In the fall of 2013 I conducted an unscientific poll in my neighborhood. I asked one question: “If two people were running for Congress, and the only significant difference between them was that one had never been in politics before and the other had been in politics for years, who would get your vote?” The most common answer was, “the one who had never been in politics.” In fact, that position earned some seventy-five to eighty percent of the responses, while the second-most common response was, “I would examine their positions to decide my vote; I wouldn’t pay any attention to whether or not they had been in politics before.”
I was conducting this poll to see whether or not I had a shot at getting elected to Congress. My banker urged me to run; she wanted to vote for me. My barber urged me to run; he wanted to vote for me. The police officer getting his hair cut—a man I had not met until that conversation—wanted to vote for me. One store clerk told me that he would vote for me in the next election, but then he would vote for someone else the next election. “You’ll have been corrupted by then,” he said. Only when I began looking into fundraising did I learn that the wealthy donors in the party had already committed their donations and their votes to “my good friend” (as they described him), a businessman who had been involved in politics for years, although this was the first time his name would appear on a ballot.
Because of this brief experience with populism, I was less surprised than most Americans by Donald Trump’s success in last year’s elections. American voters are increasingly disgusted by the way government goes about its business, and they blame Democrats and Republicans equally for the problems they see. The campaign of Bernie Sanders also drew strength from populism. Both the Tea Party Movement and the Occupy Movement were populist expressions of displeasure over the decisions and actions of those in power. For that matter, the Brexit movement in the United Kingdom is equally a populist expression of distrust in government and in those serving in the government. The more recent losses by the Conservative Party are part of the very same package of populism.
Populists distrust the government. They also distrust the news media, although they generally describe their distrust in terms of conservative or liberal biases in various media organizations. Populism is not new—in the twentieth century it led to the direct election of Senators (rather than United States Senators being chosen by state governments) and to laws allowing referenda created by citizens to be placed on the ballot, giving voters power to decide matters usually left to elected officials.
Populism scares the elite. “Why is populism growing?” they ask. The answer is simple: people no longer trust the elite to make decisions for everyone. People increasingly believe that the elite make decisions that serve themselves without regard to whether those decisions help or harm the rest of the people in the country.
Consider this: between the 1952 Presidential election (Eisenhower-Stevenson) and the 2008 election (Obama-McCain), twelve elections were held in which one of the two major candidates was either the incumbent President or the incumbent Vice President. In each case, the opponent was either a Governor, a Senator, or a former Vice President. If that doesn’t sound like government by the elite, I don’t know what does. Campaigners regularly presented themselves as outsiders who were going to fix the government, but somehow the government never seemed to be fixed. Symptoms of populist revolt were felt in the late twentieth century—the campaigns of Ross Perot, for example. Tax protests in the 1980s used the tea party theme well before the official Tea Party movement was organized. Americans have long considered themselves to be populists, even though they generally reelect the same leaders or replace them with extremely similar leaders.
The presidency of Donald Trump has been sponsored by populism. Democrats and members of the media are astonished by the continuing power of populism to support the President. Efforts to maintain a spirit of crisis, efforts to mock and disparage the President, and efforts to show that he is rejected by a majority of Americans all fail to shake his true support. They wanted an outsider in the White House, and they are delighted that President Trump continues to speak and to act as an outsider in Washington.
Talk of impeaching the President is terribly premature. Any attempt to impeach Donald Trump for something less than a blatant and obvious crime will fail, and such an attempt would end the political careers of those who participate in it. Insulting the President’s supporters—calling them racist, out-of-touch, and deplorable—only sharpens the divide between the elite and the populists. As they demonstrated last summer and fall, when challenged and inspired, America’s populists can be a powerful force in politics. J.