‘Trumping’ Democracy: Right-Wing Populism, Fascism, and the Case for Action

This article is part of the Winter 2016 issue of The Public Eye magazine.

The candidacy of Donald Trump has prompted a vigorous public debate over whether or not Trump is flirting with fascism. Some analysts suggest his political dance partner is leading him to the tune of right-wing populism. Other analysts say Trump’s marriage to fascism already has been consummated. Either way, Trump is stomping on the dance floor of democracy in a way that could collapse it into splinters. It’s a “scary moment for those of us who seek to defend civil rights, civil liberties, and democracy itself,” warns political analyst Noam Chomsky.1

Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C. Image via Flickr, Gage Skidmore.

Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C. Image via Gage Skidmore on Flickr.

Back in 2010 Chomsky started lecturing about the collapse of the Weimar Republic in Germany into the abyss of Hitler’s totalitarian Nazism.2 There are parallels to our current political climate than need to be examined cautiously, even though conditions in the U.S. are not nearly as bad as those faced by the Weimar Republic.

Is it really fair to suggest Trump—neofascist or not—poses a danger to civil society itself, as occurred in Germany at the end of the Weimar Republic? A review of Trump’s rhetoric makes this a legitimate question. Trump keeps gaining ground. As New York Daily News columnist Shaun King wrote in November:

For nearly six straight months, no matter how racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, or anti-Muslim Trump gets, he has maintained his lead in the polls. In fact, from all indications, it appears the more his public talk resembles that of a white supremacist, the more rabid and entrenched his support gets.3

The examples of Trump’s fascist-sounding rhetoric are numerous. In June, Trump tweeted, “I love the Mexican people, but Mexico is not our friend. They’re killing us at the border and they’re killing us on jobs and trade. FIGHT!”4 In July Trump falsely asserted, “The Mexican Government is forcing their most unwanted people into the United States. They are, in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc.”5

Trump’s sexism was displayed at the Republican debate on August 6 when he was asked by Fox News reporter Megyn Kelly about referring to women as “fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals.” Trump later attacked Kelly on CNN, saying, “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes. Blood coming out of her wherever.” The London Guardian reported that the “insinuation that Kelly was menstruating crossed a line for organisers of the Red State Gathering, a conservative event featuring GOP presidential hopefuls.” That group cancelled an appearance by Trump.6

Forging ahead, Trump claimed in September that the United States had become the “dumping ground for the rest of the world” for undocumented immigrants and proposed rounding up and deporting some 11 million of them, including their children, who are U.S. citizens.7 In a series of rambling and contradictory statements, Trump called for widespread surveillance of Muslims and refugees in the United States, and seemed to agree to the need for a federal database registering all Muslims, although he later backed off to say he was only considering it as a possibility. He confirmed that he wanted such a database for all Syrian refugees.8

As Trump’s viciousness ballooned, the corporate press shifted from portraying him as a carnival sideshow geek to recognizing that he posed a threat to civil society and even democracy itself.9

The media reported with palpable disgust when, during a press conference, Trump mocked the physical disability of New York Times seasoned political reporter Serge Kovaleski.10 Amid mounting disruptions of his campaign rallies by anti-Trump activists, Trump began to mock them, tried to silence them, and even ask that they be forcibly removed. In one incident Trump appeared to approve of the physical attack on a Black Lives Matter protestor who interrupted a November rally in Birmingham, Alabama.11

Supporters at a Donald Trump rally in Birmingham, AL, kick and punch a Black Lives Matter protester to the ground. Image via screenshot.

Supporters at a Donald Trump rally in Birmingham, AL, kick and punch a Black Lives Matter protester to the ground. Image via screenshot.

The Washington Post reported that Trump yelled, “Get him the hell out of here… Throw him out,” whereupon the protestor “fell to the ground and was surrounded by several white men who appeared to be kicking and punching him,” while CNN filmed video.12 Trump later remarked on Fox News that “Maybe [the protester] should have been roughed up, because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing.”13

This was the same rally at which Trump announced to his cheering supporters, “I want surveillance of certain mosques.”14

Trump’s appeal to White Nationalism became increasingly obvious. While Trump can’t control who supports his candidacy, the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos observed with disdain that even “the Daily Stormer, America’s most popular neo-Nazi news site, had endorsed him for President.”15

Writing about Trump’s nasty rhetoric, and the alarming welcome it has found during the Republican pre-primary media blitz, American Prospect journalist Adele Stan put it bluntly:

What Trump is doing, via the media circus of which he has appointed himself ringmaster, is making the articulation of the basest bigotry acceptable in mainstream outlets, amplifying the many oppressive tropes and stereotypes of race and gender that already exist in more than adequate abundance.16

A Weimar Moment?

The Weimar period is crucial to understand because it was that precise moment in Germany’s history when a broad united front, crossing traditional political boundaries to defend democracy, could have blocked the mass base of a right-wing populist movement threatening to morph into a fascist juggernaut.17

Professor Paul Bookbinder at the University of Massachusetts in Boston has studied the Weimar Republic as it eroded into fascism in Germany. His collection of essays at the Facing History and Ourselves website, in a section entitled “The Fragility of Democracy,” explores the moments when public interventions might have altered what happened in Europe.18

As Bookbinder told me, “right now our society is facing some of the same tensions as seen in the Weimar Republic. People didn’t take seriously the threat to democracy when they could have; and when they did see the dangers it was too late.”19 He continued:

There are certainly some similarities to the rhetoric of the Weimar Period in Trump’s speeches, but also in that of some other Republican candidates, and Trump especially seems to be playing to an audience of angry White men who have held a privileged status as a group, but now see their status being challenged by people who they see them as undeserving.

Some commentators now are referring to Trump as a fascist demagogue, and Bookbinder thinks “they have a point” since “Trump is a strange combination of a fascist demagogue and a late night talk show host comedian. But we shouldn’t laugh at him because his is dangerous. When I watch Trump, even his facial expressions have the character I associate with the fascist demagogue Adolf Hitler. Trump’s crude humor also plays to some of the prejudices of many in his audiences.”

Mass Media, Demagogues, and Scripted Violence

Perpetrators of ethnoviolence and attacks based on race, religion, or gender “often take their cues from what they hear in the media,” wrote Robert Reich in a column on his website after the deadly attack on a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs in November.20 Reich, Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, warned that “the recent inclination of some politicians to use inflammatory rhetoric is contributing to a climate” in which fear of violence is real and growing among targeted groups.

Reich, now a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, was shocked when Republican Presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina continued to allege “that Planned Parenthood is selling body parts of fetuses,” even though the claim has been proven baseless. Fiorina isn’t alone, Reich continued. Mike Huckabee calls it “sickening” that “we give these butchers money to harvest human organs,” noted Reich. And after the Colorado shootings, Trump falsely claimed “some of these people from Planned Parenthood [are] talking about it like you’re selling parts to a car.” Much of Reich’s column consists of a horrific list of physical attacks on facilities operated by Islamic groups and Planned Parenthood in recent months.21

While violence is often used by ultra-right groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and various neonazi groups in the U.S., it is less common in conservative social and political movements. But Trump’s use of alarming right-wing populist rhetoric, aimed at mobilizing his predominantly White base, is changing that status quo.

The conservative Right generally tries to avoid this obvious and threatening sort of inflammatory language. In the Washington Spectator, political journalist Rick Perlstein, who has written several books about U.S. conservatism, observed of Trump that, “Previous Republican leaders were sufficiently frightened by the daemonic anger that energized their constituencies that they avoided surrendering to it completely, even for political advantage.”22 The Nazis cultivated the idea of an apocalyptic battle between good and evil. This, coupled with claims of a Jewish financial conspiracy and a sense of national humiliation that demanded redress, helped mobilize the mass base for fascism among the electorate in Weimer Germany. And it also legitimized the violence that followed Hitler’s rhetoric. Street fighting became rampant during the collapse of the Weimar Republic, as “Brownshirts” took to the streets to attack the targets singled out in Hitler’s speeches as a “threat” to Germany.

Similarly, Trump’s use of demagoguery aimed at scapegoated targets is laced with references to conspiracy theories involving President Obama—namely that he was not born in the United States. Tea Party conspiracists claim Obama is a secret Muslim and part of an evil plot. Trump also portrays Muslims in an apocalyptic framework, implying Muslims are a threat to the survival of the United States. Journalist Deborah Caldwell suggests this has touched a chord precisely because “people find his apocalyptic rhetoric enticing and familiar—because America has end-times obsession deeply embedded in its national psyche.” Conspiracism and apocalypticism are among the core components of right-wing populism, along with demonization, scapegoating, and “producerism,” which is the division of the population into “productive” members of society struggling against the “parasites” above and below who are subversive, sinful, or lazy.23

In their study of how media manipulation for political ends can help incite genocide, Mark Frohardt and Jonathan Temin looked at “content intended to instill fear in a population,” or “intended to create a sense among the population that conflict is inevitable.”24 They point out that “media content helps shape an individual’s view of the world and helps form the lens through which all issues are viewed.” According to the authors:

  • In Rwanda prior to the genocide a private radio station tried to instill fear of an imminent attack on Hutus by a Tutsi militia.
  • In the months before [conflicts] in Serbia, state television attempted to create the impression that a World War II–style ethnic cleansing initiative against Serbs was in the works.
  • Throughout the 1990s Georgian media outlets sought to portray ethnic minorities as threats to Georgia’s hard-won independence.

Frohardt and Temin found that demagogues facilitated the likelihood of violence against specific demonized and scapegoated target groups by creating a widespread fear in the general population that serious—perhaps lethal–attacks on them were “imminent;” even though “there was only flimsy evidence provided to support” these false claims. They continued:

When such reporting creates widespread fear, people are more amenable to the notion of taking preemptive action, which is how the actions later taken were characterized. Media were used to make people believe that “we must strike first in order to save ourselves.” By creating fear the foundation for taking violent action through “self-defense” is laid.

Thus demagogic rhetoric can produce “scripted violence,” in which the demagogue can claim there is no direct link between the inciting language and the violence of “random” perpetrators.25

Using the F-word — Why Terminology Matters

There are good reasons why Trump’s statements cause our progressive antennae to wiggle. Trump’s swaggering demeanor recalls that of Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini. A number of journalists have suggested that Trump is using rhetoric similar to that used by Adolf Hitler in mobilizing Germans to support fascism. Some just call Trump an outright fascist.26 In doing so, however, some writers have fallen victim to a hoax quote on fascism wrongly attributed to Mussolini: “Fascism should more properly be called corporatism because it is the merger of state and corporate power.”27

It’s not clear where this fake quote originated, but it confuses Italian corporatist syndicalism with modern business corporations. The spelling is the only major similarity. Mussolini and his adviser, fascist philosopher Giovanni Gentile, consistently wrote that under fascist rule corporations (and all other sectors of society) must bend to the iron will of the fascist ruler.28

Despite how loosely or inaccurately the terms are sometimes used, “fascism” and “totalitarianism” have very specific meanings. A totalitarian state is a central goal of fascist movements, including neofascism and neonazism. Totalitarian states enforce total control over every aspect of a person’s life—political, economic, social, and cultural—in order to reshape the individual and unify society. Totalitarianism is like authoritarianism on methamphetamines. Public debate and opposition are not tolerated. Core democratic systems are crushed. Dissidents are rounded up and sometimes executed. Political theorist and author Hannah Arendt argued that Nazism and Stalinism were the prime examples of totalitarian movements that gained state power.29

However frightening Trump’s ascent might be to progressives, the candidate is neither a neofascist nor a totalitarian ideologue, but a right-wing populist bully. And the distinction matters for reasons that go beyond simple taxonomy. Calling Republicans fascist or totalitarian leads progressive organizers into a dead-end of crafting the wrong tactics and strategies for the moment in which we live.

Professor Roger Griffin is a world-class authority on the subject of fascism, and author of several books including The Nature of Fascism.30 Griffin defines fascism as:

… a revolutionary form of nationalism, one that sets out to be a political, social and ethical revolution, welding the “people” into a dynamic national community under new elites infused with heroic values. The core myth that inspires this project is that only a populist, trans-class movement of purifying, cathartic national rebirth (palingenesis) can stem the tide of decadence.

Another expert, Emilio Gentile, author of The Sacralization of Politics in Fascist Italy, says fascism raises politics to the level of a sacred struggle seeking totalitarian control over society. It is “a mass movement with multiclass membership” that

…believes itself invested with a mission of national regeneration, considers itself in a state of war against political adversaries and aims at conquering a monopoly of political power by using terror, [electoral] politics, and deals with leading groups, to create a new regime that destroys [electoral] democracy.31

Despite Trump’s campaign slogan—the promise to “Make America Great Again”—neither of these definitions describe his program, even though he appears to be getting close to neofascist rhetoric. Trump’s obvious early mass appeal is built around right-wing populism. Matthew N. Lyons and I defined the term in our book Right-Wing Populism in America:

Populism is a way of mobilizing “the people” into a social or political movement around some form of anti-elitism. Populist movements can occur on the right, the left, or in the center. They can be egalitarian or authoritarian, inclusive or exclusionary, forward-looking or fixated on a romanticized image of the past. They can either challenge or reinforce systems of oppression, depending on how “the people” are defined.32

Populism is confusing because it is at once an ideology, a strategic organizing frame, and a rhetorical narrative storyline that names friends and enemies. While left-wing populism often organizes people around expanding economic fairness, right-wing populism relies on prejudice and bigotry, demonization and scapegoating of an “Other,” and fears of traitorous, subversive conspiracies.

Trump uses populist rhetoric to appeal to “the people,” even as he campaigns on his status as an elitist member of the one percent. Margaret Canovan, author of Populism, a key academic book on several populist variants, calls this “politicians’ populism.”33 It’s a cynical scam, but one with a history of short-term success in political contests as the means of one set of elites unseating the faction of elites currently running the government. Italian philosopher Umberto Eco called this a “selective…qualitative populism” and warned that there “is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.” Thus we now have Trumpism: the use of right-wing populism to mask the fascistic demonization of targeted groups.

Although they can look similar, right-wing populism is distinct from fascism. As the University of Georgia’s Cas Mudde, an internationally-recognized expert on global right-wing movements, told the Washington Post in an article on Trump, “The key features of the populist radical right ideology—nativism, authoritarianism, and populism—are not unrelated to mainstream ideologies and mass attitudes. In fact, they are best seen as a radicalization of mainstream values.”34

Mudde, author of Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe, sees Trump’s ideology and rhetoric as comparable to several European movements,35 particularly Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front in France, and the Danish People’s Party. These right-wing populist movements flirt with fascist themes, but are not full-blown neofascist movements, although they share many similarities in terms of exclusionary rhetoric, organic nationalism, and nativist bigotry.36 The trickiest part is that many scholars now see right-wing populism as a building block of neofascist movements. Fascism emerges from right-wing populist mass movements when a faction of the one percent decides it is necessary to promote violence to regain control of a rapidly destabilizing nation facing a crisis. Fascism is the last resort of those in power trying to maintain control.

Fascism emerges from right-wing populist mass movements when a faction of the one percent decides it is necessary to promote violence to regain control of a rapidly destabilizing nation.

Terminological distinctions matter because some of the strategies and tactics we craft while organizing against a right-wing populist movement must be categorically different from organizing to block the rise of a totalitarian fascist state.

To challenge the current wave of vicious anti-democratic attacks in the United States we must study the forces that have unleashed them as well as determine the exact moment in history in which we struggle against them. People’s lives may depend on it.

As fascism builds toward grabbing state power, the situation quickly unravels.37 Sporadic attacks and acts of terrorism against the named scapegoats become more frequent and widespread. People need to focus on organizing around physical self-defense. This is not that moment. Things are bad, but not as bad as when Weimar collapsed into the hands of Hitler and his thugs.

During a period of right-wing populism, as we are experiencing now, the focus of organizing must be to defend the scapegoats targeted by demagogues like Trump. Millions of White people seem to be having panic attacks in the face of the changing racial demographics of our nation. Our task is to build citywide and even neighborhood coalitions to defend economic and social equality. The coalitions must be multi-issue and cross boundaries of race, gender, class, age, ability, and more.

The focus of organizing must be to defend the scapegoats targeted by demagogues like Trump.

Suzanne Pharr, author of In the Time of the Right, talks about “divisions that kill.”38 By keeping us divided, the defenders of the status quo have an easier time exploiting us. She suggests that in the current political climate, organizers must bring the discussion back to the neighborhood level. “We have to get people to talk about what duress they are experiencing and the losses their communities are experiencing. Then we need to talk about what has been stripped away from our community and family support systems.” This is how we can reach out to our neighbors and convince them to “stop blaming poor people and people of color and start looking in the direction of the forces holding us down.”

But be aware that the targeting by our right-wing adversaries is opportunistic and can shift in an instant to reproductive rights, the LGBTQ community, the environment, or “tax and spend” liberals. Back in 1994 the main target of the Right was the gay community, and right-wing strategists were using race as a wedge issue to get Black ministers to denounce the “Homosexual Agenda.”

The current crop of Republican candidates includes several active with the Christian Right and their agenda to curtail reproductive rights, force gay people back into the closet, and make women handmaids to male supremacy. Meanwhile, Carly Fiorina makes wildly inaccurate statements about Planned Parenthood and Jeb Bush is beating the militarist war drums with a frenzied ad campaign. Behind these candidates are millions of dollars of donations from wealthy “Free Market” fanatics pushing “neoliberal” policies to gut government services and cut taxes for the rich.

No matter who becomes the Republican candidate for President in 2016, the damage is already being done, and it is increasingly harming a range of scapegoated targets. This is a new political and social moment. Republicans have used bigoted rhetoric in the past, but anger has grown as buying power and status have shrunk among many Whites. This is producing a more virulent strain of White Nationalist nativism and masculinist rage.

Why Are These People So Angry?

The crowd listening to Trump’s stump speech in Massachusetts this October cheered his attacks on Mexican immigrants. The supporters my partner and I spoke with were fed up with the status quo, suspicious of President Obama, and very much liked Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.” Great for whom? Cleary not everyone. Trump supporters are angry. They resemble the folks in the film Network, who were told by a raving demagogue to open their windows and shout: “I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!”39 This is the quintessential right-wing populist primal scream. Who is kicking them down the ladder of success? Someone has to be blamed for turning their American Dream into a liberal, “politically correct” nightmare.

When Trump uses the phase “politically correct” he is using a concept re-engineered by the Right in the 1980s as a way to silence activists demanding equality for traditionally oppressed peoples and groups in the United States. This is similar to the propagandistic use of terms such as “radicalization” and “extremism” to demonize dissent on both the Left and the Right.

Image via Gage Skidmore on Flickr.

Image via Gage Skidmore on Flickr.

Trump’s rhetorical propaganda is aimed at appealing to a growing base of angry and frustrated White middle and working class people. In a script broadcast by Trump ad nauseum, he is telling them who to blame for their slipping economic, political, and social status. According to sociologist Rory McVeigh, people who join right-wing movements tend to be convinced they are losing or about to lose status, power, or privilege in one or more of three civic arenas: economic, political, or social.40

We have seen exclusionary, repressive, or right-wing populist movements in the United States before. President Andrew Jackson (1829-1837) was cheered as a champion of “the people” even as he kept Black people in chains and forced the Cherokee nation out of their ancestral homeland to make room for White pioneers.41 After the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan launched a murderous wave of violence against freed slaves and their supporters in the South. The large populist movements of the late 1890s began as an overwhelmingly progressive force, seeking economic fairness and curtailing the abuses of economic elites, but some supporters later turned their anger against Jews and Blacks. The backlash against the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s frequently used populist-sounding conspiracist rhetoric, suggesting that communists and Jews were stirring up otherwise happy Black people in order to prepare the United States for a takeover by the Soviet Union. The presidential campaigns of George Wallace and Pat Buchanan were built using clear and coded right-wing populist appeals to a White nationalist base.42

In more recent history, the rise of the Tea Party exemplified right-wing populism, as an angry constituency was mobilized back in 2009.43 The Tea Party idea originated with supporters of uber-libertarian Ron Paul, but the franchise was scooped up by conservative billionaires who funded trainings and rallies around the country. Over time Christian Right activists played a leading role in local Tea Party groups, shifting the focus to a toxic blend of nativist anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric coupled with homophobia and antiabortion propaganda.44 Now the Tea Party grassroots is heavily populated by White nationalists.45 This is Trump’s voter base.

Folks who support the Tea Party and other right-wing populist movements are responding to rhetoric that honors them as the bedrock of American society. These are primarily middle class and working class White people with a deep sense of patriotism who bought into the American dream of upward mobility.46 Now they feel betrayed. Trump and his Republican allies appeal to their emotions by naming scapegoats to blame for their sense of being displaced by “outsiders” and abandoned by their government.

Emotions matter in building social movements. The linkage of emotion and politics are at the heart of a forthcoming book by University of California, Berkeley, sociologist and author Arlie Hochschild. In it, Hochschild reports on many conversations with Tea Party members in the South, where the movement is strongest.47 Many she spoke with long doubted that Obama was American; even after the publication of his long-form birth certificate some still suspect that he is Muslim and harbors ill will toward America. Hochschild also observes that this set of beliefs was widely shared among people who otherwise seemed reasonable, friendly, and accepting. How she wondered, could we explain this?

Her premise is that all political belief

is undergirded by emotion. Given the experiences we’ve undergone, we have deep feelings. These shape our “deep story.” And this is an allegorical, collectively shared, “honor-focused,” narrative storyline about what “feels true.” We take fact out of it, judgment out of it. A “deep story” says what happened to us from the point of view of how we feel about it.

The “deep story” of the Tea Party is that the American Dream has leveled off. Ninety percent of Americans between 1980 and 2012 received no rise in salary while dividends from a rising GDP rose dramatically for the top 10 percent.

Since the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980, the one percent has enriched itself while pushing most of us into a downward spiral of exported jobs, lower wages, unsafe working conditions, and tax breaks for the wealthy. Government social services such as public health and food stamps have been slashed. Public works projects, from bridges to sewers, have been gutted. Shifting tax dollars to private charter schools has strangled public education, the keystone of democracy. This has been happening in communities of color for decades. Now it is front-page news because research shows it is devastating White working class and even middle class communities.48

Amid a rising gap between the rich and poor, the middle has been pressed out—especially blue-collar men, the bottom of the middle. Their search for other sources of “honor”—what Hochschild feels is an underlying crisis among Tea Party members—has also encountered resistance, and they have met with criticism, insult, and injury, from upper-middle class liberals who look down on them as “rednecks.”

Most Tea Party supporters feel the government is allowing them to be shoved aside, displaced, dispossessed, and disrespected by newcomers, outsiders, and immigrants who they don’t see as proper citizens (no matter their legal status).

Trump is popular among many Tea Party movement activists, although national leaders are remaining coy in terms of an endorsement.49 The Tea Party and Trump conspiracy theories feed off each other, and bolster a sense that there is a plot to disempower White people.

Trump and other Republican candidates capture their hearts and minds by telling them their anger is justified and then point them at scapegoats rather than the institutions that have failed them. A culture permeated by the legacies of White supremacy leads the White middle and working class to blame their real downward mobility on people of color and “non-White” immigrants, and in that way reproduces both structural racism and the class-based power of the one percent.

Much of this rhetoric, like Trump’s, began as a specific attack against Mexicans and Latinos, but it keeps expanding. There is a “Trump Effect increasingly sweeping through the country,” warned immigrant rights activist Pablo Alvarado, Director for the National Day Labor Organizing Network.50 For example, after the Paris attacks a number of Republican governors banned all refugees from entering their states.51 The Puente Human Rights Movement, a grassroots migrant justice organization based in Phoenix quickly responded with a statement declaring, “Scapegoating and xenophobia don’t make us safer.”52 But the attacks aren’t only coming from the Republican Right. Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein, for example, is now criticizing immigrant-sheltering sanctuary cities.53

The center of the entire political spectrum in the United States is being shifted to the Right. The political views of today’s “centrist” Democrats resemble the views of many Republicans during the Nixon administration. White voters have been maneuvered into choosing White racial privilege over their own economic security. This explains the question asked in Tom Frank’s 2014 book, What’s the Matter With Kansas?54 In 2015, the same mass base cheers Trump while he is mobilizing resentment. That tactic, which Jean Hardisty explored in her 1999 book of the same name,55 is a longtime part of right-wing politics in the U.S. But now, as demographers predict that the majority of the U.S. will be non-White by the middle of the century, the existing emotional response behind that resentment is getting stronger.

From Analysis to Action

The debate over what we should call Trump’s vicious political movement should not stop us from organizing now to protect the people being demonized and scapegoated as targets of White rage. The current wave of right-wing populism in the United States is breeding a backlash movement that will take creative and bold strategies and tactics as we organize to defend democracy and diversity in the public square.

Debate over what we should call Trump’s vicious political movement should not stop us from organizing now to protect the people being demonized and scapegoated as targets of White rage.

Trump is a political performance artist portraying the psychological Id of the American Dream. He unleashes the fearful and angry feelings of people who live in a society run as a zero sum game requiring the successful to climb up over those labeled as inferior. So as the old “Liberalism” consensus collapses from the center while the Right is on the rise, what do we do?

Our challenge is to expose the ideas and policies of Trump and his Republican cronies while competing for folks in their voting base who are legitimately concerned about their declining economic and social future. At the same time we need to put pressure on backsliding liberals who now have the space to abandon justice for unauthorized immigrants and other targets of Republican venom.

Our challenge is to expose the ideas and policies of Trump and his Republican cronies while competing for folks in their voting base who are legitimately concerned about their declining economic and social future.

Activists need to build broad and diverse local coalitions that tactically address local issues while strategically linking them to national struggles. Building broad, inclusive, and egalitarian coalitions is hard. Bernice Johnson Reagon is a progressive scholar, singer, and activist. She helped found the women of color a Capella vocal group Sweet Honey in the Rock. Reagon advises that, when doing real coalition building, “Most of the time you feel threatened to the core, and if you don’t, you’re not really doing no coalescing.”56

There are times when liberals and progressives can form alliances, but it can be frustrating. PRA’s founder, Jean Hardisty, explained this in her essay My On-Again, Off-Again Romance With Liberalism. At times when the Right is a growing threat and the Left is weak, she argued, “liberal reforms have to be defended. Now we are swimming against a tide that is thick with peril…and like it or not” progressives must “work with liberals, as well as with any other left-leaning sectors” in a “united front against the agenda of the Right.”57 Also keep in mind the right-wing backlash is a coalition that has fissures and cracks that can be wedged apart. We need to analyze and take advantage of the stress cracks in any right-wing coalition while making sure in our coalition work these strains are openly discussed and resolved honestly and equitably.

The late progressive activist Audre Lorde reminded us that there is “no hierarchy of oppressions.” Race, class, and gender issues are all complex and related, and no single form of oppression trumps another. That’s why the concept of intersectionality is so important. All systems of oppression need to be unraveled. Currently the focus is on the hierarchies of power and privilege that maintain the system of oppression on which this nation was founded: White Nationalism. That’s the primary text and subtext of the Trump campaign rhetoric. At the center of our struggle today is the idea of a “White Race”—which in scientific terms is nonsense. But in terms of the struggle we face, “Whiteness” is at the center. There is a White Race in the minds of millions of Americans. Whiteness is a social, cultural, political, and economic fact.

Right now we need to be organizing against right-wing populist scapegoating, especially racist White Nationalism and anti-immigrant xenophobia. White people need to reach across the political divide and engage White neighbors in conversations about how the nasty rhetoric is making it difficult to have serious discussions on how to fix what is broken. We all need to be engaging in struggles in our local communities, schools, workplaces—even on the supermarket checkout line.

White people need to reach across the political divide and engage White neighbors in conversations about how the nasty rhetoric is making it difficult to have serious discussions on how to fix what is broken.

Back in 2010 as the Tea Party Movement was first brewing, Chomsky raised the example of the Weimar period in Germany as a warning. At a meeting held by Z Magazine, Chomsky fielded a set of questions on how the Left should organize against the racist, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and antigay backlash arising out of the Tea Party.58

“First of all,” he said, “you need to understand it. They say to themselves ‘We work hard, we’re Christians, we’re White…and now They are taking it all away from Us.’”

Chomsky points out that, though often bigoted, these “feelings are genuine…and they have to be dealt with.” Organizing has to be “done in a way which doesn’t frighten people,” that doesn’t “elicit their worst emotions and reactions.” Hochschild’s sociological analyses and Chomsky’s political analysis reinforce each other.

According to Chomsky, we need to pay attention to the feelings of resentment which are “very understandable” from their point of view. You begin by recognizing that their anger “does have legitimate roots. People feel…seriously threatened…people’s way of life is being taken away from them.” It’s not the immigrants who should be blamed, however, but the greed of the financial sector, Chomsky says.

And when organizing, “You don’t want to brazenly flaunt in front of people your attacks on their values.” You need to help them understand that their values should lead them to tolerance instead of hate. Chomsky was asked how activists can build a successful movement. He replied to the whole room, “We all know how…by education, by organizing, by activism.”


Chip Berlet, co-author of Right-Wing Populism in America, has written scores of scholarly and popular articles on human rights, fascism, and right-wing movements. He served as a researcher at Political Research Associates for 30 years, and is creator of Trumpism.usAn expanded set of resources is being updated at Research for Progress.


Endnotes:

1 Correspondence with author.

2 Chomsky first raised the issue of Weimar at a lecture at Left Forum in New York City. Another Chomsky lecture mentioning Weimar presented at the Haven Center at the University of Wisconsin is available as a transcript, http://chomsky.info/20100408/

3 Shaun King, “King: Donald Trump shows he’ll do anything to appeal to his racist supporters,” New York Daily News, (updated) November 22, 2015. http://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/king-trump-hits-new-racist-tweet-article-1.2443413

4 Affan Chowdhry, “Trump leads in polls despite gaffes,” The Globe and Mail, July 15, 2015. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/trump-leads-in-republican-race-despite-gaffes/article25516246/.

5 Washington Post, “Fact Checker” column, July 8, 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/fact-checker/wp/2015/07/08/donald-trumps-false-comments-connecting-mexican-immigrants-and-crime/.

6 Edward Helmore and Ben Jacobs, “Donald Trump’s ‘sexist’ attack on TV debate presenter sparks outrage,” August 8, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/aug/09/megyn-kelly-donald-trump-winner-republican-debate.

7 David Leopold, “The shocking reality of Donald Trump’s plan to deport millions, MSNBC, 09/15/15. http://www.msnbc.com/msnbc/donald-trump-shocking-reality-deportation-plan

8 Lauren Carroll, “In Context: Donald Trump’s comments on a database of American Muslims, November 24th, 2015, http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2015/nov/24/donald-trumps-comments-database-american-muslims/.

9 Jason Stanley “Democracy and the Demagogue, Opinionator – A Gathering of Opinion from Around the Web, The Stone, October 12, 2015, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/10/12/democracy-and-the-demagogue/

10 The Guardian,New York Times slams ‘outrageous’ Donald Trump for mocking reporter’s disability,” November 26, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/nov/26/new-york-times-outrageous-donald-trump-mocking-reporter-disability.

11 Jenna Johnson and Mary Jordan, “Trump on rally protester: ‘Maybe he should have been roughed up’,” November 22, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-politics/wp/2015/11/22/black-activist-punched-at-donald-trump-rally-in-birmingham/.

12 David Mark and Jeremy Diamond, “Trump: ‘I want surveillance of certain mosques’” CNN: Politics, November 21, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/11/21/politics/trump-muslims-surveillance/index.html  The video of the attack is in a section titled “Scuffle breaks out at rally,”

13 http://www.cnn.com/2015/11/22/politics/donald-trump-black-lives-matter-protester-confrontation/

14 David Mark and Jeremy Diamond, “Trump: ‘I want surveillance of certain mosques’” CNN: Politics, November 21, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2015/11/21/politics/trump-muslims-surveillance/index.html  The video of the attack is in a section titled “Scuffle breaks out at rally,”

15 Evan Osnos, “The Fearful and the Frustrated: Donald Trump’s nationalist coalition takes shape—for now, The New Yorker, “The Political Scene,” August 31, 2015, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/08/31/the-fearful-and-the-frustrated.

16 Adele M. Stan. 2015, “A Nation of Sociopaths? What the Trump Phenomenon Says About America,” American Prospect, September 9, 2015. http://prospect.org/article/nation-sociopaths-what-trump-phenomenon-says-about-america.

17 Paul Bookbinder, “Choices and Consequences in Weimar Germany,” Section: The Fragility of Democracy, (Weimar Republic Readings): four essays (Brookline, MA, Facing History and Ourselves, no date), https://www.facinghistory.org/weimar-republic-fragility-democracy/readings/choices-and-consequences.

18 Ibid.

19 Interview with the author, December 9, 2015.

20 Robert Reich, “Why Hate Speech by Presidential Candidates is Despicable,” November 29, 2015 http://robertreich.org/post/134235925280.

21 Ibid.

22 Rick Perlstein, “Donald Trump and the ‘F-Word’: An unsettling symbiosis between man and mob,” Washington Spectator, September 30, 2015. http://washingtonspectator.org/donald-trump-and-the-f-word/

23 Berlet and Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America, 6-9. Terms explained in right sidebar here: http://www.rightwingpopulism.us/.

24 Mark Frohardt and Jonathan Temin, Use and Abuse of Media in Vulnerable Societies, Special Report 110, Washington, DC, United States Institute of Peace. October 2003, http://permanent.access.gpo.gov/websites/usip/www.usip.org/pubs/specialreports/sr110.pdf, (accessed 26/9/2012). Although an excellent study, the report is flawed by the failure to include a single footnote. See also Kofi A. Annan, Allan Thompson, and International Development Research Centre of Canada, The Media and the Rwanda Genocide (Ottawa: International Development Research Centre, 2007).

25 Chip Berlet. 2014. “Heroes Know Which Villains to Kill: How Coded Rhetoric Incites Scripted Violence,” in Matthew Feldman and Paul Jackson (eds), Doublespeak: Rhetoric of the Far-Right Since 1945 (Stuttgart: ibidem-Verlag, 2014). Excerpts at http://www.researchforprogress.us/topic/concept/scripted-violence/.

26 Chip Berlet, “Trump a Fascist?” Research for Progress. http://www.researchforprogress.us/topic/concept/trump-a-fascist/.

27 Chip Berlet, “Mussolini: The Fake Quote,” Research for Progress. http://www.researchforprogress.us/topic/concept/mussolini-fake-quote/

28 Benito Mussolini (with Giovanni Gentile), “The Doctrine of Fascism,” in Enciclopedia Italiana (1932); Benito Mussolini (with Giovanni Gentile), The Doctrine of Fascism (Firenze: Vallecchi Editore, 1935), this was the official English translation of the article in the Enciclopedia Italiana;  Benito Mussolini (with Giovanni Gentile), Fascism: Doctrine and Institutions (Rome: ‘Ardita’ Publishers, 1935), an expanded version of “The Doctrine of Fascism.” A discussion of the use of the fake quote is at

29 Hannah Arendt,  The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1951). See also: Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Viking Press, 1963).

30 Roger Griffin, The Nature of Fascism (London: Routledge, 1993).

31 Emilio Gentile, The Sacralization of Politics in Fascist Italy, translated by Keith Botsford (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996); See also regarding Nazi Germany as sacralized politics: David Redles, Hitler’s Millennial Reich: Apocalyptic Belief and the Search for Salvation (New York: New York Univ. Press, 2005); Klaus Vondung, The Apocalypse in Germany ( Columbia and London: Univ. of Missouri Press, 2000). An expanded bibliography is at http://tinyurl.com/toxic-mix.

32 Chip Berlet and Matthew Nemiroff Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort (New York: Guilford Press, 2000) http://www.rightwingpopulism.us/.

33 Margaret Canovan, Populism (New York: Harcourt, 1981).

34 Cas Mudde, “The Trump Phenomenon and the European Populist Radical Right,“ Washington Post, The Monkey Cage, August 26, 2015 https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2015/08/26/the-trump-phenomenon-and-the-european-populist-radical-right/ .

35 Cas Mudde. Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

36 Berlet and Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America.

37 Bookbinder, “Choices and Consequences in Weimar Germany.”

38 Suzanne Pharr, “Divisions that Kill,” in Eyes Right! Challenging the Right Wing Backlash, ed. Chip Berlet (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1995) http://www.publiceye.org/eyes/div_kill.html.

39 Network, Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky (Hollywood, CA: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer 1976), Full quote at Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0074958/quotes.

40 Rory McVeigh, David Cunningham, and Justin Farrell. “Political Polarization as a Social Movement Outcome: 1960s Klan Activism and Its Enduring Impact on Political Realignment in Southern Counties, 1960 to 2000 (American Sociological Review 79, no. 6 2014): 1144-171; Rory McVeigh, “Ku Klux Klan activism in the 1960s is linked to the South’s swing to the Republican Party, London School of Economics, the LSE US Centre’s daily blog on American Politics and Policy, December 17, 2014, http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/usappblog/2014/12/17/ku-klux-klan-activism-in-the-1960s-is-linked-to-the-souths-swing-to-the-republican-party/.

41 Berlet and Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America, pp. 40-46; Google Educational Resources, “Jacksonian Era: Populism,” online resource, https://sites.google.com/site/jacksonianera/Home/populism.

42 Berlet and Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America.

43 Chip Berlet, “Reframing Populist Resentments in the Tea Party Movement.” In Steep: The Precipitous Rise of the Tea Party. Lawrence Rosenthal and Christine Trost, eds. (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2014); Devin Burghart and Leonard Zeskind, The Tea Party Movement in 2015, online report, (Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, 2015). http://www.irehr.org/2015/09/15/the-tea-party-movement-in-2015/.

44 Abby Scher and Chip Berlet, “The Tea Party Moment,” in Nella van Dyke and David S. Meyer, eds., Understanding the Tea Party Movement (Farnham and London: Ashgate, 2014).

45 Burghart and Zeskind, The Tea Party Movement in 2015.

46 Scher and Berlet, “The Tea Party Moment.”

47 The book is tentatively entitled Strangers in Their Own Land: a journey into the heart of the right, (New York: The New Press, 2016)

48 Michelle Chen, “Now White People Are Dying from Our Terrible Economic Policies, Too,” The Nation, November 6, 2015, http://www.thenation.com/article/now-white-people-are-dying-from-our-terrible-economic-policies-too/ Chauncey Devega, “Dear White America: Your working class is literally dying—and this is your idea of an answer?” Salon, Nov 6, 2015 http://www.salon.com/2015/11/06/dear_white_america_your_working_class_is_literally_dying_and_this_is_your_idea_of_an_answer/.

49 S.A. Miller, “Donald Trump enjoys support of tea party movement that refuses to fully embrace him,” The Washington Times, November 22, 2015, http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2015/nov/22/donald-trump-enjoys-support-of-tea-party-movement-/.

50 Pablo Alvarado, “Reaction: L.A. Sheriff Reverses Course on Jail Deportations,” National Day Laborers Organizing Network, September 22, 2015 http://www.ndlon.org/en/pressroom/press-releases/item/1165-reaction-l-a-sheriff-reverses-course-on-jail-deportations

51 Scott Oathout “Gov. Ducey calls for immediate halt of new refugees to Arizona” KVOA Television, Nov 16, 2015 http://www.kvoa.com/story/30529819/gov-ducey-calls-for-immediate-halt-of-new-refugees-to-arizona.

52 “Puente Responds to AZ Gov. Ducey’s Announcement on Refugees,” Puente Movement, http://puenteaz.org/press-releases/puente-responds-to-duceys-announcement-on-refugees/.

53 Courtney Coren, “Dianne Feinstein Under Fire for Sanctuary City Bill,” August 3, 2015http://www.newsmax.com/Newsfront/Dianne-Feinstein-sanctuary-city-bill/2015/08/03/id/665214. Newsmax is a right-wing website cited here to encourage touring the page to review the rhetoric.

54 Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (New York, NY: Metropolitan Books, 2004), http://www.whatsthematterwithkansas.com/.

55 Jean V. Hardisty, Mobilizing Resentment: Conservative Resurgence from the John Birch Society to the Promise Keepers (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999). http://www.jeanhardisty.com/writing/books/.

56 Bernice Johnson Reagon, 1983, “Coalition Politics: Turning the Century” in Barbara Smith, ed., Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, Kitchen Table Women of Color Press, 1983; Rutgers University Press, 2000. See also http://www.bernicejohnsonreagon.com/publications.shtml.

57 Jean Hardisty, “My On-Again, Off-Again Romance With Liberalism,” The Women’s Theological Center (now known as Women Transforming Communities), in the Brown Paper series, March 1996. Republished with permission by Political Research Associates, 2015 http://www.politicalresearch.org/2015/03/24/my-on-again-off-again-romance-with-liberalism/.

58 Chomsky’s comments are assembled by the author from a transcript of a videotape of the event. He was speaking at Z Magazine’s Media Institute (for progressive journalists). Video: “What Went Wrong: A Q & A with Noam Chomsky,” a Z Video Production. Chomsky confirmed these are still his views in an e-mail to the author.

Not Fascism: Trump is a Right-Wing Nativist Populist

Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt of the author’s forthcoming analysis of the new wave of right-wing nativism inspired by Donald Trump.

The outlandish populist rhetoric of Republican presidential wildcard Donald Trump has left many journalists at a loss for words—words such as bigotry, xenophobia, racism, sexism and demagoguery. These are the elements of the latest Nativist crusade.

Donald TrumpJournalists and scholars familiar with the rise of contemporary right-wing populist political parties and social movements in Europe recognize that xenophobic, anti-immigrant, and racist rhetoric can lead to acts of violence. The progressive press has done a better job of pointing out the potential for making some of our neighbors targets of White angst.

Adele Stan in the American Prospect (9/9/15) put it boldly:

What Trump is doing, via the media circus of which he has appointed himself ringmaster, is making the articulation of the basest bigotry acceptable in mainstream outlets, amplifying the many oppressive tropes and stereotypes of race and gender that already exist in more than adequate abundance.

Donald Trump Is an Actual Fascist” trumpets the headline in Salon (7/25/15) for Conor Lynch’s article. Undermining Salon’s headline, Lynch tells us the “GOP are obviously not fascists, but they share a family resemblance.” The resemblance, according to Lynch, is explained in the famous quote attributed to Italy’s fascist dictator during World War II, Benito Mussolini:

Fascism should more appropriately be called corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power.

According to Lynch, this “definition may very well fit the GOP ideology: a kind of corporate fascism.” Alas, the quote is a hoax, widely circulated on the internet but debunked years ago. Mussolini never wrote or said anything like that, since the fake statement refutes Mussolini’s views on fascism. Nor is Trump an example of creeping totalitarianism, for which Hitler and Stalin were the analytical icons for Hannah Arendt in her masterwork The Origins of Totalitarianism.

Part of the confusion over Trump’s ideology is definitional: Scholars write entire books trying to map out the contours of right-wing political and social movements, especially the line dividing right-wing populism and neofascism. The pre-eminent scholar in this area, University of Georgia’s Cas Mudde, explained in the Washington Post (8/26/15):

The key features of the populist radical right ideology – nativism, authoritarianism, and populism – are not unrelated to mainstream ideologies and mass attitudes. In fact, they are best seen as a radicalization of mainstream values.

His ideology and rhetoric are much more comparable to the European populist radical right, akin to Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front, the Danish People’s Party or Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. All of them use the common radical right rhetoric of nativism, authoritarianism and populism.

What fuels this sort of bitter backlash movement now? The late scholar Jean Hardisty who founded Political Research Associates argued in 1995 that a confluence of several historic factors has assisted the success of the right in the United States:

  • a conservative religious revitalization,
  • economic contraction and restructuring,
  • race resentment and bigotry,
  • backlash and social stress, and
  • a well-funded network of right-wing organizations.

Each of these conditions has existed at previous times in US history,” wrote Hardisty. She also noted they overlap and reinforce each other. This backlash is picking up speed. The Republican voter base in the Tea Party long ago shifted its attention away from fiscal restraint toward anti-immigrant xenophobia, banning abortion and pushing gay people back into the closet.

The demonization and scapegoating that accompanies right-wing populism in the United States is breeding a backlash movement that will take creative and bold approaches as we organize to defend democracy and diversity in the public square.

This article and the forthcoming analysis are adapted from the author’s previous piece in FAIR.

The Tea Party: The New Populism

“The Rant Heard Round the World”

On Feb. 19, 2009, two days after President Barack Obama signed the $787 billion economic stimulus bill into law1 and one day after the White House announced $75 billion in direct aid to help homeowners refinance troubled mortgages,2 CNBC commentator Rick Santelli delivered what became known as “the rant heard round the world.” Speaking from the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange in his role as a financial analyst for the business news channel, Santelli excoriated the government for “promoting bad behavior” by “subsidiz[ing] the losers’ mortgages” instead of rewarding “the people that could carry the water instead of drink the water.” Crying “This is America … the silent majority” to the cheering, White male traders around him, Santelli announced, “We’re thinking of having a Chicago Tea Party.”3

“How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage [when he] has an extra bathroom and can’t pay the bills?”

A movement was born. It mattered little that Santelli was mum about the government’s many bailouts of Wall Street firms. (Financial analyst Nomi Prins estimates that by November 2008, direct and indirect support from the Federal Reserve to the financial sector had already climbed to $6.39 trillion.4) Instead, Santelli—directing his wrath at the mortgage-refinancing program that would presumably aid the “losers”—asked, “How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor’s mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can’t pay their bills?”5 Within hours, Santelli’s rant was featured favorably on right-wing websites such as the Drudge Report (www.drudgereport.com), and conservative talk radio like the Rush Limbaugh Show and the Sean Hannity Show.6 The same day, FreedomWorks, an outfit chaired by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey,7 “put up a website with tips on how to hold a tea party, then a Google map of events,” according to the New York Times. The Times said that, as “more people found the map on Web searches, they e-mailed FreedomWorks information on their own events, ultimately allowing” the group “to compile a list of thousands of Tea Party contacts across the country.”8

In many ways, Santelli only sparked the abundant tinder of right-wing outrage. After all, despite Barack Obama’s historic victory, Republican presidential candidate John McCain garnered nearly 60 million votes, just 2.1 million short of the number George Bush received in his 2004 re-election win.9 Additionally, almost ninety percent of McCain voters were White; around seventy percent made more than $50,000 a year; a majority identified as conservative; most were male; and they skewed older.10 As indicated by various polls, this is the heart of the Tea Party demographic.11

But many commentators, dazzled by Obama and the Democratic sweep of Congress, ignored this data. They declared that the Republicans were in a “death spiral,” “shrinking,” “increasingly constricted, with little space for growth,” and might “go the way of the 1936 GOP, which didn’t reclaim the White House until 1952.”12 Even those who hedged their bets, such as the New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, who saw a future for the Republican Party, albeit as “a haven for racists and reactionaries,”13 were unable to imagine the stunning comeback it would make just two years later, fueled by the Tea Party movement.

The same pundits often interpreted the race-based falsehoods tossed about during the campaign—that Obama was a Muslim, that (in the words of Sarah Palin) he was “palling around with terrorists,” that he was not a natural-born U.S. citizen—as the last cry of a dying right-wing species. Yet the rumor-mongering only gained a firmer foothold as the Tea Party gained momentum. In August 2007, seven percent of the public thought Obama was Muslim. By October 2008, twelve percent held this belief. By August 2010, it was up to eighteen percent, including 31 percent of all Republicans (with another 39 percent responding “don’t know”).14 As hysteria peaked later that August over the proposal to build the so-called Park 51 mosque in downtown Manhattan—an issue pushed by FOX News and Tea Party figures such as Sarah Palin and Sharron Angle, the Republican candidate for Nevada’s senate seat15—a Time magazine poll found that 46 percent of Republicans believed that Obama was Muslim.16 Similarly, in April 2010, 92 percent of Tea Party supporters said Obama’s policies “were moving the country more toward socialism.”17 (While the Tea Party is not identical to the GOP, it overlaps with it significantly. A New York Times-CBS poll of Tea Party supporters in April 2010 found that 66 percent “usually” or “always” vote Republican, as opposed to a scant five percent who said that about the Democrats.18)

Can Billions Buy a Movement?

Many progressives find the Tea Party perplexing, because a mass-based movement motivated by reactionary populist beliefs also appears to be marching to the tune of well-funded, top-down organizations and prominent right-wing media. A debate has thus ensued over whether the Tea Party movement is genuinely grassroots, which I define as a bottom-up political process marked by relatively autonomous local formations, or Astroturf, which the website SourceWatch defines as “apparently grassroots-based citizen groups or coalitions that are primarily conceived, created and/or funded by corporations, industry trade associations, political interests or public relations firms.”19

Progressives find the Tea Party perplexing, because the mass-based movement also appears to be marching to the tune of top-down organizations and right-wing media.

As evidence for the Astroturf argument, critics often point to Charles and David Koch, oil-industry magnates with a combined fortune of $44 billion, who control various foundations and political organizations linked to the Tea Party, such as FreedomWorks. A New Yorker profile of the brothers by Jane Mayer describes them as “out to destroy progressivism.” They have pumped more than $250 million into conservative political causes—of money that can be traced. Americans for Prosperity, a nonprofit founded by David Koch in 2004 that reportedly sought to spend $45 million during the 2010 election cycle, has become a prominent player in the Tea Party Movement.20

But even for billionaires, buying a movement is not easy. The Koch brothers have spent freely on political campaigns that have flopped, some of which were brazenly Astroturf. For example, in 1980, David Koch ran for vice president on the Libertarian Party ticket. He spent $1.6 million in television advertising, which garnered him a whopping one percent of the national vote.21 In 1995, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported on Citizens for the Environment, a spin-off from the Koch-funded group, Citizens for a Sound Economy, which had received $7.9 million from the Koch foundation between 1986 and 1993 and was the precursor of both FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity. Citizens for the Environment, said the Post-Gazette, “has no citizen membership of its own”; instead, “Oil, auto, timber, and chemical companies finance its inside-the-Washington-Beltway activities.”22 In 2008, Americans for Prosperity, which had received $5.2 million from Koch foundations since 2005, kicked off a Hot Air Tour to oppose legislation addressing climate change.23 During the next year, it made 75 stops around the U.S.,24 but the Wall Street Journal uncovered the tour’s Astroturf nature, including a lobbyist who forged letters to members of Congress.25 In 2008, the Journal reported on another fizzled effort linked to the Koch brothers: the FreedomWorks Angry Renter campaign, which was meant to stir up opposition to federal programs that helped homeowners refinance troubled mortgages.26

In the few weeks between Obama’s inauguration and Santelli’s rant, the same top-down forces were at play, at that point with little effect. In February 2009, demonstrations against the Obama administration’s stimulus plan took place in Seattle, Washington; Denver, Colorado; Mesa, Arizona; and Ft. Myers, Florida. Most were timed to protest visits by Obama, and all benefited from support or promotion by the Right. The term used at these events to disparage the stimulus, “porkulus,” was coined by Rush Limbaugh.27 FreedomWorks claimed credit for the Ft. Myers protest. Pundit Michelle Malkin gave the protests a national platform, boasting that KFYI radio, part of the right-wing Clear Channel media empire, was “taking the lead” in promoting the Mesa demonstration. Americans for Prosperity and the Independence Institute, which is funded by the ultraconservative Coors family, organized the Denver rally.28 And John Hendrix, a “Tampa-based consultant who organized” an anti-stimulus protest in Tampa, Florida, says he got the idea from “FreedomWorks field coordinator Tom Gaitens.”29 The Seattle protest, called by school teacher and Young Republican Keli Carender, appears to have been genuinely spontaneous, but FOX News radio was quick to promote it.30 That nearly all these “local” protests were organized from above and received plenty of play from the right-wing media underlines how massive the conservative apparatus has become, bulked up by decades of funding from right-wing philanthropists.31 But all the resources, money, and media did not guarantee success. The protests were scattered, and none appeared to draw many more than 100 people.

From the Bottom Up

Curiously, what has arguably become the Tea Party movement’s nerve center—FOX News—was slow to react. Not until a second round of Tea Party protests slated for April 15, 2009, began to gather steam did FOX News start heavily promoting, endorsing, and providing organizing support.32 On Tax Day, some 750 separate Tea Party protests were reportedly staged around the nation. While ABC, CBS, and the New York Times all cited this number without attribution, the protests were undoubtedly widespread.33 Statistician Nate Silver tallied up press and police reports from 126 of the protests and found that about 112,000 people attended, with 47 cities reporting crowds of 1,000 or more.34

Still, many liberals interpreted the growing Tea Party movement as mere smoke and mirrors. Krugman called the demonstrations “Astroturf events.” Pointing to involvement by FreedomWorks, he noted that “the parties are, of course, being promoted heavily by FOX News.”35 Lee Fang of ThinkProgress.org said “the principle organizers of the local events are actually the lobbyist-run think tanks Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks. The two groups are heavily staffed and well-funded, and are providing all the logistical and public relations work necessary for planning coast-to-coast protests.”36 Citing much of the same evidence, Jane Hamsher, the founder of the progressive blog firedoglake.com, rejected the idea that “right-wing infrastructure” was exploiting a grassroots movement.37

Even for billionaires, buying a movement is not easy.

Yet labeling the Tea Party “Astroturf” does not explain its strength or its explosive growth. While opponents may find it comforting to claim the movement doesn’t have much real support, this notion is dubious. “Saying it’s inauthentic, it’s fake, it’s being manipulated by elites is an easy way to dismiss it,” says Peter Bratsis, an observer of the Tea Party movement and a professor of political theory at the University of Salford in the United Kingdom. “The important thing is the degree of support the Tea Party movement has. The intensity of passion is quite acute. … It’s a social movement that is very widespread.”

One need look no further than the November 2010 elections, which were an unambiguous victory for the Tea Party. The Democratic Party was “thrashed,” as President Obama admitted, losing six seats in the Senate, 63 in the House, six governorships, and numerous state legislatures.38 Of the House seats the Republicans flipped, “Tea Party-endorsed candidates accounted for 28 of those pick-ups,” according to Bloomberg News, and nearly one-quarter of Republicans in the House currently belong to the Tea Party caucus.39 At the polls, an astonishing 41 percent of voters identified as Tea Party supporters.40 The Tea Party gained enough strength during the 2010 midterm elections to enable the Republican Party to define the national issues going forward: maintaining the Bush-era tax cuts; cutting social services, unemployment insurance, public education and healthcare; and waging warfare on unions, particularly in the public sector.

Libertarian beliefs about limited government, personal responsibility, opposition to the downward redistribution of wealth, and the market as the source of liberty and democracy41 have defined the U.S. Right since the 1930s, according to Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal (2009), by Kim Phillips-Fein.42 In Roads to Dominion: Right-Wing Movements and Political Power in the United States (1995), Sara Diamond provides a succinct definition of the Right that fits the Tea Party movement: “To be right-wing means to support the state in its capacity as enforcer of order and to oppose the state as distributor of wealth and power downward and more equitably in society [emphasis in original].”43

Thus, Santelli struck a nerve because he was expressing what many Americans already thought: that their hard-earned money should not go to subsidize “losers.” Shortly after his rant, CNBC asked visitors to its website, “Would you join Santelli’s ‘Chicago Tea Party?’” About 170,000 people responded within one day, with 93 percent saying “yes,” according to Hamsher.44 A CNBC spokesperson said the number of respondents was “much higher” than normal for a CNBC poll.45 Within eleven days, the rant video was the most-watched clip ever on the CNBC website, with nearly 2 million views and another 855,000 hits on YouTube.46 Santelli’s distinction between those who “carry the water” and those who “drink the water” is what sociologists term classic “producerism.” Researchers Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons47 define producerism as pitting “the so-called producing classes,” who work hard and create wealth, “against ‘unproductive’ bankers, speculators, and monopolists above—and people of color below.” Many of the people who commented on the CNBC website in response to Santelli expressed producerist resentments such as these:

  • “Why are the very people who never seem to do the right things being rewarded with my tax dollars?”
  • “Here is the message Obama and Congress are sending: work hard, pay your bills on time, and you will be penalized by having your hard-earned money reward those who wallow in irresponsibility and have a total disdain for those who play by the rules.”
  • “Obama & Biden are very compassionate with other peoples’ money … This is not the role of the government (redistribution) & it’s not their right to do it with my money!”48

Tea Party Racism

“Saying [the Tea Party] is inauthentic, it’s fake, it’s being manipulated by elites is an easy way to dismiss it.”

Producerism is intertwined with racism, and various Tea Party factions are no strangers to racist rhetoric. Curiously, because of such racism, some left-wing observers have dismissed the idea that the Tea Party could become a powerful political movement—even though they also recognize that racism is a potent force in U.S. society and politics49. Racism is a factor in the movement’s success, and many Tea Party leaders, candidates, and supporters have been guilty of it50: Kentucky Senator Rand Paul inveighed against the 1964 Civil Rights Act during his 2010 campaign51; New York Republican gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino sent out racist emails with doctored photographs of Michelle and Barack Obama52; crowds of Tea Party supporters reportedly yelled “nigger” at Black congressmen during the healthcare bill debate in March 201053; racist signs regularly appeared at Tea Party rallies54; there was an outpouring of Tea Party-backed Islamophobia during the summer of 201055; Tea Party Express leader Mark Williams vented founts of racist diatribes long before his racist “satire” of the NAACP led to his resignation56; and high percentages of Tea Party supporters regularly claimed that Obama was a Muslim or was not born in the United States.57

Polling conducted in 2010 among Whites in California, Georgia, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, and Ohio by the University of Washington Institute for the Study of Ethnicity, Race, & Sexuality found that support for or opposition to the Tea Party movement was an accurate predictor of racial resentment. The survey found that among strong supporters of the Tea Party, 73 percent believed, “Blacks would be as well off as Whites if they just tried harder,” while only 33 percent of strong opponents of the Tea Party movement believed this; 56 percent of strong supporters believed, “Immigrants take jobs from Americans,” as opposed to 31 percent of strong opponents; and 72 percent of Tea Party backers disagreed that decades of slavery and discrimination made Blacks’ economic situations difficult, while only 28 percent of opponents disagreed.58

Recent assaults on social welfare programs and the passage of laws criminalizing undocumented immigrants, especially in states with active Tea Party movements, are part of a racist backlash—and the demographics of the Tea Party may explain why. For instance, just 23 percent of Tea Party supporters in an April 2010 New York Times/CBS poll were under age 45, as opposed to 50 percent of all respondents. Only five percent of the total said they were Black, Asian, or of Hispanic descent or origin, indicating that the movement is about 95 percent White.59

The Role of Populism

There remains the problem of how to make sense of the many apparently conflicting aspects of the Tea Party movement. Top-down elements with organizational, financial, and media resources, such as the Koch brothers, Sarah Palin, FOX News, Glenn Beck, FreedomWorks, and the Tea Party Express (a front for Republican operatives), play prominent roles in the Tea Party movement. Yet there is clearly broad support for the Tea Party and its positions, as evidenced by polling data, the 2010 midterm elections, the variety of organizations, their ability to turn people out on the streets, and their ideological continuities with other modern right-wing movements.

The Tea Party movement thus appears to have both genuine grassroots and Astroturf elements. However, saying this doesn’t explain much. Whether the movement is orchestrated or spontaneous, whether that matters, and how the elite interacts with the base are still unanswered questions. Ernesto Laclau’s essay, “Populism: What’s in a Name?,” and his 2005 book, On Populist Reason60 provide useful perspectives on the issues, although his theories are controversial.61

Laclau says that populism is a “political logic” that begins with “social demands.” If a series of demands remains unfulfilled, then the various groups making the demands may begin to see themselves as having something in common. At first, there “is a vague feeling of solidarity,” writes Laclau.62 To use a non-Tea Party example, in Wisconsin in early 2011, after Republicans tried to take away the right of public-sector workers to bargain collectively, an outpouring of people from various sectors—teachers, students, liberals, government employees, religious groups, socialists, union members, progressives, sports stars, hackers—protested.

One demand comes to represent the whole: “We Are All Wisconsin” (© Ellen Shub)

One demand comes to represent the whole: “We Are All Wisconsin” (© Ellen Shub)

The movement then enters a second stage, says Laclau, in which “an individual demand … acquires a certain centrality,” and becomes “the representation of an impossible whole.”63 In Wisconsin, the plight of unionized public workers came to represent everyone’s plight; the movement’s slogan became, “We are all Wisconsin.”

A new identity is constructed: “the people”: those whose demands are not met. The people can be known only in relation to the Other, the enemy. “The ‘regime,’ the ‘oligarchy,’ the ‘dominant groups’” are on one side, says Laclau, while on the other is “the oppressed underdog”—“the ‘people,’ the ‘nation,’ the ‘silent majority.’”64 “The people” is less than the whole of society, he notes, although it would like “to function as the totality of the community.”65 The enemy, which is also a construct, is illegitimate and must be excluded.

Viewing the Tea Party as a populist movement explains why it came into being so fast, and why the grassroots/Astroturf debate misses the point. The elements of the movement took shape during the 2008 presidential race. While Obama’s campaign astutely crafted him as a symbol into which liberals, progressives, and many moderates could pour their hopes and ideals, he was also being shaped by his opponents as an enemy Other: a foreign-born, Muslim, socialist.66 Following Obama’s election, forces on the Right began to make a series of demands, opposing the stimulus bill, deficits, social spending, bailouts, and government intervention in the market.67 The demand of debt reduction rose above all the others, linking them together in what Laclau calls an “equivalential chain”: that is, debt reduction began to represent all the demands. Thus, the movement explained its opposition to social programs, bailouts, and government regulations with the imperative of debt reduction: social welfare and bailouts increase the debt, while regulation and government spending sap the market of its ability to generate wealth.

While the lavishly funded right-wing media and networks were having little success in building a mass movement based on “porkulus” protests, Santelli’s rant broke through because it suggested a populist identity and at the same time, constructed an enemy. As Laclau would say, the Tea Party discourse brings the “people” into being; it’s not an already existing group. Tea Party rhetoric is full of this notion of a legitimate “people.” “We the people” are contrasted with various Others—Obama, unions, welfare recipients, undocumented immigrants—who, according to Laclau’s theory, “cannot be a legitimate part of the community.”68

It’s “useless,” says Laclau, to explain people’s attraction to populist movements by claiming that they are being manipulated from the top. “The most it would explain,” he says, “is the subjective intention of the leader, but we would remain in the dark as to why the manipulation succeeds.” Populism, he adds,

can start from any place in the socio-institutional structure: clientistic political organizations, established political parties, trade unions, the army, revolutionary movements, etc. ‘Populism’ does not define the actual politics of these organizations but is a way of articulating their themes—whatever those themes may be.69

The Tea Party’s Vulnerabilities

Three characteristics of the Tea Party are already diminishing its support. First, the Tea Party is what Laclau calls an “empty signifier”: it unifies a wildly heterogeneous reality, but only by “reducing to a minimum [each element’s] particularistic content.”70 As Devin Burghart and Leonard Zeskind show in their study, Tea Party Nationalism, those drawn to the Tea Party include libertarians, evangelicals, nativists, constitutionalists, Islamophobes, militia members, and White nationalists.71 These disparate groups can unite under the Tea Party banner even if they don’t all support a particular demand such as charter schools, banning gay marriage, or cutting Medicare. The larger the number of demands the movement encompasses, the less it is attached to any one of them.
Many people who claim to speak for the movement advocate particular causes, which other factions within the movement do not support. Tea Party groups have devolved from focusing on universal claims to focusing on particular ones with less support. In some cases, the Tea Party has brought into being opposing equivalential chains and populist identities that have stolen its thunder,72 as in Wisconsin. As Tea Party groups have become embroiled in specific battles over cutting funding for education and social programs, and limiting the bargaining power of public-sector unions (whose members administer social programs), the Tea Party’s negative ratings have leaped. In March 2011, 47 percent of respondents to a CNN poll had an unfavorable opinion of the Tea Party, up from 26 percent in January 2010.73

Second, when the political system assimilates a populist movement, the movement loses the system as its enemy Other, and it begins to lose strength. This may already be happening to the Tea Party. Its victories in the November 2010 election showed that the system could accommodate the movement, making it harder to claim plausibly that “real” Americans were being oppressed or excluded. A measure of the Tea Party’s declining support is the Tax Day rallies. ThinkProgress noted that the Tea Party Patriots website listed only 145 rallies on April 15, 2011—down from 638 in 2010. And in many instances, turnout “was down precipitously.”74 In July, Bruce Weinfeld of the Rockland County, New York, Tea Party/Coffee Party, told me that his group and many others had stopped meeting. Weinfeld said it was a waste of time and energy when only “three or four people were showing up at meetings.”75

Finally, some Tea Party supporters are having second thoughts. They had called for reducing the federal budget deficit at any cost, only to confront the reality that this would mean cutting social welfare programs that they themselves depended on. An April 2011 poll found that seventy percent of Tea Party supporters opposed cuts to Medicare and Medicaid “to deal with the federal budget deficit.”76 Another showed that “Tea Party supporters, by a nearly 2-to-1 margin, declared significant cuts to Social Security ‘unacceptable.’”77 By now, however, deficit reduction has already been fully incorporated into the country’s political discourse, as demonstrated by the fact that both congressional Republicans and the Democratic White House are gunning for Social Security and Medicare—all the while trying to blame the other side for cuts.78 As the Tea Party fulfills its agenda, it may wither away into obscurity, but it will leave behind vast social wreckage.

Both major parties endorse policies that undermine civil liberties, squeeze social welfare, wage multiple wars, preserve huge military expenditures, criminalize undocumented immigration, cut wages and pensions for public-sector workers, thwart policies to reduce global warming, and support Wall Street bailouts and historically low tax rates for the wealthy. Nevertheless, there are rhetorical differences between the two, and they disagree on wedge cultural issues such as gay marriage and abortion rights. Tea Party networks will probably remain a potent force, at least through the 2012 presidential election, since the Right can use them to mobilize resentment against Others and to organize opposition to Obama and the Democratic Party.

The overriding error of Tea Party critics is a crude material reductionism: to think that funding signifies control or that a racist reaction against the Other is just a defense of the wages of whiteness. There are varying degrees of truth to these propositions, but the real issue is the the ability of the Tea Party (and the Right in general) to craft politics suffused with psychological and material appeals, which combine negative and positive emotions. Certainly Tea Party members are motivated by fear and some by hate; nevertheless, they see themselves as a positive force. They are the ones who will save America and return it to its former greatness. It may be a fantasy, but it’s a powerful one that has captured the imagination of millions of people and re-defined national politics, something the Left has failed to do for generations.

Sidebar

Talking to the Tea Partiers

Endnotes

1 Laura Meckler, “Obama Signs Stimulus Into Law,” the Wall Street Journal, February 19, 2009, accessed April 24, 2011, online.wsj.com/article/SB123487951033799545.html.

2 The White House plan called for $75 billion to aid homeowners and $200 billion to aid Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (the White House and congressional Republicans have subsequently proposed restructuring or phasing out the two government-backed entities). Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Edmund L. Andrews, “$275 Billion Plan Seeks to Address Housing Crisis,” the New York Times, February 18, 2009, accessed April 24, 2011, nytimes.com/2009/02/19/business/19housing.html; President Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President on the Home Mortgage Crisis,” February 18, 2009, accessed April 24, 2011, whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Remarks-by-the-President-on-the-mortgage-crisis; The White House, “Homeowner Affordability and Stability Plan, Executive Summary,” the New York Times, February 18, 2009, accessed April 24, 2011; graphics8.nytimes.com/packages/pdf/politics/20090218factsheet.pdf; Nick Timiraos, “Views of Life After Fannie, Freddie,” the Wall Street Journal, February 12, 2011, accessed April 24, 2011, online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703786804576137942242796306.html.

3 “CNBC’s Rick Santelli’s Chicago Tea Party,” YouTube, uploaded February 19, 2009, accessed April 24, 2011, youtube.com/watch?v=zp-Jw-5Kx8k; “Rick Santelli: Tea Party,” full transcript, February 19, 2009, accessed April 24, 2011, freedomeden.blogspot.com/2009/02/rick-santelli-tea-party.html.

4 By June 2009 the sum of all U.S. government bailouts, overwhelmingly to support financial markets and corporations, totaled $13.31 trillion. Nomi Prins and Kristzina Ugrin, “Bailout Tally Report,” June 30, 2009, accessed April 25, 2011, nomiprins.squarespace.com/storage/reports/bailouttally063009-1.pdf.

5 Ironically, of $50 billion allocated under the Home Affordable Modification Program for “incentives to private lenders, servicers, and homeowners,” at least $16.7 billion was scooped up by subprime mortgage lenders implicated in the burst housing bubble. While the White House claimed the program would “reach up to 3 to 4 million at-risk home owners,” by March 2011, the program had only resulted in 586,916 “active permanent modifications.” “Rick Santelli: Tea Party,” full transcript; John Dunbar, “Who’s Behind the Financial Meltdown?”, The Center for Public Integrity, August 25, 2009, accessed April 25, 2011, publicintegrity.org/investigations/economic_meltdown/articles/entry/1629; “Homeowner Affordability and Stability Plan, Executive Summary”; “Making Home Affordable: Program Performance Report Through March 2011,” U.S. Department of the Treasury, May 6, 2011, accessed May 8, 2011, treasury.gov/initiatives/financial-stability/results/MHA-Reports/Documents/March%202011%20MHA%20Report%20FINAL.PDF

6 “Rick Santelli – The Rant Heard ‘Round the World,’ streetinsider.com, February 19, 2009, accessed April 25, 2009, streetinsider.com/Insiders+Blog/Rick+Santelli+-+The+Rant+Heard+Round+the+World/4419854.html; Mark Whittington, “Rick Santelli’s Anti-Obama ‘Rant Heard Around the World,’” Yahoo Contributor Network, February 19, 2009, accessed April 25, 2009, associatedcontent.com/article/1494220/rick_santellis_antiobama_rant_heard.html?cat=9.

7 FreedomWorks formed in 2004 from the merger of Citizens for a Sound Economy and Empower America. FreedomWorks, SourceWatch, accessed April 28, 2011, sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=FreedomWorks.

8 Kate Zernike, “Shaping Tea Party Passion into Campaign Force,” the New York Times, August 25, 2010, accessed May 4, 2011, nytimes.com/2010/08/26/us/politics/26freedom.html.

9 The American Presidency Project, UC Santa Barbara, accessed May 11, 2011, presidency.ucsb.edu/showelection.php?year=2008; http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/showelection.php?year=2004.

10 According to CNN, the number of respondents was 17,836. “President National Exit Poll 2008,” CNN.com, undated, accessed May 17, 2011, cnn.com/ELECTION/2008/results/polls/#USP00p1.

11 For example, see “National Survey of Tea Party Supporters,” the New York Times CBS News Poll, April 5-12, 2010, accessed May 6, 2011, documents.nytimes.com/new-york-timescbs-news-poll-national-survey-of-tea-party-supporters?ref=politics.

12 Paul Krugman, “The Specter of Republican Marginalization,” the New York Times, April 28, 2009, accessed May 5, 2011, krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/04/28/the-specter-of-republican-marginalization/; Bob Herbert, “Out of Touch,” the New York Times, May 1, 2009, accessed May 4, 2009, nytimes.com/2009/05/02/opinion/02herbert.html; Joe Conason, “How did that realignment work out for you, Republicans?”, Salon.com, November 10, 2008, accessed May 5, 2011, salon.com/news/opinion/joe_conason/2008/11/10/realignment, Frank Rich, “The Moose Stops Here,” the New York Times, November 16, 2008, accessed May 5, 2011, nytimes.com/2008/11/16/opinion/16rich.html.

13 Paul Krugman, “The Republican Rump, ” the New York Times, November 3, 2008, accessed May 5, 2011, nytimes.com/2008/11/03/opinion/03krugman.html.

14 The Pew poll was conducted before the Park 51 controversy became a national issue. “Barack Obama and the 2008 election,” CBS News Poll, August 15, 2007, accessed May 8, 2011, cbsnews.com/htdocs/pdf/081507_obama.pdf; “Growing Number of Americans Say Obama is a Muslim,” The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, August 18, 2010, accessed May 8, 2011, pewforum.org/Politics-and-Elections/Growing-Number-of-Americans-Say-Obama-is-a-Muslim.aspx#1.

15 While agitating against the Islamic center ran counter to Tea Party movement principles of private property rights, personal freedom and constitutionally limited government, one movement leader readily admitted “it is clear from our travels across America that tea party members believe it is wrong to put a mosque anywhere near ground zero.” Kenneth P. Vogel, “Mosque debate strains tea party, GOP,” Politico, August 18, 2010, accessed May 6, 2011, dyn.politico.com/printstory.cfm?uuid=834FE579-18FE-70B2-A89B46FE4A2A8330; Media Matters for America, mediamatters.org/research/201008230041.

16 “Time Poll Results: Americans’ Views on the Campaign, Religion and the Mosque Controversy,” Time, August 18, 2010, accessed May 6, 2011, time.com/time/politics/article/0,8599,2011680,00.html; Josh Gerstein, “Poll: 46% of GOP thinks Obama’s Muslim,” Politico, August 19, 2010, accessed May 6, 2011, politico.com/blogs/joshgerstein/0810/Poll_46_of_GOP_thinks_Obamas_Muslim.html.

17 “Palin: Obama pals around with terrorists,”AP, October 4, 2008, accessed May 6, 2011, usatoday.com/news/politics/election2008/2008-10-04-palin-obama_N.htm; Jim Rutenberg, “The Man Behind the Whispers About Obama,” the New York Times, October 12, 2008, accessed May 5, 2011, nytimes.com/2008/10/13/us/politics/13martin.html?hp; “The Origin of the Birthers, The Week, April 29, 2011, accessed May 6, 2011, theweek.com/article/index/214677/the-origin-of-the-birthers; “Americans’ Beliefs about Obama’s Birth,” Gallup, April 27, 2011, accessed April 30, 2011, pollingmatters.gallup.com/2011/04/americans-beliefs-about-obamas-birth.html; “National Survey of Tea Party Supporters,” The New York Times CBS News Poll.

18 “National Survey of Tea Party Supporters,” the New York Times CBS News Poll.

19 “Astroturf” definition, SourceWatch, accessed April 28, 2011, sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Astroturf.

20 Jane Mayer, “Covert Operations: The billionaire brothers who are waging a war against Obama,” the New Yorker, August 30, 2010, accessed April 28, 2011, newyorker.com/reporting/2010/08/30/100830fa_fact_mayer?currentPage=all; Profiles of Charles Koch and David Koch, Forbes.com, March 2011, accessed April 28, 2011, forbes.com/profile/charles-koch, forbes.com/profile/david-koch; Clare O’Connor, “The Billionaires Bankrolling the Right,” Forbes.com, October 21, 2010, accessed April 28, 2011, forbes.com/2010/10/21/billionaire-politics-donors-republicans-koch-murdoch-trump-wealth.html.

21 Bill Winter, “David Koch – Libertarian,” Advocates for Self-Government, accessed June 12, 2011, server.theadvocates.org/celebrities/david-koch.html.

22 D. Hopey, “Groups ‘green’ names fade under scrutiny,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 28, 1995.

23 “Koch Industries Secretly Funding the Climate Denial Machine,” Greenpeace, accessed May 17, 2011, 21.

24 Kate Sheppard, “How do you say ‘Astroturf’ in Danish?”, motherjones.com, December 3, 2009, accessed May 14, 2011, motherjones.com/mojo/2009/12/afp-rolls-out-astroturf-denmark.

25 Russell Gold, “Astroturfing the Climate Bill,” Wall Street Journal, August 17, 2009, accessed April 24, 2011, blogs.wsj.com/environmentalcapital/2009/08/17/astroturfing-the-climate-bill; Keith Johnson, “Fake Out: Forged Letters Urged Congressman to Vote Against Climate Bill,” Wall Street Journal, July 31, 2009, accessed April 24, 2011.

26 Michael M. Phillips, “Mortgage Bailout Infuriates Tenants (And Steve Forbes),” Wall Street Journal, May 16, 2008, accessed April 25, 2011, online.wsj.com/article/SB121090164137297527.html.

27 “Porkulus,” the New York Times blog, February 8, 2009, accessed May 8, 2011, ideas.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/02/08/porkulus/

28 Devin Burghart and Leonard Zeskind, “Tea Party Nationalism,” Institute for Research & Education on Human Right, Fall 2010, accessed April 28, 2010, teapartynationalism.com/pdf/TeaPartyNationalism.pdf; Michelle Malkin, “‘Yes We Care!’ Porkulus Protestors Holler Back,” February 17, 2009, accessed April 28, 2011, michellemalkin.com/2009/02/17/yes-we-care-porkulus-protesters-holler-back, “Stop the Stimulus protest in Ft. Myers, FL tomorrow,” February 9, 2009, accessed May 9, 2011, michellemalkin.com/2009/02/09/stop-the-stimulus-protest-in-ft-myers-fl-tomorrow, “The next anti-porkulus protest: Mesa, Arizona,”February 17, 2009, accessed May 10, 2011, michellemalkin.com/2009/02/17/the-next-anti-porkulus-protest-mesa-arizona; Brendan Steinhauser, FreedomWorks blog, February 9, 2009, accessed May 9, 2011, freedomworks.org/blog/bstein80/freedomworks-plans-to-protest-obama-in-fort-myers-; Megan Boehnke and Gary Nelson, “With Signs in Hand, Protestors Await President’s Arrival in Mesa,” the Arizona Republic, February 18, 2009, accessed May 8, 2011, azcentral.com/community/mesa/articles/2009/02/18/20090218prez-protest0218.html; Alex Brant-Zawadzki and Dawn Teo, “Anatomy of the Tea Party Movement: FreedomWorks,” HuffingtonPost, December 11, 2009, accessed May 8, 2011, huffingtonpost.com/alex-brantzawadzki/anatomy-of-the-tea-party_b_380575.html; Jane Hamsher, “A Teabagger Timeline: Koch, Coors, Newt, Dick Armey There from the Start,” HuffingtonPost, April 15, 2009, accessed May 11, 2011, huffingtonpost.com/jane-hamsher/a-teabagger-timeline-koch_b_187312.html.

29 Christian M. Wade, “ ‘Tampa Tea Party’ Pours Scorn on Stimulus Package,” Tampa Bay Online, February 27, 2009, accessed April 29, 2011, beta2.tbo.com/news/news/2009/feb/27/tampa-tea-party-pour-scorn-stimulus-package-ar-116088; Brian Beutler, “FreedomWorks’ Long History of Teabagging,” TPM, April 14, 2009, accessed April 29, 2011, tpmdc.talkingpointsmemo.com/2009/04/freedomworks-long-history-of-teabagging.php; Brendan Steinhauser, FreedomWorks blog, February 19, 2009, accessed April 29, 2011, freedomworks.org/blog/bstein80/freedomworks-tom-gaitens-on-fox-news.

30 Hamsher, “A Teabagger Timeline: Koch, Coors, Newt, Dick Armey There from the Start.”

31 There are extensive studies and research detailing the conservative philanthropists who have poured billions into the New Right. For example, the Washington Post calculated in 1999 that the Scaife family foundations alone had contributed “at least $340 million to conservative causes and institutions.” The right-wing media is more complex, including outlets that are heavily subsidized by conservative foundations or right-wing billionaires or are for-profit enterprises, such as Rush Limbaugh’s. Robert G. Kaiser and Ira Chinoy, “Scaife: Funding Father of the Right,” The Washington Post, May 2, 1999, accessed May 8, 2011, washingtonpost.com/wpsrv/politics/special/clinton/stories/scaifemain050299.htm; Also see the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, ncrp.org, SourceWatch, sourcewatch.org, and Publiceye.org, publiceye.org/research/sites.html#Funding.

32 “‘Fair and balanced’ Fox News aggressively promotes ‘tea party’ protests,” Media Matters for America, April 8, 2009, May 8, 2011, mediamatters.org/reports/200904080025.

33 Rick Klein and Kate Barrett, “Anti-Tax ‘Tea Parties’ Protest President Obama’s Tax and Spending Policies,” April 15, 2009, accessed April 28, 2011, abcnews.go.com/Politics/story?id=7337117&page=1; Brian Montopoli, “Tax Day Brings Out ‘Tea Party’ Protestors,” April 15, 2009, accessed May 24, 2009, www.cbsnews.com/stories/2009/04/15/politics/main4946264.shtml; Liz Robins, “Tax Day Is Met With Tea Parties,” April 15, 2009, accessed April 28, 2011, the New York Times, www.nytimes.com/2009/04/16/us/politics/16taxday.html.

34 Nate Silver, “How Many Attended the Tea Parties?”, April 15, 2009, accessed April 28, 2011, FiveThirtyEight.com, www.fivethirtyeight.com/2009/04/how-many-attended-tea-parties.html.

35 Paul Krugman, “Tea Parties Forever,” the New York Times, April 12, 2009, accessed July 13, 2011, nytimes.com/2009/04/13/opinion/13krugman.html.

36 Lee Fang, “Spontaneous Uprising? Corporate Lobbyists Helping To Orchestrate Radical Anti-Obama Tea Party Protests,” ThinkProgress, April 9, 2009, Accessed May 4, 2011, thinkprogress.org/2009/04/09/lobbyists-planning-teaparties.

37 Hamsher, “A Teabagger Timeline: Koch, Coors, Newt, Dick Armey There from the Start.”

38 “Election Results,” New York Times, undated, accessed May 6, 2011, elections.nytimes.com/2010/results/senate; Kenneth R. Bazinet and Corky Siemaszko, “Obama Takes Responsibility for Midterm Election Losses,” November 3, 2010, accessed June 25, 2011, Daily News, usnews.com/news/articles/2010/11/03/obama-takes-responsibility-for-midterm-election-losses.

39 Tom Moroney and Terrence Dopp, “Tea Party Election Results Diluted in Highly Populated States,” Bloomberg News, November 5, 2010, accessed May 11, 2011, bloomberg.com/news/2010-11-05/tea-party-results-diluted-in-high-density-states-as-christie-fades-at-home.html; bachmann.house.gov/News/DocumentSingle.aspx?DocumentID=226594

40 Maya Srikrishnan et al., “Which Tea Party Candidates Won?”, ABCNews.com, November 3, 2010, accessed May 5, 2011, abcnews.go.com/Politics/2010_Elections/vote-2010-elections-tea-party-winners-losers/story?id=12023076

41 See “National Survey of Tea Party Supporters,” the New York Times CBS News Poll; Lisa Lerer, “Poll: Tea Party Economic Gloom Fuels Republican Momentum,” Bloomberg, October 14, 2010, accessed May 6, 2011, bloomberg.com/news/2010-10-14/tea-party-s-economic-gloom-fuels-republican-election-momentum-poll-says.html;

42 Kim Phillips-Fein, Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal, (New York: W.W. Norton, 2009).

43 Sara Diamond, Roads to Dominion: Right-Wing Movements and Political Power in the United States, (New York: The Guilford Press, 1995), 9.

44 Jane Hamsher, “Rick Santelli, Angry White Male 2.0,” Firedoglake, February 20, 2009, accessed May 8, 2011, firedoglake.com/2009/02/20/rick-santelli-angry-white-male-20.

45 Phone interview Amy Zelvin, Vice President Media Relations CNBC, May 13, 2011, nbcumv.com/mediavillage/networks/cnbc/contacts

46 David Bauder, “Rick Santelli Not Connected to Tea Party Website: CNBC,” AP, March 2, 2009, accessed May 14, 2011, huffingtonpost.com/2009/03/02/rick-santelli-not-connect_n_171239.html.

47 Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons, “The Producerist Narrative in Repressive Right Wing Populism,” Political Research Associates, undated, accessed May 11, 2011, publiceye.org/tooclose/producerism.html. Also see Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort (2000), by Chip Berlet & Matthew N. Lyons.

48 “What CNBC.com Users are Saying About Santelli’s Tea Party,” CNBC.com, February 20, 2009, accessed April 29, 2011, cnbc.com/id/29303112.

49 Paul Krugman’s work displays this contradiction, describing the Republican Party as “a haven for racists and reactionaries” and the Tea Party as “astroturf,” while stating “the white backlash against the civil rights movement” was “the central role … in the rise of the modern conservative movement.” Krugman, “The Republican Rump”; Krugman, “Tea Parties Forever”; Paul Krugman, “Republicans and Race,” the New York Times, November 19, 2007, accessed July 13, 2011, nytimes.com/2007/11/19/opinion/19krugman.html.

50 Burghart and Zeskind, “Tea Party Nationalism,” p. 51-72; Tony Pugh, “There’s no denying Obama’s race plays a role in protests,” McClatchy Newspapers, September 18, 2009, accessed July 6, 2011, mcclatchydc.com/2009/09/18/75694/theres-no-denying-obamas-race.html

51 Joan Walsh, “Rachel Maddow Demolishes Rand Paul,” Salon, May 19, 2010, accessed June 22, 2011, salon.com/news/opinion/joan_walsh/politics/2010/05/19/rachel_maddow_demolishes_rand_paul

52 “NY Gubernatorial Candidate Carl Paladino’s Racist and Sexist Email History,” WNYmedia.net, April 12, 2010, accessed June 24, 2011, wnymedia.net/paladino/.

53 William Douglas, “Tea party protesters scream ‘nigger’ at black congressmen,” McClatchy Newspapers, March 20, 2010, accessed June 22, 2011, mcclatchydc.com/2010/03/20/90772/rep-john-lewis-charges-protesters.html

54 “Tea Party’s Most Offensive & Racist Signs,” Midweek Politics, September 17, 2010, accessed June 23, 2011, youtube.com/watch?v=nCpwjvVaqyE.

55 Burghart and Zeskind, “Tea Party Nationalism,” p. 69-70; Joe Conason, “Coalition of Fear: Tea Party, the religious right and Islamophobia,” Salon, September 19, 2010, accessed June 24, 2011, salon.com/news/opinion/joe_conason/2010/09/19/conason_values_voter.

56 Burghart and Zeskind, “Tea Party Nationalism,” p. 55-56; Max Read, “The Embarrassing Racist ‘Satire’ of Tea Party Leader Mark Williams,”Gawker, July 16, 2010, accessed June 24, 2011, gawker.com/5588556/the-embarrassing-racist-satire-of-tea-party-leader-mark-williams.

57 Prof. Christopher Parker, “2011 Multi-state Survey on Race & Politics,”University of Washington Institute for the Study of Ethnicity, Race & Sexuality, undated, accessed June 24, 2011, depts.washington.edu/uwiser/Obama_facts.pdf.

58 Prof. Christopher Parker, “2010 Multi-state Survey on Race & Politics,” University of Washington Institute for the Study of Ethnicity, Race & Sexuality, undated, accessed June 24, 2011, depts.washington.edu/uwiser/mssrp_table.pdf; Christopher Parker, “Race and the Tea Party: Who’s right?”, Salon, May 3, 2010, accessed June 24, 2011, salon.com/news/feature/2010/05/03/race_and_the_tea_party

59 “National Survey of Tea Party Supporters,” the New York Times CBS News Poll.

60 Laclau notes, “A persistent feature of the literature on populism is its reluctance – or difficulty – in giving the concept any precise meaning.” He singles out the early work of Margaret Canovan as being typically imprecise and lacking “any coherent criterion around which its distinctions are established.” Ernesto Laclau, On Populist Reason (London: Verso, 2005), 3-6.

61 There is a spirited debate over Laclau’s theory. For example, see “Against the Populist Temptation,” Slavoj Zizek, 2006, accessed May 14, 2011, lacan.com/zizpopulism.htm

62 Laclau, On Populist Reason, 117, 93.

63 Laclau, On Populist Reason, 95, 80-81.

64 Laclau, On Populist Reason, 87.

65 Laclau, On Populist Reason, 81.

66 Laclau writes that “the internal frontier can only result from the operation of the equivalential chain.” I am not following his schematic strictly because Obama was already the enemy for many on the right prior to stimulus existing even as a plan. Of course, one can argue the Tea Party’s real enemy is government itself, but for the movement it has been personified in Obama. In any case, Laclau’s concepts provide useful frames for analyzing the Tea Party, whether or not one follows exactly the process he outlines.

67 “Republicans strongly oppose Obama stimulus plan,” the Washington Times, January 27, 2009, accessed May 24, 2011, washingtontimes.com/news/2009/jan/27/paul-warns-inflation-depression.

68 Laclau, On Populist Reason, 86.

69 Laclau, On Populist Reason, 99; Laclau, “Populism: What’s In a Name?” 44.

70 Ernesto Laclau, “Populism: What’s In a Name?” In Populism and the Mirror of Democracy, ed. Francisco Panizza, (London: Verso, 2005), 40.

71 Burghart and Zeskind, “Tea Party Nationalism,”

72 This is actually what Laclau refers to by “floating signifiers,” which just means signifiers that can float easily from Left to Right or back. For example, popular Tea Party ideas like Freedom, Liberty and Tyranny could easily be adopted by a left-wing populist movement. These signifiers float because they do not inscribe any specific social demand. Laclau, “Populism: What’s In a Name?” 42.

73 “CNN Opinion Research Poll,” CNN.

74 Alex Seitz-Wald, “Analysis: Taxed Enough Already? Tea Party Rallies Significantly Smaller This Year Than Last,” ThinkProgress, April 19, 2011, accessed June 10, 2011, thinkprogress.org/politics/2011/04/19/159516/tea-party-rallies-getting-smaller.

75 Phone Interview, July 14, 2011.

76 David Weigl, “Poll: 70 percent of ‘Tea Party Supporters’ Oppose Medicare Cuts,” Slate, April 19, 2011, accessed July 15, 2011, slate.com/blogs/weigel/2011/04/19/poll_70_percent_of_tea_party_supporters_oppose_medicare_cuts.html

77 Neil King Jr. and Scott Greenberg, “Poll Shows Budget-Cuts Dilemma,” the Wall Street Journal, March 3, 2011, accessed July 12, 2011, online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704728004576176741120691736.html#project%3DWSJPDF%26s%3Ddocid%253D110302233016-962e97512a5b45d7b64c022c35
d65248%257Cfile%253Dwsj-nbcpoll03022011%26articleTabs%3Darticle.

78 As Glenn Greenwald argued, “Obama both believes in the corporatist agenda he embraces and assesses it to be in his political interest to be associated with it. If it means ‘painful’ entitlement cuts for ordinary Americans at a time of massive unemployment, economic anxiety and exploding wealth inequality, so be it.” Glenn Greenwald, “Reports: Obama pushing for cuts to Social Security, Medicare,” Salon, July 7, 2011, accessed July 11, 2011, salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/2011/07/07/social_security.

The Producerist Narrative in Repressive Right-Wing Populism

Calls to rally the virtuous “producing classes” against evil “parasites” at both the top and bottom of society is a tendency called producerism. It is a conspiracist narrative used by repressive right wing populism. Today we see examples of it in some sectors of the Christian Right, in the Patriot movements and armed militias, and in the Far right. (see chart of US right). Producerism is involved in the relationship between Buchanan, Fulani, Perot, and the Reform Party.

Producerism begins in the US with the Jacksonians, who wove together intra-elite factionalism and lower-class Whites’ double-edged resentments. Producerism became a staple of repressive populist ideology.  Producerism sought to rally the middle strata together with certain sections of the elite. Specifically, it championed the so-called producing classes (including White farmers, laborers, artisans, slaveowning planters, and “productive” capitalists) against “unproductive” bankers, speculators, and monopolists above—and people of color below. After the Jacksonian era, producerism was a central tenet of the anti-Chinese crusade in the late nineteenth century. In the 1920s industrial philosophy of Henry Ford, and Father Coughlin’s fascist doctrine in the 1930s, producerism fused with antisemitic attacks against “parasitic” Jews.

Our conception of producerism is derived from Alexander Saxton’s discussion of the “Producer Ethic” as an ideology of the early White labor movement that “emphasized an egalitarianism reserved for whites.” (Saxton, The Rise and Fall of the White Republic: Class Politics and Mass Culture in Nineteenth-Century America [London: Verso, 1990], p. 313.) See also White Republic, p. 298; and Saxton, The Indispensable Enemy: Labor and the Anti-Chinese Movement in California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), pp. 21-22, 52, 265-69.

Our conception is also deeply influenced by Moishe Postone’s discussion of how modern antisemitism draws a false dichotomy between “productive” industrial capital and “parasitic” finance capital. See Postone, “Anti-Semitism and National Socialism: Notes on the German Reaction to ‘Holocaust,’” new german critique 19 (Winter 1980), pp. 97-115, esp. pp. 106-13.

We use the term producerism in a different way than Catherine McNicol Stock does in her book Rural Radicals: Righteous Rage in the American Grain (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1996). Stock portrays producerism simply as a form of populist antielitism, separate from (though sometimes coinciding with) attacks on people of color. In our view, producerism intrinsically involves a dual-edged combination of anti-elitism and oppression (in the US setting, usually in the form of racism or antisemitism, but also sexism and homophobia) and it is precisely this combination that must be addressed.

Michael Kazin, The Populist Persuasion: An American History (New York: Basic Books, 1995), also points out the ethnocentric problem of producerism as it rose in the nineteenth century:

“…the romance of producerism had a cultural blind spot; it left unchallenged strong prejudices toward not just African-Americans but also toward recent immigrants who had not learned or would not employ the language and rituals of this variant of the civil religion….Even those native-born activists who reached out to immigrant laborers assumed that men of Anglo-Saxon origins had invented political democracy, predeful work habits, and well-governed communities of the middling classes.”

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What is Fascism?

Some General Ideological Features

I am skeptical of efforts to produce a “definition” of fascism. As a dynamic historical current, fascism has taken many different forms, and has evolved dramatically in some ways. To understand what fascism has encompassed as a movement and a system of rule, we have to look at its historical context and development–as a form of counter-revolutionary politics that first arose in early twentieth-century Europe in response to rapid social upheaval, the devastation of World War I, and the Bolshevik Revolution. The following paragraphs are intended as an initial, open-ended sketch.

Fascism is a form of extreme right-wing ideology that celebrates the nation or the race as an organic community transcending all other loyalties. It emphasizes a myth of national or racial rebirth after a period of decline or destruction. To this end, fascism calls for a “spiritual revolution” against signs of moral decay such as individualism and materialism, and seeks to purge “alien” forces and groups that threaten the organic community. Fascism tends to celebrate masculinity, youth, mystical unity, and the regenerative power of violence. Often, but not always, it promotes racial superiority doctrines, ethnic persecution, imperialist expansion, and genocide. At the same time, fascists may embrace a form of internationalism based on either racial or ideological solidarity across national boundaries. Usually fascism espouses open male supremacy, though sometimes it may also promote female solidarity and new opportunities for women of the privileged nation or race. Read More

Rethinking Populism

Basic to developing new analytical frameworks for studying neofascism is the need to rethink the definition of populism.~1 In the late 1800’s in the US an agrarian-based popular mass revolt swept much of the country. Historian Lawrence Goodwyn described this original Populist movement in the US as “the flowering of the largest democratic mass movement in American history.”~2 This and other romanticized views see populist movements as inherently progressive and democratizing. It is as overly optimistic as the view of populism by centrist/extremist theory (as postulated by Bell, Lipset, Raab, and others) is overly pessimistic.~3 As Margaret Canovan observed in her book, Populism, “like its rivals, Goodwyn’s interpretation has a political ax to grind.”~4

Canovan defined two main branches of populism worldwide-agrarian and political-and mapped out seven disparate sub-categories.~5

Agrarian populism:

· Commodity farmer movements with radical economic agendas such as the US People’s Party of the late 1800’s.

· Subsistence peasant movements such as the East European Green Rising,

· Intellectuals who wistfully romanticize hard-working farmers and peasants and build radical agrarian movements like the Russian narodniki.

Political populism:

· Populist democracy, including calls for more political participation, including the use of the popular referendum.

· Politicians’ populism marked by non-ideological appeals for “the people” to build a unified coalition.

· Reactionary populism such as the White backlash harvested by George Wallace,

· Populist dictatorship such as that established by Peron in Argentina.

Populist democracy is championed by progressives from the LaFollettes of Wisconsin to Jesse Jackson. Politicians’ populism, reactionary populism, and populist dictatorship are antidemocratic forms of right wing populism characterized in various combinations in the 1990s by Ross Perot, Pat Robertson, Pat Buchanan, and David Duke…four straight White Christian men trying to ride the same horse.

Canovan notes that there are “a great many interconnections” among the seven forms of populism, and that “[m]any actual phenomena-perhaps most-belong in more than one category,” She adds that “given the contradictions” between some of the categories, “none ever could satisfy all the conditions at once.”~6 Combinations can vary. Populism in the US “combined farmers’ radicalism and populist democracy.”~7 There are only two universal elements; Canovan’s study shows that all forms of populism “involve some kind of exaltation of and appeal to `the people,’ and all are in one sense or another antielitist.”~8

In his book The Populist Persuasion Michael Kazin traces “two different but not exclusive strains of vision and protest” in the original US Populist movement: the revivalist “pietistic impulse issuing from the Protestant Reformation;” and the “secular faith of the Enlightenment, the belief that ordinary people could think and act rationally, more rationally, in fact, than their ancestral overlords.”~9

Kazin argues that populism is “a persistent yet mutable style of political rhetoric with roots deep in the nineteenth century.” His view compliments Canovan’s typology. These and other even-handed assessments of populism see that it can move to the left or right. It can be tolerant or intolerant. It can promote civil discourse and political participation or promote scapegoating, demagoguery, and conspiracism.~10 Populism can oppose the status quo and challenge elites to promote change, or support the status quo to defend “the people” against a perceived threat by elites or subversive outsiders.

The late 19th-century US populist movement had many praiseworthy features. As Lyons notes, “It promoted forms of mass democratic participation; popularized anti-monopolism and trust-busting sentiments, put the brakes on the greediest corporate pillagers and the concentration of economic power; demanded accountability of elected officials; formed cooperatives that promoted humane working relationships and economic justice; and set the stage for substantial reforms in the economic system.”~11 Kazin suggests that “when a new breed of inclusive grassroots movements does arise, intellectuals should contribute their time, their money, and their passion for justice. They should work to stress the harmonious, hopeful, and pragmatic aspects of populist language and to disparage the meaner ones….”~12

At the same time it is important to acknowledge that US populism drew. themes from several historic currents with potentially negative consequences, including:~13

· Producerism-the idea that the real Americans are hard-working people who create goods and wealth while fighting against parasites at the top and bottom of society who pick our pocket…sometimes promoting scapegoating and the blurring of issues of class and economic justice, and with a history of assuming proper citizenship is defined by White males;

· Anti-elitism-a suspicion of politicians, powerful people, the wealthy, and high culture…sometimes leading to conspiracist allegations about control of the world by secret elites, especially the scapegoating of Jews as sinister and powerful manipulators of the economy or media;

· Anti-intellectualism-a distrust of those pointy headed professors in their Ivory Towers…sometimes undercutting rational debate by discarding logic and factual evidence in favor of following the emotional appeals of demagogues;

· Majoritarianism-the notion that the will of the majority of people has absolute primacy in matters of governance…sacrificing rights for minorities, especially people of color;

· Moralism-evangelical-style campaigns rooted in Protestant revivalism… sometimes leading to authoritarian and theocratic attempts to impose orthodoxy, especially relating to gender.

· Americanism-a form of patriotic nationalism…often promoting ethnocentric, nativist, or xenophobic fears that immigrants bring alien ideas and customs that are toxic to our culture.

The resurgent right-wing forms of populism borrow from these traditions.