their specific traditions a class analysis—so at odds with the dominant ideology of individualism—entered American culture and its political discourse with a power and force otherwise unimaginable. Misunderstood by many, that mixture of biblical appeal, democratic ideology, and growing class awareness was the great strength of the Debsian Socialist movement and remains today its most potent legacy.

—Nick Salvatore, Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist. Urbana, Chicago, London: U. of Illinois Press, 1982. p. 240

Reform from within or steal from without (to force reform from within)

Orman, despite the attractiveness of his personal determination, simply undermines his own cause when he writes that being an Independent doesn’t mean “belonging to a third party or sharing a particular political ideology. Independence is really a state of mind” (p. 258). Why do state governments enlist nominally private organizations like the Republican and Democratic parties to organize elections to public office? Because as mass democracy slowly emerged as the aim of the American experiment from the early 1800s on, the necessity of creating some kind of structure to bind together voters, and translate their individual preferences into majorities that could actually wield the levers of our representative system, became undeniable. Parties, which were essentially unheard of at the time the Constitution was written, became central to its effective operation by the time of John Adams’s administration, and within a generation after him they were not only central–they were essential. Under a different form of government, with a different electoral arrangement, parties (especially what Orman routinely condemns as the “two party duopoly”) would play a very different role–and if that’s what Orman really would like to achieve, then his criticisms and ideas need to move away from simply praising the brave Independent candidates out there, and instead be radically re-focused on the structures of our constitutional system as it was written and as it has evolved. Until then, a “state of mind” is exactly the wrong approach. Ultimately, those who wish to bring “independent” thinking into government need to either commit themselves to one of the major parties and work to build support and coalitions within them, with the aim of using them as a vehicle for introducing real system reforms….or, if that is not a tolerable option, they need to go about building an alternative party to challenge the duopoly, and that means discovering a set of motivating ideas (which, yes, may well mean an “ideology”) which fall outside the intellectual space where the logically, structurally inevitable two dominant parties of our country currently reside, and starting attracting voters to that party, from the ground up. That is, after all, how the Populist and Progressive parties ended up profoundly changing the direction of the dominant parties a century ago: by stealing their voters, and thus obliging them to change.

–Russell Arben Fox, Greg Orman’s Declaration of Independents

“He’s opened up a Pandora’s box that will be very hard to close.”

Foreign policy experts say months ago they could simply tell diplomats and foreign policy advisers around the world that Trump was just a fluke, but now he is representing a major party and mainstreaming ideas that used to be on the fringe.

“It allows people in Congress to hold those views with a certain level of legitimacy that they wouldn’t have been able to have,” said Lohaus.

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), the ranking member on the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, said as he has traveled abroad, foreign leaders tend to be “pretty diplomatic” at first when discussing Trump, but after a few drinks and in an informal setting, many of them are more candid about their concerns.

“Our allies are wondering what is going on in America,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), told TPM in an interview. “They wonder how a person can be nominated to be president with these kinds of statements.”

When it comes to damage already done, Trump is not only forcing allies to reconsider the U.S.’s place in the world, he’s redefining his party’s positions on foreign policy.

“He’s opened up a Pandora’s box that will be very hard to close,” Zakheim said.

–Lauren Fox, How Donald Trump Is Already Doing a World of Damage Abroad

I’ve already blogged way more about Donald Trump’s presidential campaign than I would have liked. Then again, his candidacy is the most consequential one so far in my lifetime. Not because of his pernicious, bigoted worldview per se, but because the very fact that he has come this far in the election cycle signifies the prevalence of that worldview among the American electorate. It may not be a majority (and, Lord, I hope it’s not), but there is a sizable portion of voting Americans that has propelled Trump to the position he currently occupies. When Trump says awful things, it is certainly necessary to note and denounce those things. What gets overlooked and under-emphasized is that Trump, as an individual, is not the problem. Yet.

The problem is the not-insignificant number of people that have put him within striking distance of becoming the single most powerful political actor in the world. At that point, Trump, as an individual, becomes the problem. But even that will not negate the problem that will have put the world in the precarious state of having Donald Trump in command of the United States military and our country’s domestic state apparatus. As I see it, the real problem is precisely the one highlighted in the quote above: the legitimation of dangerously radical (and radically dangerous) political positions and temperament in public discourse. People of the world, including and perhaps especially our allies, have good reason to fear Donald Trump as a potential president.

What they fear right now, though, if they are wise, is the fact that the American people have made him a serious contender for the presidency. Currently, they do not have to fear Trump’s judgment in starkly practical terms, because he is not (yet) president. They do, however, have to fear the American people’s judgment, because the American people have enabled him to come this far. Since we live in a constitutional republic that appoints our officials by popular vote, the prospect of an electorate willing to elect Donald J. Trump to the presidency is far, far more terrifying. Insofar as Trump is a symbol of the people’s judgment, the world is right to be terrified of us. Insofar as Trump is a symbol of movement conservatism’s judgment and/or the Republican machine backing him, Americans are right to be terrified of the Republican-right wing alliance.

Even if — and, I hope, when — Trump loses the election in November, Republicans won’t be able to wash the stink of their incurably bad judgment away. They’ll try. They’ll shove all the blame on Trump and his dangerously unstable temperament and his indiviudal bigotry, and they’ll vow that, next time, they’ll put forth a true conservative for president. They’ll pretend that their ranks aren’t rife with people whose judgment is informed by bigotry and a dangerously unstable temperament. They will, instead, court those people. They’ll continue to stoke their bigotry and their hatred of civic norms and institutions. And they’ll be duly shocked — shocked! — again, when Trump or someone like him rises from the trash heap, held aloft on the foul fumes nurtured in the American Right’s seething cauldron of resentment. Then again, perhaps they won’t need an individual catalyst for such noxious ideas next time around. After all, the cancer has already metastisized. As long as Republicans and conservatives get away with painting Donald J. Trump as the problem, rather than the glut of bigots and ignorant radicals amongst them, the mainstreaming of toxicity will continue apace.

Anti-establishment politiphobia

I think of these people as “politiphobes,” because they see the contentious give-and-take of politics as unnecessary and distasteful. Specifically, they believe that obvious, commonsense solutions to the country’s problems are out there for the plucking. The reason these obvious solutions are not enacted is that politicians are corrupt, or self-interested, or addicted to unnecessary partisan feuding. Not surprisingly, politiphobes think the obvious, commonsense solutions are the sorts of solutions that they themselves prefer. But the more important point is that they do not acknowledge that meaningful policy disagreement even exists. From that premise, they conclude that all the arguing and partisanship and horse-trading that go on in American politics are entirely unnecessary. Politicians could easily solve all our problems if they would only set aside their craven personal agendas.


Trump, Sanders, and Ted Cruz have in common that they are political sociopaths—meaning not that they are crazy, but that they don’t care what other politicians think about their behavior and they don’t need to care. That three of the four final presidential contenders in 2016 were political sociopaths is a sign of how far chaos syndrome has gone. The old, mediated system selected such people out. The new, disintermediated system seems to be selecting them in.


As soon became apparent, Boehner’s 2011 debacle was not a glitch but part of an emerging pattern. Two years later, the House’s conservative faction shut down the government with the connivance of Ted Cruz, the very last thing most Republicans wanted to happen. When Boehner was asked by Jay Leno why he had permitted what the speaker himself called a “very predictable disaster,” he replied, rather poignantly: “When I looked up, I saw my colleagues going this way. You learn that a leader without followers is simply a man taking a walk.”


Neurotic hatred of the political class is the country’s last universally acceptable form of bigotry. Because that problem is mental, not mechanical, it really is hard to remedy.


Populism, individualism, and a skeptical attitude toward politics are all healthy up to a point, but America has passed that point. Political professionals and parties have many shortcomings to answer for—including, primarily on the Republican side, their self-mutilating embrace of anti-establishment rhetoric—but relentlessly bashing them is no solution. You haven’t heard anyone say this, but it’s time someone did: Our most pressing political problem today is that the country abandoned the establishment, not the other way around.

–Jonathan Rauch, How American Politics Became So Ineffective