The political and media establishments have spent months trying to understand the origins and ideology behind Donald Trump’s ascendancy within the Republican Party. Confused by Trump’s peculiar and contradictory blend of economic nationalism, celebrity showmanship, and white-identity politics, political analysts have described Trump and his core followers as either an undisciplined populist movement based on anger and anti-elitism or a more sinister proto-fascist movement seeking to harness rank prejudice and violent predilections into an authoritarian governing agenda.
Deciphering Trump is a slippery proposition given his ever-shifting ideas and social media pronouncements. Some days, it is not difficult to imagine Trump just giving up on the whole presidential campaign show and going back to making money through other scam media and business opportunities.
But it is important to take Trump’s rise seriously and to understand the sociological basis and ideological components of his movement. Given what we know about Trump at this point, it seems most accurate to describe his politics as an American version of the right-wing nationalism that is prevalent in many European nations today.
A dash of populism, a pinch of fascism
Trumpism—as an ideological and political movement—does incorporate elements of classic American-style populism and demagoguery, particularly his appeals to dispossessed workers, his cult-of-personality campaign tactics, his nostalgia for past greatness, and his decrying of establishment corruption and immorality. Trump’s “America first” trade and economic policies fall well within the traditional populist camp, even as it remains unclear how exactly he plans to increase workers’ wages and job opportunities or negotiate international trade and commerce. His bombastic attacks on elites and foreign competitors seeking to subvert American interests also fit squarely within the populist tent.
At the same time, there is little genuine populism in a wealthy businessman seeking to reduce his own taxes and waste government resources on militarism and fantasy walls along the Mexican border. Commentators have also overemphasized the significance of Trump’s supposed defense of Social Security and Medicare. There is scant evidence to date that Trump’s policy agenda seeks to create the kind of economic redistribution that formed the core of New Deal-era populist movements led by Huey Long, Francis Townsend, or Upton Sinclair. Trump may be a narcissistic rich person who thinks he knows better than everyone else, but his track record does not suggest that he is a principled defender of the little guy who genuinely wants to attack capitalist inequality, redistribute wealth, and reform the political establishment.
Trump and his campaign shock troops also appear to play dangerously close to the line of fascism with their explicit racist appeals to national identity and moblike mentality against people who are not ethnically white Americans. At this point, the evidence is alarming if mostly anecdotal and incoherent in policy terms: the periodic violence at Trump rallies; the undefined call to ban Muslims and other outsiders; the white nationalist groups backing Trump; and the neofascist hand salutes and social media iconography.
However, viewing Trump as a full-blown fascist diminishes the ideological origins of fascism in the early 20th century and obscures Trump’s real appeal as an avatar of white-identity politics who gives voice to the views of many whites who feel that their culture is losing out in a rapidly diversifying and multicultural society. Without ignoring the real racist and violent tendencies of some portion of Trump supporters, much of the larger anxiety driving his movement seems to come more from the desire of many working-class and older white Americans to be heard, understood, and respected rather than from any latent fascist leanings. People can be displeased with the current state of affairs without endorsing illiberal, anti-democratic, and potentially violent means of state-run racial and ethnic control.
Trump’s right-wing nationalism
So if Trump and his followers are not entirely populist or fascist in orientation, how should we think about this movement?
There are two parts to Trumpism that are very close to contemporary European-style right-wing nationalism. First is the economic component that has a base of support among working- and middle-class whites who have experienced genuine economic dislocation, job loss, rising costs, and stagnant wages. Although Trump is now drawing support across a range of Republican voters, exit polls from the earliest presidential primary states and other studies show disproportionate support for Trump among non-college-educated, lower-income, older, and more male white voters.
This is similar to the demographic base of many far-right and nationalist parties and movements in Europe that have successfully harnessed disillusioned white working- and middle-class voters across the spectrum with an anti-austerity, anti-immigration, and anti-globalization agenda that protects the jobs and welfare benefits of native-born populations. The erosion of economic security and opportunity among American and European voters is real and serves as important context, if not a full explanation, for understanding the rise of right-wing nationalistic politics.
The second important element of these movements involves the cultural resentments that drive nearly all right-wing nationalist campaigns. Many factors contribute to these deep-seated sentiments, including the belief that whites are losing out to others and the corresponding antipathy to immigrants and nonwhite, non-Christian populations; the resistance to multicultural societies and the preference for traditional family structures and small communities; and the distrust of global elites—the politicians, bureaucrats, professionals, and wealthy people believed to be the primary beneficiaries of a system that threatens their own status.
Of course, not all right-wing nationalist supporters are economically pressed and culturally alienated. Some voters can be financially secure and still hold cultural beliefs or anti-immigrant sentiments that drive them to the right, while others can be mostly tolerant but deeply economically insecure and angry at the political establishment. But the convergence of these two factors—economic dislocation and cultural resentment—explains a great deal about the political context for both European nationalist movements and idiosyncratic leaders such as Donald Trump.
These troubling trends require far more detailed research and analysis to fully understand and confront. But for now, the overarching imperative for progressives in addressing right-wing nationalism here and abroad is twofold:
- Stand firm on core values of inclusion and opportunity for all people
- Devise and promote a series of far-reaching governmental policies to address inequality and deficiencies in market economies that leave too many people—often living and working in distressed parts of their respective nations—vulnerable to the ill effects of globalization
Progressives must not capitulate to rising nativism and nationalism. But they also should not ignore the fact that in the absence of a real agenda for economic change, the forces promoting racial and ethnic scapegoating will increasingly shape public and political discourse in ways that are detrimental to open and democratic societies.
John Halpin and Ruy Teixeira are Senior Fellows at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.