Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Understanding the populist appeal of Donald Trump

Sometimes you find insight in the strangest places.

A lot of people, Rod Dreher foremost among them, have been trying to figure out and/or explain the phenomenon of Donald Trump: how he got to be a serious presidential candidate, why voters cast their lot with him despite his often contradictory messages, how he continues to confound the pundits despite his non-conformity with the conventional political wisdom.

Well, it just so happens I was perusing a potential addition to the Hadley Library the other day. It's a book called Reelpolitik II: Political Ideologies in '50s and '60s Films, by Beverly Merrill Kelley. (And before you ask, there is a Reelpolitik I, which covers the same topic in films of the '30s and '40s.) Despite the somewhat daunting title, Reelpolitik II is a readable, intellectually accessible look at how various political ideologies are displayed in eight movies of the era, from the Sam Fuller-directed The Steel Helmet (1951) to John Wayne's The Green Berets (1968), with several stops along the way.

One of those stops is in a city that serves as a thinly-disguised version of Boston, setting for the 1958 classic The Last Hurrah, directed by John Ford and starring Spencer Tracy as a big-city mayor, a veteran of the old school of politics, running for reelection for the last time. One of the best things about Kelley's book is that she takes the time to explain both the political context of each ideology - in this case populism - and the ways in which it relates to the movie, both on- and off-screen.

She starts with an account of how the seeds of populism can be traced as far back as Thomas Jefferson, who in 1824 wrote Henry Lee that "Men are naturally divided into two parties: (1) those who fear and distrust the people . . . [and] (2) those who identify themselves with the people, have confidence in them, cherish and consider them as the most honest and safe." Populism perhaps reached its peak in the 1890s with the presidential campaigns of William Jennings Bryan, campaigns which took place in a time of "Rampant materialism, bottom-line morality, government corruption, and a total void in environmental responsibility" (sound familiar?), but can be seen in presidents such as Jefferson, Jackson and Lincoln. The key to populism, Kelley writes, is in understanding that "prosperity percolates up from the bottom, as opposed to trickling down from the top."

Citing the ambiguity of the populist movement, Kelley then segues into a discussion of the films of three populist directors: Frank Capra, King Vidor, and John Ford. By showing how numerous biographers have either misunderstood or misidentified the political content emanating from these directors, Kelley makes several key points about populism that go a long way to explaining how we got to where we are in our present situation. For even though Trump has often said he is not a populist, it is the most compelling way in which we can analyze his rise.

First, both liberals and conservatives identify with populism. Conservatives find themselves attracted to populism's emphasis on order and tradition, and a hierarchical power structure that "not only is the most logical way to organize the world, but [also] reflects the design of the Creator and for the past ten millennia has proven the most effective means of governing." On the other hand, liberals identify with populism's acknowledgement of the need for reform, lest the common man exist as little more than "the understructure for those residing on Easy Street." Says Kelley, "They are willing to start at the bottom, but they also want to be assured of the chance to end up at the top."

Not surprisingly, given the appeal of populism to people of various ideological bents, "Populist politicians have a devil of a time bringing together such seemingly irreconcilable extremes," and in applying this analysis to Donald Trump's campaign, one can see how extraordinary a task he has accomplished in assembling such a diverse coalition of support. Nonetheless, despite the challenges, Kelley maintains that every president dating back to FDR, whether or not his personal story is that of a populist, has had to find a way to harness aspects of the populist strain in order to win election. Even FDR and JFK, who were themselves hardly populists, understood the necessity of appealing to populist nature. In the case of Kennedy, this task was helped by the birth of television as a campaign tool, allowing him to come into the homes of each American and present himself as a "man of the people." As Kennedy himself summed up in Profiles in Courage, "the true democracy, living and growing and inspiring, puts its faith in the people." It was that appeal, to (as one pundit put it) "man's better nature," that blended idealism and populism to serve as the foundation of Kennedy's New Frontier.

Conservatives who support Trump based on his attacks against the do-nothing Republican elites are often challenged by their man's support of particular welfare programs - but we shouldn't be surprised by that. Trump indeed is not looking to dismantle the welfare state, and why should he, for he simply speaks in true populist fashion. James Michael Curley, the real-life Boston mayor who was the model for The Last Hurrah's Frank Skeffington (played by Spencer Tracy), once cautioned that a politician should "always remember, for the person who comes to you [seeking help], that favor is the most important thing in the world. If he could take care of it himself, he wouldn't be coming to see you." The unholy alliance of Big Politics and Big Business, Trump asserts, is designed to line the pockets of the rich at the expense of the little guy - no wonder, then, that Trump does not include "Big Government" as one of the evils. Make it more efficient, make it more streamlined, but you're never going to be able to get rid of it as long as you have a system that puts the squeeze on the working class.

Liberals contend a man like Trump, with his wealth and power, can hardly be a man of the people, but here again we're playing on a different field. With the advent of television, Kelley says, "Image became more important than issues, and any candidate with a stuffed-to-the-seams war chest and the right political consultant could pass himself off as just about anything he wanted on TV." Certainly we live in an era when campaigns are basically made-for-TV affairs, and with that Trump has been able to massage his image to that of someone speaking for the disenfranchised. Regardless of the reality of the situation, whether or not Trump's positions would really solve anything, hardly matters. It is the TV image that counts, and Trump (who likely serves as his own political consultant) knows what to do.

So far we've looked at how populism draws from both liberal and conservative pools of support, something which Trump has certainly done. We know that the successful politician has to tap into this populism, again something at which Trump has succeeded. Does that mean that Trump is simply a demagogue, one who feeds on unfocused anger? Not really, once we look at just what it is that populism focuses on. According to Kelly, populism expresses "free-floating resentment of power, dug-in distrust of major institutions, and an impotent sense of personal alienation." Populists "burn for simple fairness, for a Sodom-and-Gomorra-like cleansing of the country's morals and a return to the innate wisdom of, by, and for the people." Further, we'll combine this with what Kelley sees as the three key points to modern populism: antiintellectualism, antimaterialism, and antimedia. If all this sounds to you like the themes upon which Trump's campaign is based, I think you'd be right.

Trump's critics might use "antiintellectualism" as a disparaging term to describe the relative lack of intelligence of Trump supporters, but this would miss the point altogether. The resentment of power and distrust of major institutions to which Kelley refers reflects the anger people feel at the inability, if not downright incompetence, of the "elite" which run such institutions and hold powerful positions in business and government. They may be at the top of their class, the smartest men and women in the room, Trump argues, and look where it's gotten you. Do you feel that the leadership provided by these people has made your life better, given you a better chance to succeed? (At this point, the answer is usually a deafening "NO!") These people think they're better than you, Trump says, but they aren't. Trump offers himself as an outsider, one who can come in and clean up the mistakes of the experts precisely because he isn't an expert in politics, and he isn't beholden to special interests in ways that they are. Now, this may or may not be true, but for our purposes that doesn't matter - what does is the message, and why it appeals. Truman once spoke out against "big-brass fancy hats," State Department "striped pants boys," and "fuddy-duddies." Update the lingo a bit, and these could be the very words coming from Trump's mouth.

Likewise, "antimaterialism." This may seem confusing, coming as it does from a successful businessman whose life seems to cry out excess, but again think about it for a moment. In arguing for tariffs, for limits on immigration, for policies that most corporate elites argue would result in higher prices, Trump's message implicitly attacks materialism. I don't care if Japanese cars are more affordable, it doesn't matter if outsourcing those manufacturing jobs means lower prices, the argument goes. What it does is detract from the greatness of America, from the ability of American workers to produce American goods to be purchased and used by American consumers. True or false, it contains an internal logic that incorporates the populist refrain.

Of course, antimedia has to be part of a populist message, and here Trump easily strikes a chord with his (frequently accurate) attacks on the mainstream media, which he sees as advancing their own agenda to the detriment of the country (in Fox's case) or telling outright lies about what goes on (the Washington Post, for example). This is an easy attack, since so many of the media elites also belong in the intellectual classification, and so by the time populists get around to considering them, they've already got at least one strike against them. Never mind that the same media which Trump excoriates is oftentimes responsible for providing the very coverage that has helped catapult Trump to the top of the Republican party; the message resounds with a large segment of the public.

Given all this, and this is just a small examination of Kelley's premise, which is itself a small survey of populism overall, should anyone be surprised at Trump's rise? He is the larger-than-life hero of his own story, but when one looks at movies like The Fountainhead, one sees just such heroes. Pundits chuckle at the contradictions in Trump's message, but considering the contradictory sources of populism's appeal, that shouldn't be a surprise.

There's one particular paragraph in Kelley's book (and keep in mind this is simply an introduction to discussion of The Last Hurrah so the reader can understand where the movie's coming from) that best describes the world we seem to live in, one with rules made by "ivy tower dwellers and subsequently employed by industry captains to justify 'the survival of the [economic] fittest.'"

Much as in the post-Enron culture of today, corporations had lost sight of ethics and commercial citizenship. They had forgotten that, at the time of the Constitutional Convention, they had been granted charters only if they promoted the public welfare. It didn't take long for avaricious businessmen to strike mutually beneficial deals with needy/greedy individual states. Promoters no longer had to prove their ventures advanced public welfare. The only obligation assumed by these corporations was to themselves, the only responsibility was to turn money into money. The rich ended up getting richer and the promise of a better life for all remained mostly unfulfilled.

That's the world that Donald Trump talks to, and the people who feel its effects are the ones who line up to vote for him. That Trump himself might be one of the "avaricious businessmen" makes no real difference; he's the unlikely man who speaks the message that the populists want and need to hear, and as history has shown time and time again, such messages often come from the most unlikely messengers. That we fail to understand history, that we ignore the past, is the only reason we can constantly be surprised by the present.

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