Next month’s United States election is not about policy, nor is it even about President Donald Trump. It is about America’s constitutional system. This is not to suggest that the election could end that system. While Trump has an authoritarian temperament and admires dictators like Russian President Vladimir Putin, he is unlikely to become an autocrat even if he is re-elected. The real question that America faces concerns the role of the national government in the life of the country.
Trumpism is just the latest in a series of populist waves born of anger toward what people see as unaccountable, self-interested political elites in Washington, DC. Indeed, the story begins before that city was founded. The American Revolution targeted remote, self-interested elites in London, and it was soon followed by a major dispute over the power of the national government.
Critics argued that the proposed new Constitution would create a national governing elite, thus undermining the hard-won sovereignty of the colonies-turned-states. Though the Constitution’s proponents prevailed, the critics proved prescient. Almost immediately, populist movements emerged to challenge what was seen as elite rule. Jeffersonian democracy overthrew the Federalist elites in 1800, and then Jacksonian democracy overthrew the Jeffersonian elites in 1829.
Although Jeffersonian and Jacksonian democracy differed in many ways, both reflected a belief that the elites who had led the American Revolution had broken their promise of delivering self-government to the masses. Elected officials, judges, and bureaucrats seemed to come from great families or the upper class, and to rule accordingly, like the corrupt aristocracy Americans had just escaped. The solution was to return political power to the masses by expanding the franchise, extending democracy to more offices (like state judgeships), and limiting the power of the national government.
This wave of populism was temporarily overtaken by the debate over slavery and the Civil War, but it roared back in the late nineteenth century. This time, it was led by southern and midwestern farmers who believed that they were being ignored by the two main political parties, and exploited by the banks and railroads those parties served. The Populists invoked Jackson as their hero, attacked the entire political system as corrupt, and formed their own People’s Party to advance their interests.
The next great wave of populism came during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Politicians like Huey Long, Louisiana’s governor and then a US senator, came to power by promising to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor. Long accused established politicians of plutocracy, and attempted to undermine all competing power centers, from the state legislature to the university system. By the time he died, in 1935, he had attracted a significant national following.
The last flare-up of populism before now was in the 1960s, when Barry Goldwater, the Republican nominee for president in 1964, expanded his appeal nationally by claiming that the federal bureaucracy (“big government”) was responsible for all of America’s problems. Such anti-elitism was also common on the left, which blamed a racist, imperialist establishment for the Cold War and intervention in Vietnam.
The logic of populism is simple and powerful: If things go badly, the blame lies with the government and the elites who run it. While American populists have attacked state governments, the federal government has always been their primary target because of its remoteness. People may trust local politicians and their own representative or senator. But other than the president and congressional leaders, federal officials are largely faceless.
All populist movements burn out when their internal contradictions overtake popular enthusiasm. Populists loathe the elites, but cannot rule without putting their own elites in power. Jeffersonian democracy yielded a one-party state run by Virginia planters; Jacksonian democracy produced a corrupt party system controlled by bosses and professional politicians; the Populist movement lost momentum when, in order to make political progress, it threw in its lot with the Democratic Party. And sometimes populists are outmaneuvered by establishment politicians or lose power as conditions improve. Roosevelt moved left to counter the Longian populism of the 1930s, and the populism of the 1960s collapsed with the end of Jim Crow and the Vietnam War.
Trumpian populism should be divorced from Trump, who has ridden a political wave that he neither initiated nor controls. Its main source is anger at the advance of cultural liberalism, economic stagnation, and inequality – all of which have been blamed, with more or less justice, on national elites and the institutions they dominate. This same wave helped the relative outsider Barack Obama defeat the establishment candidates Hillary Clinton and John McCain in 2008, though Obama was a technocrat by temperament and governed accordingly.
Populism is dangerous because it rests on an uncompromisingly hostile attitude toward established political institutions and the professional politicians on whom we ultimately have no choice but to depend, whatever their imperfections. That is why, in hindsight, populism can seem irrational even if when has done good by bringing legitimate grievances to the attention of government and the public. Trump’s attacks on institutions and norms, culminating in his refusal to guarantee a peaceful transition of power, are veering toward nihilism.
And that brings us to the election next month. We do not yet know whether the twenty-first-century populist wave that brought Trump to power has exhausted itself. It is possible that the pandemic has reminded people of the virtues of expertise and professionalism in government. But so many Americans have invested themselves fully in opposing the unelected bureaucrats of the “deep state” that Trumpism could live on without its namesake, perhaps led by a new tribune – threatening more years of chaos and division. Only a truly decisive defeat for both Trump and the Republicans can prevent that from happening.
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