Trump and Producerism

The erudite if sometimes cranky Michael Lind (who is now a Contributing Editor to Politico Magazine, believe it or not) offers a pertinent reminder today that Tea Party followers of Donald Trump are obviously not obsessed with limited government:

The success of Trump’s campaign has, if nothing else, exposed the Tea Party for what it really is; Trump’s popularity is, in effect, final proof of what some of us have been arguing for years: that the Tea Party is less a libertarian movement than a right-wing version of populism. Think William Jennings Bryan or Huey Long, not Ayn Rand. Tea Partiers are less upset about the size of government overall than they are that so much of it is going to other people, especially immigrants and nonwhites. They are for government for them and against government for Not-Them.

This is what explains a lot of what’s going on now. After all, according to the commentariat, the Summer of Trump was supposed to have been the Summer of Rand Paul. It seems like only yesterday that the media were interpreting the rise of the Tea Party as a triumph of anti-statism and predicting that Paul, with his libertarian views on national security and data privacy, represented the future of the American right.
But Paul has all but disappeared from view, polling in the low single digits, while Trump has soared into the lead, and nothing he says, no matter how outrageous, seems to sour the right-wing base on him.

Now it’s not entirely clear “the Tea Party” is synonymous with Trump’s following. I’d say the prevailing evidence points to conservative white working class voters as his base, regardless of how they self-identify in the GOP’s factional wars. And the idea that a lot of Tea Folk are more interesting in denying government benefits to those people than in forgoing their own (which, of course, are earned) was best explained by Tom Edsall way back in 2010, whose essay on Tea Party politics as a battle over limited government resources was festooned with a drawing of the Tea Folks’ then-champion Sarah Palin in khakis, bellowing and clenching her fists.

But Lind does add one important piece of historical context that helps explain Trump:

Trump is no libertarian; quite the opposite. He is a classic populist of the right who peddles suspicion of foreigners—it’s no accident that he was the country’s leading “birther” raising questions about Barack Obama’s citizenship—combined with a kind of “producerism.” In populist ideology, society is divided not among rich and poor but among producers and parasites.

Populists are suspicious of unearned wealth, including the interest charged by bankers who manipulate “other people’s money” (to use the phrase of Louis Brandeis). And populists the world over are hostile to the idle or undeserving poor who allegedly live on welfare at the expense of productive workers and capitalists. Populists tend to attribute the existence of large numbers of the idle rich and the idle poor to government corruption. In the words of the 1892 People’s Party platform: “From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes—tramps and millionaires.”

From this perspective, Trump’s proposal to kill the carried interest tax exemption, and his scorn for the “hedge-fund guys” who benefit from it, makes perfect sense.

Now you might find it strange that a guy who’s made his fortune from real estate speculation and “brand management” poses as the champion of the horny-handed sons of toil as opposed to financial sector “parasites.” But then again, real estate is the great source of middle-class wealth for white Americans, and and the people who got lucky from being on the right side of various real estate bubbles are pretty heavily represented in the GOP rank-and-file, where contempt for the “losers” and “looters” who lost their shirts in the housing and financial collapses was the original impetus for the Tea Party Movement.

In any event, it’s a very good thing that outside some fever swamps, Americans don’t especially associate the financial sector with Jews. European producerists (or right-wing “populists,” if you will) in the last century rather conspicuously did, with lethal consequences. It seems Trump is satisfied with making immigrants and the politicians who speak Spanish to pander to them the personification of evil. But it should be clear his kind of politics involve fishing in all sorts of dark waters of resentment and bigotry.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.