Whatever Happens to Trump in November, Populism is Here to Stay

Jacob Swenson-Lengyel

Last week was a bad one for Donald Trump. While the Republican presidential nominee’s campaign feeds on media scandals, the last few days have been over the top: fights with the family of a slain Muslim American soldier and top Republican leadership, potential leaks of top-secret information, even removing babies and silent protesters holding up copies of the U.S. Constitution from his rallies.

Pair that with plummeting poll numbers and a series of high-profile defections – including that of Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins late Monday – and some liberal commentators have predicted the full-scale implosion of Trump’s campaign. Others have been speculating that Trump may drop out of the race, and some Republicans have called on him to do just that.

While one can sense the Schadenfreude across the political spectrum at Trump’s latest run of self-created catastrophes, it’s far too early to write off Trump and his prospects of winning in November. Indeed, buried amid the news of ongoing scandal last week were reports that Trump, in just two months, has almost erased his fundraising deficit against Hillary Clinton, raising tens of millions of dollars in small donations.

That’s an impressive feat for a campaign with minimal infrastructure, whose emails look like they came straight out of the era of dial-up internet. As The New York Times put it:

Trump has the potential to be the first Republican nominee whose campaign could be financed chiefly by grass-roots supporters pitching in $10 or $25 apiece, echoing the success of Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont during the Democratic primary.

While many take solace in the fact that Trump continues to be unpopular with large segments of the American public, he is also energizing millions of Americans, so much so that they are willing to hand over their own hard-earned money to support the billionaire’s bid for the highest office in the land. While he may be selling grandiose and vacuous promises, we cannot deny that he is giving voice to widespread fears and anxieties.

Whatever happens with Donald Trump this November, right-wing populism is most likely here to stay. The neoliberal consensus that has dominated the globe for nearly 40 years is collapsing. As the old dies and the new has yet to be born, two populisms are rising in its wake, struggling to define the future.

As Jonathan Matthew Smucker has so eloquently written, both right-wing and left-wing populism champion everyday people against the elite and the establishment. The crucial difference between the two is that, as Smucker puts it, right-wing populism always “punches down,” unifying one group by blaming others, be they Muslims, Mexicans, immigrants, or African Americans.

In this era of populist politics, the danger we now face is that Trump is now (like it or not) the only anti-establishment candidate left in the race. Frighteningly, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, instead of leaning into the populist tide that rose with her primary competitor Bernie Sanders, appears to be following the conventional Democratic wisdom, tacking toward the center to attract moderate Republicans. While such a move may have been the “safe bet” in the bygone ages, it looks far less safe in the era of populist swells.

Even if Clinton changes course, as well she should, she is unlikely to altogether shake either the long-standing right-wing hatred that has been fomented against her or the feeling that she is a representative, par excellence, of the Washington establishment. As such, even though a Clinton presidency would be far preferable to a Trump administration – and I assure you the words “Trump administration” sound as odd and as terrifying to me as they do to you – progressives should have no illusions that right-wing populism is going anywhere. Indeed, as my colleague Terrance Heath wrote last Thursday, we could see a new wave of right-wing activism that could dwarf even the Tea Party.

So, given our situation, what are progressives and those of us on the left to do? Undoubtedly, we must do everything in our power to defeat Trump. Certainly, we must push Hillary Clinton to the Left from day one. There can and should be no honeymoon period for the president-elect. And, of course, up and down the ballot, we should elect progressive candidates who share our values and vision, true representatives of the left-wing populism who can ride the wave to governing power.

The most important take-away in my mind, however, is that our strategy for defeating the radical right, for crushing racism, nationalism, and neoliberalism, cannot rest on gaining political power alone, because millions of people out there are frightened and anxious and seeking an alternative. Even if we win elections, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we will them over.

We must engage in the difficult work of winning hearts and minds by offering people a genuine progressive alternative, one that can lead us out of the crumbling remains of the neoliberal consensus to a new era of shared prosperity.

Some groups are already doing just that. Working America has devoted resources to talking to voters interested in Trump in places like Pennsylvania. People’s Action, MoveOn and the Center for Community Change Action and others have been working on similar efforts in states across the country.

Laughing at Trump supporters or portraying them simply as racists with an acute case of white male fragility may make us feel better, but it won’t lessen their impact on our politics. Instead, we must engage them directly and wage a battle of big ideas, redirecting their ire away from people of color and immigrants toward the neoliberal elite who deserve their wrath. Only then we will win a better future for all of us.

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