Trump and Right-Wing Populism: A Long Time Coming

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This article appears in the Spring 2016 edition of The Public Eye magazine.

Most Americans surveying the wreckage of the national political landscape amid the 2016 presidential election are startled, most of all, by the ugliness and violence that has suddenly returned to our electoral politics thanks to the prominence of racist Far Right ideology in the Republican contest. And they shudder at the prospect of what that might mean for the nation’s politics long after de facto Republican nominee Donald Trump departs the scene—whenever that may be.

Almost as suddenly as Trump himself emerged as a major player in the race, so too did an array of White Nationalists and supremacists, conspiracists and xenophobes, and even Klansmen and skinheads. For decades these figures had been relegated to the outskirts of right-wing politics, and many mainstream observers seemed to think they’d gone extinct.1

The brashly offensive statements made by Trump about any number of minority groups or other individuals have likewise confounded observers.

“He is defying the laws of political gravity right now,” exclaimed mainstream political consultant Michael Bronstein in January. “Inside the presidential race, any one of these lines, if they were associated [with] another candidate, it would’ve ended the candidacy.”2

Donald Trump speaking at a campaign rally in Fountain Hills, Arizona. Source: Gage Skidmore via Flickr.

But the normal rules simply do not apply with Trump. Although he presents himself as a truth-talking business conservative—having emerged largely from these ranks—Trump has transformed himself into a creature of the populist Hard Right, the movement to which he owes his electoral success. The ideology that is identifiable through the candidate’s braggadocious and at times incoherent speaking style is the “producerist” narrative,3 which pits ordinary White working people against both liberals—who are cast as an oppressive class of elites—and the poor and immigrants, who are denigrated as parasites.

Producerism has historically been tied to far-right movements, whether the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s or the Patriot/militia movement of the 1990s and today. The rhetoric of the militia movement, which arose during the Bill Clinton administration, served to help mainstream the Radical Right. Most of these militias initially presented themselves as ordinary civic organizations devoted to protecting people’s rights and property, even as they gathered a large number of violent militants within their ranks. But any positive spin on the movement was derailed by acts of terrorism associated with the movement, like the Oklahoma City bombing. Marginalized, the Patriots largely went into hiatus in the early part of the new century, during the conservative Republican administration of George W. Bush, but the motivations that fueled their movement remained very much alive.

During the same years that militias were first organizing, right-wing media simultaneously arose as a separate propaganda organ that demonized liberals and presented conservatives as the only true American patriots. The following decade, during the Iraq War, conventional right-wing rhetoric on outlets like Fox News became vociferous and eliminationist: liberals were derided as “soft on terror,” and any criticism of Bush and his administration was denounced as “treasonous.” Meanwhile, conspiracist elements of the Far Right found fuel in the aftermath of September 11th, which produced an entire cottage industry devoted to proving the terror attacks part of a conspiratorial plot, giving fresh life to the already-hoary “New World Order” theories of the 1990s.

During the Bush years, the Far Right largely declined from their 1990s levels of organization but remained active and bubbling along on these conspiracist fringes. The candidacy and election of President Barack Obama in 2008, however, changed all that, sparking a virulent opposition. The mainstream Right, after years of right-wing media conditioning during both the Clinton and Bush years, seemed no longer able to abide the idea of sharing power with a liberal president and set out to delegitimize Obama by any means possible. And it was through that shared hatred that the mainstream Right and the Far Right finally cemented their growing alliance in the loose assemblage of conservative activists known as the Tea Party. Ostensibly a movement for low taxes and small government, in reality the Tea Party represented the mobilization of right-wing groups to oppose any and every aspect of Obama’s presidency.

Source: Christian Cable License:

“New World Order” theories are examples of the conspiracist element of the Far Right. Source: Christian Cable via Flickr.

In the rural and suburban red-voting districts where the Tea Party organized itself, the movement became the living embodiment of right-wing populism, evoking and popularizing producerism’s twin demonization of both liberals and the poor and immigrants. As with most varieties of right-wing populism, many elements of the Tea Party embraced conspiracism, the supposed “tyranny” of the president, and ideas that bubbled up from the Far Right, including “constitutionalism,” “nullification,” and even secession. The Tea Party became the main conduit for passing ideas that originated with the Patriot movement, and its far-right cousins, into the mainstream of American conservatism: the belief, for example, that the Constitution prohibits any form of gun regulation, federal land ownership, or federal law enforcement.4 It’s from these corners of the Right that the idea of the county sheriff as the highest legitimate law-enforcement entity in the land emerged.

Hand-in-hand with these beliefs about the Constitution came a panoply of conspiracy theories: that a nefarious New World Order is plotting to enslave all of mankind; that President Obama was born overseas and plans to institute Sharia law; that climate change is a scam dreamed up by land-planning environmentalists and leftists seeking to control every facet of our lives.

This is a universe in which facts, logic, reason, and the laws of political gravity do not apply. And early on, Donald Trump identified its politics with his own.

“I think the people of the Tea Party like me,” he told a Fox News interviewer in 2011, “because I represent a lot of the ingredients of the Tea Party. What I represent very much, I think, represents the Tea Party.”5

Trump in action has certainly delivered on that. The opening salvo of his campaign, in which he castigated Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists and promised to erect a border wall, was straight out of the Tea Party’s hardcore nativist playbook. And his subsequent positions and rhetoric—attacking “the Establishment,” Black Lives Matter and “political correctness,” vowing to outsmart China on trade, promising to protect the Second Amendment, promising to overturn Roe v. Wade and suggesting that women who get abortions could be jailed—were similarly straight out of the right-wing populist milieu.

Most of all, his claim that his personal wealth would make him, as president, immune to the demands of the wealthy and other special interests, formed the foundation for his populist appeal, as someone who would look out for the interests of “ordinary Americans.” That appeal was bolstered by his promises to get the nation’s economic engine into high gear, voiced in common terms: “We’re going to get greedy for the United States,” he told a crowd in Las Vegas. “We’re gonna grab and grab and grab. We’re gonna bring in so much money and so much everything. We’re going to Make America Great Again, I’m telling you folks.”6

Trump has cannily tapped a large voting bloc that was already created by conservative movement activists, and made large by the very rhetoric and ideology that nearly all of the movement’s media organs embraced to some degree before his arrival on the scene.

Before the Trump campaign, these true believers of the Hard Right were thought to comprise the margins of the Republican Party, a tiny subset that had no voice and even less power. What the Trump campaign reveals, unquestionably, is that they are no longer so tiny, nor so powerless.

Even if Trump were to fade away after 2016—something that is becoming an ever more unlikely event—those who rose up to support him will not, nor will their alternative universe shatter and fall. What they will become after the election will depend on how radicalized they are becoming during the election process, and on how the rest of society responds to the violence that emanates from their ranks. It will be a serious and significant challenge.

After all, the reality is that they have been around for a very long time—buried deep in the American psyche—and are now springing forth with renewed vigor, thanks to the encouragement that Trump is giving them.

About the Author

David Neiwert is a Seattle-based investigative journalist and the Pacific Northwest correspondent for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, as well as the author of several books, including And Hell Followed With Her: Crossing the Dark Side of the American Border.


1 Chip Berlet, “‘Trumping’ Democracy: Right-Wing Populism, Fascism, and the Case for Action,” Political Research Associates, December 12, 2015,

2 Chris Stigmal, “Donald Trump Defying The Laws Of Political Gravity,” CBS Philly, January 25, 2016,

3 “Right-Wing Populism in the United States,” Political Research Associates, 2009,

4 Spencer Sunshine, “Gunning for Office: Oregon’s Patriot Movement and the May 2016 Primary,” Political Research Associates, April 19, 2016,

5 Dave Neiwert, “Donald Trump Claims To Be The Ideal Tea Party Candidate: ‘I Represent A Lot Of The Ingredients Of The Tea Party,’” Crooks and Liars, April 7, 2011,

6 “Transcript: Trump’s ‘winning, winning, winning’ speech,” Tampa Bay Times, February 24, 2016,

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 (, 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 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, 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.


Talking to the Tea Partiers


1 Laura Meckler, “Obama Signs Stimulus Into Law,” the Wall Street Journal, February 19, 2009, accessed April 24, 2011,

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,; President Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President on the Home Mortgage Crisis,” February 18, 2009, accessed April 24, 2011,; The White House, “Homeowner Affordability and Stability Plan, Executive Summary,” the New York Times, February 18, 2009, accessed April 24, 2011;; Nick Timiraos, “Views of Life After Fannie, Freddie,” the Wall Street Journal, February 12, 2011, accessed April 24, 2011,

3 “CNBC’s Rick Santelli’s Chicago Tea Party,” YouTube, uploaded February 19, 2009, accessed April 24, 2011,; “Rick Santelli: Tea Party,” full transcript, February 19, 2009, accessed April 24, 2011,

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,

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,; “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,

6 “Rick Santelli – The Rant Heard ‘Round the World,’, February 19, 2009, accessed April 25, 2009,; Mark Whittington, “Rick Santelli’s Anti-Obama ‘Rant Heard Around the World,’” Yahoo Contributor Network, February 19, 2009, accessed April 25, 2009,

7 FreedomWorks formed in 2004 from the merger of Citizens for a Sound Economy and Empower America. FreedomWorks, SourceWatch, accessed April 28, 2011,

8 Kate Zernike, “Shaping Tea Party Passion into Campaign Force,” the New York Times, August 25, 2010, accessed May 4, 2011,

9 The American Presidency Project, UC Santa Barbara, accessed May 11, 2011,;

10 According to CNN, the number of respondents was 17,836. “President National Exit Poll 2008,”, undated, accessed May 17, 2011,

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,

12 Paul Krugman, “The Specter of Republican Marginalization,” the New York Times, April 28, 2009, accessed May 5, 2011,; Bob Herbert, “Out of Touch,” the New York Times, May 1, 2009, accessed May 4, 2009,; Joe Conason, “How did that realignment work out for you, Republicans?”,, November 10, 2008, accessed May 5, 2011,, Frank Rich, “The Moose Stops Here,” the New York Times, November 16, 2008, accessed May 5, 2011,

13 Paul Krugman, “The Republican Rump, ” the New York Times, November 3, 2008, accessed May 5, 2011,

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,; “Growing Number of Americans Say Obama is a Muslim,” The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, August 18, 2010, accessed May 8, 2011,

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,; Media Matters for America,

16 “Time Poll Results: Americans’ Views on the Campaign, Religion and the Mosque Controversy,” Time, August 18, 2010, accessed May 6, 2011,,8599,2011680,00.html; Josh Gerstein, “Poll: 46% of GOP thinks Obama’s Muslim,” Politico, August 19, 2010, accessed May 6, 2011,

17 “Palin: Obama pals around with terrorists,”AP, October 4, 2008, accessed May 6, 2011,; Jim Rutenberg, “The Man Behind the Whispers About Obama,” the New York Times, October 12, 2008, accessed May 5, 2011,; “The Origin of the Birthers, The Week, April 29, 2011, accessed May 6, 2011,; “Americans’ Beliefs about Obama’s Birth,” Gallup, April 27, 2011, accessed April 30, 2011,; “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,

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,; Profiles of Charles Koch and David Koch,, March 2011, accessed April 28, 2011,,; Clare O’Connor, “The Billionaires Bankrolling the Right,”, October 21, 2010, accessed April 28, 2011,

21 Bill Winter, “David Koch – Libertarian,” Advocates for Self-Government, accessed June 12, 2011,

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?”,, December 3, 2009, accessed May 14, 2011,

25 Russell Gold, “Astroturfing the Climate Bill,” Wall Street Journal, August 17, 2009, accessed April 24, 2011,; 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,

27 “Porkulus,” the New York Times blog, February 8, 2009, accessed May 8, 2011,

28 Devin Burghart and Leonard Zeskind, “Tea Party Nationalism,” Institute for Research & Education on Human Right, Fall 2010, accessed April 28, 2010,; Michelle Malkin, “‘Yes We Care!’ Porkulus Protestors Holler Back,” February 17, 2009, accessed April 28, 2011,, “Stop the Stimulus protest in Ft. Myers, FL tomorrow,” February 9, 2009, accessed May 9, 2011,, “The next anti-porkulus protest: Mesa, Arizona,”February 17, 2009, accessed May 10, 2011,; Brendan Steinhauser, FreedomWorks blog, February 9, 2009, accessed May 9, 2011,; 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,; Alex Brant-Zawadzki and Dawn Teo, “Anatomy of the Tea Party Movement: FreedomWorks,” HuffingtonPost, December 11, 2009, accessed May 8, 2011,; Jane Hamsher, “A Teabagger Timeline: Koch, Coors, Newt, Dick Armey There from the Start,” HuffingtonPost, April 15, 2009, accessed May 11, 2011,

29 Christian M. Wade, “ ‘Tampa Tea Party’ Pours Scorn on Stimulus Package,” Tampa Bay Online, February 27, 2009, accessed April 29, 2011,; Brian Beutler, “FreedomWorks’ Long History of Teabagging,” TPM, April 14, 2009, accessed April 29, 2011,; Brendan Steinhauser, FreedomWorks blog, February 19, 2009, accessed April 29, 2011,

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,; Also see the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy,, SourceWatch,, and,

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

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,; Brian Montopoli, “Tax Day Brings Out ‘Tea Party’ Protestors,” April 15, 2009, accessed May 24, 2009,; Liz Robins, “Tax Day Is Met With Tea Parties,” April 15, 2009, accessed April 28, 2011, the New York Times,

34 Nate Silver, “How Many Attended the Tea Parties?”, April 15, 2009, accessed April 28, 2011,,

35 Paul Krugman, “Tea Parties Forever,” the New York Times, April 12, 2009, accessed July 13, 2011,

36 Lee Fang, “Spontaneous Uprising? Corporate Lobbyists Helping To Orchestrate Radical Anti-Obama Tea Party Protests,” ThinkProgress, April 9, 2009, Accessed May 4, 2011,

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,; Kenneth R. Bazinet and Corky Siemaszko, “Obama Takes Responsibility for Midterm Election Losses,” November 3, 2010, accessed June 25, 2011, Daily News,

39 Tom Moroney and Terrence Dopp, “Tea Party Election Results Diluted in Highly Populated States,” Bloomberg News, November 5, 2010, accessed May 11, 2011,;

40 Maya Srikrishnan et al., “Which Tea Party Candidates Won?”,, November 3, 2010, accessed May 5, 2011,

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,;

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,

45 Phone interview Amy Zelvin, Vice President Media Relations CNBC, May 13, 2011,

46 David Bauder, “Rick Santelli Not Connected to Tea Party Website: CNBC,” AP, March 2, 2009, accessed May 14, 2011,

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

48 “What Users are Saying About Santelli’s Tea Party,”, February 20, 2009, accessed April 29, 2011,

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,

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,

51 Joan Walsh, “Rachel Maddow Demolishes Rand Paul,” Salon, May 19, 2010, accessed June 22, 2011,

52 “NY Gubernatorial Candidate Carl Paladino’s Racist and Sexist Email History,”, April 12, 2010, accessed June 24, 2011,

53 William Douglas, “Tea party protesters scream ‘nigger’ at black congressmen,” McClatchy Newspapers, March 20, 2010, accessed June 22, 2011,

54 “Tea Party’s Most Offensive & Racist Signs,” Midweek Politics, September 17, 2010, accessed June 23, 2011,

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,

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,

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,

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,; Christopher Parker, “Race and the Tea Party: Who’s right?”, Salon, May 3, 2010, accessed June 24, 2011,

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,

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,

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,

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,

77 Neil King Jr. and Scott Greenberg, “Poll Shows Budget-Cuts Dilemma,” the Wall Street Journal, March 3, 2011, accessed July 12, 2011,

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,

Rethinking Populism

Portions of this essay first appeared on the PRA website in a section called “Too Close for Comfort” as preliminary research studies that were later incorporated into the book Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort by Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons, New York, Guilford Press, 2000; which maintains an updates website.

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.