Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, is being hailed as a “populist.”
But Trump is no ordinary political populist — one of those folks who rail against economic inequality. He has managed to do something no other populist has: Trump grafted the populism of popular culture (where it has been extremely popular) onto politics (where it has not).
That might just be the secret to his success.
American popular culture emerged at the time of President Andrew Jackson. The public jammed a thumb in the eye of elitist culture — and that thumb has been there ever since. Populism arose in the cultural, rather than the political, arena in part because democratic yearnings were much harder to exercise in politics, where despite all the American professions of egalitarianism, the moneyed class still held sway. Ordinary Americans took their power where they could.
The high-brow explanation for much of popular culture — from the success of trashy novels in the 1830s to the high ratings of trashy TV programs in the 2010s — is that most people aren’t very smart or sophisticated. Essentially, the public likes garbage because it doesn’t know any better.
Another less condescending explanation is that the public favors these sorts of down-market entertainments specifically because elitists disfavor them. Like the teenager who cranks up his rap music because he knows his parents disapprove.
In a way, that is one engine for all of American popular culture. The more the elitists disapproved, the more the hoi polloi embraced their reputed trash. Popular culture was always outlaw culture.
This wasn’t only a matter of style. It was substance. So much of American popular culture is about populism — about blowing up or at the very least needling elitist culture. It is always the outsider against the powers-that-be — whether it is Charlie Chaplin or Madonna or Tupac or Bill Murray or NWA or Melissa McCarthy. That is the key to its appeal.
Popular culture gives the public the vicarious charge of tearing down the people trying to lord it over them. If you need a paradigm, just think of the Marx Brothers creating chaos in A Night at the Opera.
Trump, like Groucho, is a disruptive force. Groucho took on the pompous, the elitist, the self-satisfied and the oblivious (poor Margaret Dumont). He created chaos where his social betters held sway.
American politics is something else again. Of course, there have been populists who claim to be tribunes for the wider public. Most notable, perhaps, William Jennings Bryan, the three-time Democratic presidential nominee (in 1896, 1900 and 1908). And, not incidentally, a three-time loser.
Indeed, aside from Jackson, to whom Trump is often compared, America has never had a populist president. Populists just don’t get presidential traction.
The failure of national populism is partly because the elites served as gatekeepers of the U.S. political process, something Trump has now circumvented. But it is also the result of something deeper in the American psyche.
U.S. politics have been less about class warfare than class aspiration. Republicans and Democrats alike offer the promise of fluid social mobility. People don’t envy the rich and powerful as much as hope to become rich and powerful. The American Dream is all about emulation: Anyone can make it if they work hard like all these rich people reputedly did.
Success through hard work is bipartisan, bedrock Americanism. But Republicans have been especially adept at pushing the idea of emulation. That is why populism seldom wins. Because emulation cancels it out. They are mutually exclusive models of how to succeed.
Trump, as a self-proclaimed billionaire, certainly hasn’t abandoned the politics of emulation. It is alive and well in his campaign. He even makes a point of pushing it aggressively: his buildings, his golf courses, his private plane, his super-model wife. These are the spoils of American winners.
For Trump, though, these things are certification of his credibility — not sources of his appeal. When supporters talk about why they love Trump, it’s not because he is a billionaire. They say it’s because he says what he thinks, without calculation or politesse.
Trump is essentially a bomb thrower in a country that has a deep and abiding affection for bomb throwers. As long as those bombs are tossed at elites — and as long as they are tossed in popular culture, in novels or movies or TV shows. It is that vicarious disruption most Americans hanker for, not actual destruction. We are conservative that way.
But the real reason that the politics of emulation isn’t working the way it once did (and one reason the GOP establishment failed this year) is that Americans have increasingly lost faith in the premise. Social mobility is immobile. Wages have stagnated for decades. Now, surveys show that the holy American Dream is losing its hold. The public is beginning to feel that the only way it can have a fortune is if they win Powerball.
Trump seems to have understood this. He arose not from politics but from popular culture — the richest soil of populism. He made his reputation on TV as a potentate, both by bragging on talk shows that no one could possibly outwit him or overpower him (he was the master of The Art of the Deal), and by telling opportunists that they were fired.
Trump was always the 800-pound gorilla. But, and here is the important thing, he did it with a plebeian, nihilistic touch. The very touch that so many of his critics bemoan.
There are no niceties with Trump. Populists in popular culture are like that. They don’t see themselves as appeasing. They don’t even see themselves as winning, though Trump makes a big show of that. They see themselves as destroying the establishment.
In some ways, Trump is the Michael Bay candidate. Like Bay, the movie director who specializes in mass destruction with his Transformer series, Trump clearly likes to blow things up. He has certainly blown up the Republican Party, and maybe U.S. political discourse along with it.
With his combination of strongman bluster and impolitic common-man appeal, he is an authoritarian populist, an oxymoron if ever there was one. But he may have the greater distinction of being another oxymoron: an elitist nihilist.
In the end, Trump probably won’t turn out to be another Jackson. Less a politician than a character out of a movie, he is more likely to turn out to be a brow-furrowed, nasty Groucho Marx — with the American establishment standing in for the opera.