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

To the editors:

In May 1996, preparing for his re-election campaign, Bill Clinton was asked about the vision he had brought to his presidency. He responded: “I can tell you what the Evil Empire, New Deal, Fair Deal, Square Deal, New Frontier phrase will be much better when I finish with my work than I can now.”1

He never did. The vision phrase never emerged. Clinton’s second term was better known for a sex scandal and the president’s political methodology—triangulation—than it was for defining what liberalism would stand for as it crossed the “bridge to the twenty-first century” that became the motto of Clinton’s fall campaign.

In his insightful essay “Trump and the Trumpists,” Wolfgang Streeck offers us the answer that Bill Clinton could not. And it is not a pretty one. Clinton’s liberalism had merely a de facto vision. Nothing you would want to put on a banner and march beneath. Liberalism was slouching toward internationalism.

One might add that Clinton was not alone in this. Internationally, the center left has lacked an organizing principle since before the fall of the Berlin wall. At the dawn of the age of Reagan and Thatcher and the ascendency of the New Right, François Mitterand abandoned his socialist agenda when, finally, he became president of France. In the nineties, Clinton’s New Democrat thinking, and its international manifestation as the Third Way, was more an accommodation to the hegemonic clout of the New Right—triangulation!—than an opposing force.

Not that there wasn’t opposition aplenty to internationalism in the nineties. On the left, the No-Global movement culminated in the 1999 Battle of Seattle, when tens of thousands marched against a meeting of the World Trade Organization in that city. Left intellectuals’ criticism of neoliberal economics, which continues to this day, was already well underway. On the right, opposition rose to the level of presidential politics. Ross Perot’s presidential campaigns, in 1992 and 1996, are most memorable for his warning that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) would lead to a massive jobs displacement to Mexico—“a giant sucking sound going south.”2 Pat Buchanan’s pitchfork runs for the presidency in those years, as well as in 2000, acutely foreshadowed the Trump campaign of 2016.

The internationalism of the Democrats did little, in short, to distinguish the party from the Republicans at the level of political economy. Where they did distinguish themselves was on social issues. Social issues—civil rights, gay rights, women’s rights—became expressed largely as identity politics. Streeck’s analysis is trenchant in his understanding of how Trumpism itself was a new identity politics that galvanized those displaced through the monumental creative destruction internationalism has wrought, above all in rust-belt America.

Trumpism was an identity politics aimed precisely against the identity politics of the Democrats, which Trump hammered as political correctness, and which demanded, as Streeck puts it, that “empathy and benevolence become moral duties with respect to everyone, rather than one’s neighbors.” In 2016, the Democratic establishment asking this of a white working class immiserated through deindustrialization was an error of historic proportions. To be fair, the Republican establishment thought along similar lines. Their fierce resistance to the Trump campaign was predicated on their reading of the demographic changes in the American electorate and the need for an opening above all to Latino voters in order to remain viable as a national party.

One of the considerable strengths of Streeck’s essay is his translation of identity politics into the classic categories of political sociology. A working class, disorganized internally, abandoned both economically and politically, was transformed into a Weberian status group—Streeck calls this Trump’s “act of instinctive political genius.” Streeck very effectively explains that what Trump was offering them was “a restauration of their honor.” Honor is an exceptionally well-chosen word here. As a noun, it goes to the heart of what, other than material interests, motivates voters deeply resentful of abandonment. As a verb, it suggests that while political correctness calls upon them to honor the aspirations of others, Trumpism was the demand that their aspirations need to be honored by the élites who have forgotten them.

Here Streeck contributes to answering the conundrum that has bedeviled the left in America for decades: how to explain voters in the Republican base voting election cycle after election cycle against their material interests. This was the problem addressed a dozen years ago in Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas. This year, it has been explored in depth by Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, whose influence, one hopes, might reach into the policy-making apparatus of the Democratic Party.

Streeck’s equation of Trumpist identity politics with center-left identity politics misses an essential point. Trumpism is conventional identity politics stood on its head. In conventional identity politics, a constituency that experiences itself as having been locked out of the seats of power or well-being or justice in effect demands, finally, a seat at the table. In Trumpism (as earlier in the identity politics of the Tea Party3), the grievance is not about never having had a seat at the table. It is about having been dispossessed from an established seat at the table, and having to endure what they experience as Others are now being accommodated at the table. The resentment that feeds Trumpism is more acid than what has motivated conventional identity politics. Here the economic dimension is essential in understanding the heightened resentment. As Machiavelli observed: “…but above all [the Prince] must abstain from taking the property of others, for men forget more easily the death of their father than the loss of their patrimony.”4

In a footnote, Streeck eschews using populism as an explanatory category for analyzing Trump or the Trumpists. This is unfortunate. Streeck is offended by the degradation of the term from its origins as the dignified progressive populism of early-twentieth-century America to its place today as an epithet used by political establishments to dismiss movements of both the right and the left.5 Though Streeck recognizes a distinction between left and right populism, he does not see how this distinction forms an essential corollary to his parsing of Trumpism.

In its essence, populism is a profoundly felt group antipathy focused upwards—i.e., resentment—toward perceived elites. In the U.S. there has long been a clear distinction between left and right populism in terms of the object of resentment. Left populism has historically defined itself in opposition to financial elites. Right populism has defined itself in opposition to cultural elites. The Right populist base of the Republican Party, including its expression in the Tea Party, has long had as its bête noire American liberalism, which includes, among much else, the Democratic Party, Hollywood, experts, urban life and innumerable patterns of consumption: “latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading…”6

How did Trump bring off what Streeck calls his act of “instinctive political genius”—turning a class-based material dysphoria into a status-based instrumental dysphoria? He did it by conflating the Republican establishment with the Democratic establishment. In neither his primary nor general election campaigns did Trump offer any quarter to the Republican Party and its leadership. His was a critique—free trade, immigration, jobs lost, political correctness—that spanned administrations of both parties over the course of decades. In so doing, Trump created a true hybrid that may be unique in American political history: a populist movement that drew on resentment both financial and cultural, a populism that meshed models of populism from both left and right.

If internationalism is where the Republican and Democratic elites meet, it is not surprising that its opposite, nationalism, proved a potent organizing principle for the most radical aspects of Trump’s appeal. Streeck addresses the rise of nationalism in the general context of the transnational rise of right-wing parties in Western democracies. He parallels the failure of the current capitalist classes in the West to come up with a solution to the system’s dysfunctions, which culminated in the financial collapse of 2008, with the class dynamics that gave rise to Bonapartism, “government by personal rule,” in mid-nineteenth-century France. Streeck’s brief observations on the personality traits of modern Bonapartist strongmen is wonderfully suggestive: “They are often marked by extravagant dress, inflated rhetoric, and a show of sexual power.” He calls Geert Wilders of the Netherlands and Boris Johnson of England “hairstyle Trumpers.”

But a greater emphasis on the place of nationalism in the Trump movement is called for. From its beginnings, the siren song of Trumpism did not limit itself to blasting free-trade agreements, the loss of manufacturing jobs and political correctness. Rather, from the afternoon he descended his escalator in Trump Tower, Trump was after redder meat than economic dispossession. Criticizing NAFTA does not inherently require calling Mexican immigrants criminals, drug-runners, and rapists. Something about Trumpism made it feel perfectly genuine when Trump’s attacks on Mexicans were married with promises to prevent Muslims from entering the country. Muslims, of course, had nothing whatever to do with arguments about those forgotten and left behind by internationalism. It was nationalism, indeed ethnic nationalism, which knit the two together, which made them appear seamless.

And it was that nationalism that mobilized America’s racist fringe. In both its earlier incarnations and in its contemporary formulation as the alt-right, which goes unmentioned in Streeck’s analysis, the racist fringe had long been beyond the pale in U.S. electoral politics. Suddenly it found it had a voice and a role in major-party presidential politics. When Trump’s campaign was flagging in early August, the alt-right’s outstanding media entrepreneur, Stephen Bannon, was brought on as the campaign’s chief strategist.

Bannon may call his politics economic nationalism or populist nationalism, but he cannot divorce himself, or Trumpism, from the enthusiastic support of the alt-right. The operative identity across the spectrum of alt-right politics is whiteness, and its ideology is one or another version of white nationalism. It is as white people, especially white men, that the alt-right feels left behind, forgotten or the new oppressed minority. A largely internet-based movement, at its extreme the alt-right blends in with far-right notions of European identity and neo-Nazi websites.

It is an open question how much of Trump’s populist supporters, say, the Tea Party populists who migrated en masse to Trump, have bought into alt-right beliefs, merely tolerate them, or, as some insist, believe that Trump does not really mean these things. But whichever it is, it means countenancing a radical nationalism without recent precedent in American politics. The Trump campaign’s adoption of the alt-right’s term for internationalists, globalists, conjures up the conspiracy thinking and anti-Semitism of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. And Trump’s campaign promise to deport eleven million so-called illegal immigrants was nothing less than a program for the greatest ethnic cleansing yet in the post-Cold War world.

In 1998, Mark Lilla argued that two revolutions had taken place in American life over the previous decades.7 One was a revolution in American culture and the other was a revolution in America’s political economy. The cultural revolution was the sixties, when music, race and gender relations, religion, drug use, and sexual mores were all transformed. In political economy it was the Reagan revolution of the 1980s that overhauled taxation, labor unionism, economic regulation, and the welfare state.

Writing in the late Clinton years, Lilla saw these two events as a standoff. The cultural revolution was a victory for the left. The political economy revolution was a victory for the right. What he did not see, or foresee, was that the center left was accommodating itself to the Reagan revolution, to the new political economy. What this meant was that the center left, the Democratic Party, was leaving behind its historic constituency, the working class. If revolutions have winners and losers, with its internationalism, with its adaptation to Reaganism, the center left became a two-time winner. Much of the Republican Party remains hostile to large parts of the sixties revolution. This has made the traditional right a one-time winner.

But the white working class? It is a two-time loser. As Streeck tells us, their flight to Trumpism was driven by “a smoldering desire for symbolic rehabilitation.” Substantively, is there any there there? Something that might change their fortunes? Streeck gives us the obvious answer: “Trumpism is, after all, an expression of the crisis, not its solution.” He ends this skillful exegesis of Trumpism with the observation that worries many: “Nobody knows what Trumpists will do to shore up their political support if economic nationalism fails to produce the promised results.”

Lawrence Rosenthal

Wolfgang Streeck replies :

I am grateful to Professor Rosenthal for his well-considered elaborations and friendly amendments. In particular, I take to heart what he has to say about populism, its two wings, right and left, how they differ, and how they may be merged by ingenious political entrepreneurship. This is a useful clarification, conceptual and historical, that will improve our understanding of the subject. As for white ethno-nationalism and its conspiracy theories, I must admit that I lack the intuitive understanding that I believe is essential for a sociologist dealing with a strange phenomenon like this. I remember from my time in the United States how, after 1990, when the elder Bush announced his new world order, a so-called militia movement grew in states like Michigan and Kentucky that was afraid of United Nations troops being called in by the President to disarm America. It was all there already: internationalism, conspiracy, treason, the need to take up arms to defend the American Revolution. There is also a survivalist tradition in the United States, equally incomprehensible to me, which, I have recently learned, is not at all limited to ordinary gun-owners but extends well into the billionaire community of Silicon Valley and Wall Street, with their refuges in New Zealand, or in nuclear-proof former missile silos in the United States.

Lawrence Rosenthal is Chair and Lead Researcher of the Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies.

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

  1. Todd Purdam, “Facets of Clinton,” New York Times Magazine, May 19, 1996. 
  2. Giant Sucking Sound - Ross Perot 1992 Presidential Debate,” YouTube video, December 6, 2009. 
  3. See Lawrence Rosenthal, “Trump, the Tea Party, the Republicans and the Other,” in Othering and Belonging 1 (Summer 2016): 54–75. 
  4. Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, trans. W. K. Marriott (Project Gutenberg, 2006). 
  5. On the issue of whether populism is an appropriate label, see the debate in relation to the Tea Party in: Lawrence Rosenthal and Christine Trost, eds., Steep: The Precipitous Rise of the Tea Party (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2012). In particular, the chapters by Charles Postel (“The Tea Party in Historical Perspective: A Conservative Response to a Crisis of Political Economy”) and Chip Berlet (“Reframing Populist Resentments in the Tea Party Movement”). 
  6. This is taken from an extraordinary television advertisement produced in 2004 by the right-wing Club for Growth attacking the presidential candidacy of Howard Dean. See: “Famous Club for Growth PAC TV Ad About Howard Dean,” YouTube video, August 27, 2006. 
  7. Mark Lilla, “A Tale of Two Reactions,” The New York Review of Books, May 14, 1998.