How Did Populism Take Over the 2016 Election?

As John B Judis writes in The Populist Explosion, this sort of uprising has been with us for years.

Narcissus lost his will to live after staring for so long at his reflection that his body failed. He couldn’t comprehend this absolute beauty before him; he never realized image and reality are very different things.


America’s narcissism is reaching a climax. Who we think we are and who we are in reality have become absurdly apparent.

Yet when the question of this campaign season arises—How is this happening?—the answer is that it’s been happening for centuries. Of late our national educational focus has been in math, engineering, and science, all important skills. We seem to have forgotten civics and history, however offering insight into the how above.

So we watch, if we pay attention at all, to Hungary, Spain, the Netherlands, and a number of other European countries in which populist movements have sprung up over the last two decades, slowly (and at times, quickly) wresting power from the establishment. Viktor Orbán is re-elected and we wonder where he came from to begin with.

In the case of Hungary, nationalism, of the same variety infecting the American image. Overall populism, John B. Judis tells us in The Populist Explosion, is an American invention. He points to the People’s Party in the last decade of the nineteenth century for his creation mythology.

Just as the Tea Party kicked off with Rick Santelli’s rant, in May 1891 members of the Kansas Farmers Alliance invented the term ‘populist’ to describe a mounting distrust of the Washington elite. This in itself was not new. In a quote that sounds as if pulled from a 2016 diatribe, former Minnesota congressman Ignatius Donnelly said in 1892,

The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up the colossal fortunes of a few.

That year the People’s Party presidential pick garnered 8 percent of the vote while winning five states. While this was a leftist movement, populism is not owned by a party, but rather reflects an ideology against whoever is in power.

Interestingly, leftist populist groups frame their arguments against one opposition force. For example, Bernie Sanders’ campaign was built on one platform: make the wealthy pay their fair share. His equation is simple. The majority of people in America are not reflected in the wealth this country holds. One David; one Goliath. To support this agenda, Sanders proposed universal Medicare for all, free public college tuition, more carbon taxes, reinstating Glass-Steagall, and overturning Citizens United.

By contrast, Judis writes, there is a third element in right-wing populist movements: the other. An outsider group needs to be at the root of our problems. Trump’s appeal is not only that he’s dismantling Washington power circles; he needs Muslims and Mexicans to punch down at. While this is obviously, in part, to cover his own elitist ties, it creates a common enemy to denounce.

Judis reminds us that this tactic goes back to the first right-wing populist group, championed in the thirties by Louisiana senator Huey Long. The former farmer created more than 27,000 Share the Wealth clubs during the Roosevelt administration. Interestingly, his out-group was the poor, the very citizens he claimed to be championing. The real basis of the 7.5 million people on his mailing list was another class entirely.

Long’s most active base, like that of the People’s Party and subsequent populist movements, was not among the very poor. It was among the middle class, who feared that they would be cast down by the Depression into the ranks of the very poor.

Fear is a wonderful motivator, and Americans are incredibly susceptible. Hundreds of thousands more people are injured or die thanks to texting and driving than in terrorist attacks, yet no candidate would dream of anti-distracted driving campaign. That reality does not match the image.

And yet reality always wins. As the media has focused this past year on remarks about penis size, affairs, and emails, nearly absent is climate change, a harsh reality that cares for no party.  Likewise the continually expanding bank accounts of the nation’s richest corporations and individuals continue to be an essential topic. Bodies invaded by too many toxins soon succumb; societies are the same.

Judis’s fine book arrived just before the election was decided. Both Trump and Sanders have altered their parties; both need to seriously consider this economic divide or confront further chaos in the ranks. As he writes:

If Trump’s campaign does spawn imitators, the Republicans will face a continuing conflict between its white working class and business supporters.

Populism is an American tradition that’s spread globally to counteract the perceived and real rifts created by selfish accumulations of power and profit. Our political philosophy can never be far removed from our biological inheritance, however. Selfish genes are the building blocks for self-interested people. Trying to combat that is like punching the reflection of the face you adore. If not death by waiting, then by drowning.

How did this happen? It’s who we are and always have been. As long as unfettered capitalism mingles with evolutionary biology, our social structures will be in constant jeopardy. It might be revolting, but it should not surprise. 

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Derek Beres is working on his new book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health (Carrel/Skyhorse, Spring 2017). He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

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