In response to: “Trump and the Trumpists” (Vol. 3, No. 1).

To the editors:

I’m grateful for Wolfgang Streeck’s piece “Trump and the Trumpists.” I learned a lot from reading it, and I am forever indebted to Streeck for the phrase “hairstyle Trumpers,” which perfectly captures the specific follicular foolishness of Donald Trump, Geert Wilders, and Boris Johnson.

Streeck’s piece is filled with interesting things to chew on, but I would like to respond to one in particular: the idea that Trumpism is best understood as a working-class revolt.

As Streeck notes, the rise of the far right is an international phenomenon. It is happening not just in the United States, but in Western and Eastern Europe, Turkey, India, the Philippines—the list goes on. This is what the political scientist Mark Blyth calls “Global Trumpism,”1 and its many causes are outlined by Streeck: the implosion of the world financial system in 2008, the collapse of center-left parties, the breakdown of “normal” politics, skyrocketing inequality, lackluster growth, and, above all, the social pain inflicted by elite-led globalization.

If Trumpism is global, however, its precise composition varies significantly from one country to another. Trumpisms may draw their strength from the same global array of forces, but they find their specific form at the national level, where politics takes place. This creates certain difficulties in talking about Trumpism as a whole, or generalizing across national contexts to try to develop a common anatomy of the phenomenon.

Particularly tricky for theorists of Trumpism is the role of the working class. There is no question that the Western working class has suffered acutely over the past few decades. As the economist Branko Milanovic explains in his book Global Inequality, the biggest gains in real per capita income since the late 1980s have gone to the global one percent and the new Asian middle classes in China, India, and elsewhere, while working-class Americans, Europeans, and Japanese have been the biggest losers.2

Streeck describes Trumpism in the West as “the belated political eruption” of this class—a movement of “deeply resentful” dispossessed workers, “gathered in declining regions and cut off from glimmering global cities,” wounded by “moral and economic isolation.” But this is an incomplete picture of Trumpism’s origins. The working class is undoubtedly an important source of support for the ascendant far right in Western countries. It is not the only one, however. The other essential base of Trumpism in those countries is the petty bourgeoisie. These are the small-business owners who, while much better off than the working class, must now worry about maintaining their class position in an era of downward mobility. They feel squeezed between big business and big government, they fear the economic effects of immigration and free trade, and they resent their newfound proximity to poverty.

Trumpism in the West is not an exclusively working-class formation. Rather, it draws its strength from a coalition composed of both working-class and petty-bourgeois elements. Think of the Brexit vote, which saw Leave win with the support not merely of blue-collar residents from the deindustrialized North, but of suburban Middle Englanders from the more affluent South. Or Marine Le Pen’s National Front, which sources its votes from both Northern workers in the country’s former industrial heartland and the Southern lower-middle-class.

If Trumpism constitutes itself politically through an alliance of these two groups, however, the internal balance between them varies by country. The class proportions of Trumpism are not static; some Trumpisms rely more heavily on the working class, others on the petty bourgeoisie. This produces another problem when it comes to talking about Trumpism in transnational terms: while the working class in the West has everywhere suffered, it is not everywhere Trumpist. Just because the working class is losing does not mean it is embracing the far right.

A good example is the United States, where, despite the media narrative, Donald Trump did not rise to power on a wave of working-class support. During the primaries, the statistician Nate Silver put the median household income of the Trump voter at US$72,000.3 That’s US$16,000 higher than the national average and US$11,000 more than the average income of a Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders voter. It is certainly not working class. A study by Gallup’s Jonathan Rothwell and Pablo Diego-Rosell provides a more detailed portrait. Trump voters are more likely to be self-employed, less educated, and work in blue-collar professions while earning “relatively high household incomes.” They also tend to live in “racially isolated communities with worse health outcomes, lower social mobility, less social capital, greater reliance on social security income and less reliance on capital income.”4

In other words, Trump’s biggest fans are the better-off people in the worse-off places. Your average American Trumpist is not the opioid-addicted former factory worker on disability, but the owner of a small drywall business who lives in the same county. And while this petty-bourgeois camp is reliably Republican, they showed a special fondness for Trump, enabling his unlikely victory during the primaries against a crowded field of establishment favorites. As the sociologist Michael McCarthy has argued, “Trump represents the revenge of Joe the Plumber”—an insurgency powered by the small business class.5

Yet while Trump’s base is petty bourgeois, working-class voters did play an important role in putting him in the White House. His razor-thin margins of victory in three critical states—Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania—came from white working-class voters. These low-income residents of the Rust Belt gave Trump the extra push he needed in states that were very valuable electorally. But just barely. He won those states by fewer than one hundred thousand votes—and if he had not won those states, he would not have won the presidency.6

So when Streeck writes that “Trump won the United States presidential election with the support of a disorganized declining class, the industrial workers of middle America,” he is right. But when he characterizes American Trumpism in general as a working-class revolt, he overstates the case. Trump would not be president if he had not won some white working-class support in certain states—but this does not mean the working class is Trump’s base. Rather, American Trumpism remains a firmly petty bourgeois affair.

The reality is that most working-class Americans are not Trumpist, for the simple reason that most working-class Americans—of all races—do not vote. It is the withdrawal of the working class from politics, rather than its right-wing radicalization, that has created the conditions for the rise of the far right in the United States. After all, the most popular choice in the 2016 election was neither Trump nor Clinton. It was not voting. While around 66 million voted for Clinton and 63 million voted for Trump, some 90 million Americans decided to stay home.7 Mobilizing this silent majority to build a new working-class politics is our only hope for dismantling Trumpism, and the long, disastrous experiment in neoliberalism that nourishes it.

Ben Tarnoff

Wolfgang Streeck replies:

Ben Tarnoff’s comment adds importantly to my analysis. It rightly points to the close affinity between working-class Trumpism and what used to be called Poujadism in France: the radicalism of small shopkeepers who feel threatened by social descent. How the interests of workers and small businessmen could coincide and merge on the right side of the political spectrum is an exciting subject, nowhere better to be studied than in France with the rise of the Front National (the elder Le Pen having been a member of parliament for the Poujadiste movement). What comes into view here, I believe, and Tarnoff notes this, is the phenomenon of declining regions. More generally, region may have replaced, or complemented, class, as a focus of political identification and interest formation among the losers in the changing political economy. In the background may lie the declining capacity, certainly in Europe, of national governments to moderate the regional disparities that are evolving in the course of contemporary structural-economic change. This may also be behind the high combined AfD/Die Linke vote in the former East Germany, where honor, incidentally, is as present as a political issue as it is, I believe, in the de-industrialized regions of the American Midwest. If you conceive of the Eurozone as an integrated economy, there is a growing economic gap between its growth pole in the northwest of Europe and the declining countries of the Mediterranean. One could here as well speak of a regional-policy problem, caused, even more than in today’s nation states, by a lack of redistributive capacity on the part of the central government, in this case the E.U. technocracy and the European Central Bank.

I also concur with Tarnoff’s highly apposite reference to the low participation among working-class voters in the 2016 election. Before the center parties in European countries could call upon Trump as a scarecrow, the surge of right-wing populism in Europe ended and reversed a long-term decline in voter turnout that began in the 1980s and was disproportionately high at the lower end of the income distribution. In Europe, as in the United States, center-left parties were, and continue to be, unable to end the defection of low-income voters from center-left electoral politics. As I pointed out in my essay, Trump could win without increasing voter participation. This points to the depth of political apathy in the United States, in particular among those who need political representation most, as well as to the disaster of the Clinton-Left with its cultural obsession with big money, entertaining celebrities, and Silicon Valley.

Ben Tarnoff is a columnist for ​The Guardian ​and a founding editor of Logic.

Wolfgang Streeck is Director Emeritus and Professor at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies in Cologne.

  1. Mark Blyth, “Global Trumpism: Why Trump’s Victory Was 30 Years in the Making and Why It Won’t Stop Here,” Foreign Affairs, November 15, 2016. 
  2. Branko Milanovic, Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), 11. 
  3. Nate Silver, “The Mythology Of Trump’s ‘Working Class’ Support,” FiveThirtyEight, May 3, 2016. 
  4. Jonathan Rothwell and Pablo Diego-Rosell, “Explaining Nationalist Political Views: The Case of Donald Trump”, November 2, 2016. 
  5. Michael McCarthy, “The Revenge of Joe the Plumber,” Jacobin, October 26, 2016. 
  6. See, for example, Eric Sasson, “Blame Trump’s Victory on College-Educated Whites, Not the Working Class,” The New Republic, November 15, 2016 and Philip Bump, “Donald Trump will be president thanks to 80,000 people in three states,” The Washington Post, December 1, 2016. 
  7. See America Goes To The Polls 2016: A Report on Voter Turnout in the 2016 Election, prepared by the group Nonprofit Vote.