The conservative website Breitbart declared on Tuesday that Paul Ryan is “bowing down” to “nationalist populism.”* This isn’t the first time we’ve heard that term recently; Trump, too, has been called a populist leader, and his popularity among Republicans has reinvigorated a political concept long viewed as dormant. Which leads to the question: What the hell is populism anyway?
In the 1880s, populism was a movement led by farmers and people who believed that Midwestern farmers represented “real America.” They were responding in part to increased urbanization and immigration, but more so to the rapidly growing wealth of elites — the Carnegies, the Vanderbilts, the Rockefellers. Populists wanted a fairer, more equal America, and they were right to be worried that they weren’t getting it: In a country expanding by the year, the wealthiest few were taking control of industries that now stretched from New York to San Francisco, from railroads to oil extraction, and making millions. For example, John D. Rockefeller, cofounder of the Standard Oil Company and America’s richest person at the turn of the 20th century, made $192,000 a week at a time when the average worker made less than $10.
The Populist movement took hold nationwide. Beginning in 1896, William Jennings Bryan ran for president three times with a Populist platform. He lost but effectively controlled the Democratic Party, demanding that corporations, banks, and the wealthy keep the United States out of foreign entanglements and give ordinary Americans fairer wages through economic practices aimed at the middle and working classes.
In 2016, populism isn't led by farmers, but it's still a movement responding to the power of elites. This time, however, it's not about famous families or oil companies. Modern populists are seeing income inequality so pronounced that in 15 states, the top 1 percent of earners captured all income growth between 2009 and 2013. They're also seeing that their interests — that is, the interests of white, working-class people in large swaths of the country where the wages aren't rising and the new jobs aren't coming — haven't been embraced by popular culture. Until, from their perspective at least, Donald Trump launched his campaign.
Trump's campaign is built on populist rhetoric, aimed squarely at the elites his voters see as more interested in gawking at the working class than standing alongside them. It's dependent on speaking primarily to people who don't feel heard, and telling them that their problems aren't their fault. "Trump's core supporters have not had their economic and social interests well-represented within America's leadership class for at least two decades," says Michael Dougherty, senior correspondent at TheWeek.com. "A populist revolt is good way to get everyone's attention. The way we talk about poverty and the white working class has already started to change because of Trump's candidacy." Dougherty added that Trump is not actually a populist, though: "Trump makes populist noises on trade, but his tax plans, his child care proposals, and much of his economic thinking seems to be just microwaved leftovers from Republican supply-siders." (Supply-siders believe that fewer government regulations will lead to a strong economy.) Trump's rhetoric is less focused on substance than on a stylistic rejection of so-called political correctness and of the political class itself. Trump's style of populism is still an embrace of a "real America," but it's more in service to himself than to the needs of the people who are responding to it the most fervently.
Because Trump is the only candidate willing to embrace the white working class, they — particularly those without college educations — have embraced him wholeheartedly back, despite the fact that Trump is himself an elite. Trump wants to ban people from entering the country, and the national media pillages him. Trump receives virtually no black support and pollsters deem his campaign D.O.A. But populist America — the people without passports, who don't go on vacations and can't afford to send their kids to college — see, for the first time since Pat Buchanan's run in 1992, a campaign run on publicly appealing to their interests. Bernie Sanders appealed to young people and to the urban poor — but Trump wins in areas where free college is far less appealing than a job that won't require a college education in the first place.
"I think Donald Trump is a populist in style, rhetoric, and in his positioning against the political orthodoxies to which both parties mostly hew," Dougherty says. "A populist sets himself up against a ruling class or clique, and he charges them with being corrupted by self interest, disloyal to the people, or not so smart after all." But for Trump and his supporters, that clique isn't a wealthy family or an oil company. It's, to their eyes at least, minorities (religious, racial, and sexual), the media, and everyone else outside of a Trump-determined definition of "real America." Trump shows us that populism, and the populist strain in America, is not going to disappear anytime soon. "If we want the populist fever to break," Dougherty continues, "America's leadership class needs to find some political formula or program for reconciling the legitimate interests of Trump supporters with those of the rest of the nation."
The problem with Trump-style populism ultimately isn't Donald Trump; it's that after Trump returns to Trump Tower in November, the voters who saw themselves reflected in his message will remain. They will still be living in towns where economic growth is invisible and where their lives aren't improving, and they will still remain largely unheard. And eventually another Trump, a better Trump, will hear them — and they'll respond.
* Ryan won his race, beating his Donald Trump–like opponent 85 to 15 percent in a congressional primary. Nationalist populism hasn't quite made it to suburban Wisconsin just yet.