The Tie That Binds Economic Nationalism and Racism

Isaac Chotiner interviewed John Judis about his book, “The Populist Explosion: How The Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics.” In describing Trump’s populist appeal, Judis talks about going to his rallies early on in this election season and describes what he saw:

He did some of his riffs that you heard later on immigration, but I was amazed, because he went on and on about how the Ford Motor Company was going to move its assembly plant to Mexico, and if that happened when he was president, he would put a 35 percent tariff on the goods that they sent back. He talked about corporate inversions, about corporations moving overseas in order to escape taxes. These were the kind of issues that I really hadn’t heard dramatized since the time of Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan: It was economic nationalism. At that point, what became the most incendiary part of his rhetoric about immigration and stuff was what the liberal press picked up on, but I would say it was secondary to the economic nationalism. That was the heart of his message.

Chotiner presses him about what actually preceded those rallies.

But John, this guy’s first political issue was birtherism. That was what got people on the far right interested initially.

Oh, I don’t think so at all. I don’t think that many of the people who were lined up to hear him even knew that aspect about Donald Trump. I interviewed a lot of people—I went to his rallies elsewhere in the country, in Dallas for instance, when he spoke there. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anybody mention the birther stuff, not one person. I think I must have interviewed upward of 50 to 75 people. No, I don’t think that was a big deal.

In other words, Judis’ position is that the racism behind Trump’s birtherism was not a factor in his appeal – it was all about economic nationalism.

As someone who regularly dismisses any explanation for a cultural phenomenon built around an either/or premise, I disagree with Judis on that principle alone. But my arguments against that statement go beyond that.

Judi starts the interview with his own definition of populism that seems to speak against the very distinction he is making.

The central characteristic of all populist movements and politicians in this tradition is the strict demarcation between the people on the one hand and an elite or establishment on the other hand. The people are arrayed against the establishment. There’s a difference between a left-wing and a right-wing version of populism. The left-wing version looks entirely upward: It tries to unite the middle and the bottom against the top; it says the establishment is betraying the people; it makes demands of the establishment, the elite. Conservative or right-wing populism is arrayed against the elites: Tea Party people don’t like Wall Street, Donald Trump complains about them, but there is usually another dimension, which is to say that the establishment is coddling a third group, another group, which might be African Americans with George Wallace, it might be illegal immigrants, it might be Muslims.

In other words, Trump’s right-wing version of populism is based on a re-direction of anger at the elite towards the minority group they are seen to be coddling…African Americans, illegal immigrants (read: brown immigrants) and/or Muslims. It is pretty hard to imagine how you remove racism from that equation.

But Judis really wants to focus on the “neoliberalism” of globalization that has fueled economic nationalism. In many ways that issue was captured very well by Bernie Sanders when he said that, “American workers should not have to compete against workers in Vietnam making 65 cents an hour.” It’s hard to argue against that. The real problem comes when you try to come up with a plan for what to do about it. If your only concern is to protect the wages of American workers and disregard what that means for the people of Vietnam, you engage in the same kind of zero sum game thinking that pits “us agains them.” It’s not an accident that the “them” in these scenarios is almost always a person of color. In other words, Trump’s economic nationalism as captured by “America first” is simply an extension of racism to the rest of the globe.

This is not to say that the United States (or any other country) should ignore the needs of their own citizens or put the problems of other people ahead of them. It simply means that whenever we approach a problem with zero sum game thinking we drift towards an “us or them” mentality. The problem with that isn’t that it is selfish. The real problem is that, in an interconnected world, it’s ignorant. That is true whether we are talking about racism or economic nationalism (which really becomes nativism in Trump’s world). Here is how President Obama talked about that back in 2009:

For we have learned from recent experience that when a financial system weakens in one country, prosperity is hurt everywhere. When a new flu infects one human being, all are at risk. When one nation pursues a nuclear weapon, the risk of nuclear attack rises for all nations. When violent extremists operate in one stretch of mountains, people are endangered across an ocean. When innocents in Bosnia and Darfur are slaughtered, that is a stain on our collective conscience. That is what it means to share this world in the 21st century. That is the responsibility we have to one another as human beings.

And this is a difficult responsibility to embrace. For human history has often been a record of nations and tribes — and, yes, religions — subjugating one another in pursuit of their own interests. Yet in this new age, such attitudes are self-defeating. Given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail. So whatever we think of the past, we must not be prisoners to it. Our problems must be dealt with through partnership; our progress must be shared.

He might have included that “when workers in Vietnam are only paid 65 cents an hour, we all pay the price.” The real challenge that the right’s populism fails to grasp is how we can build up BOTH American workers and those who live in Vietnam. But that doesn’t do much to fuel the anger/fear against “them,” does it?

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.