This article is adapted from “In Defense of Populism: Protest and American Democracy,” by Donald T. Critchlow (University of Pennsylvania Press, 224 pages, $29.95)

Populism and Nationalism Aren’t Going Away

White voters were essential to Donald Trump’s election in 2016, especially in key battleground states in the Midwest. He won the white vote across every category, lower income to high income, non–college-educated and college-educated. His margin among whites without a college degree was the largest among any candidate in exit polls since the 1980s. Two-thirds of non–college educated whites voted for Trump. This resulted in a whopping 30 percent margin for Trump over Clinton in that group. He won college-educated whites as well (49 percent to 45 percent), which should be a warning to the Democrats and which belies many pundits who describe Trump voters as angry, non-college educated, white males. 

The only exception were college-educated women, whose votes he won only 48 percent. Exit polls showed that white working-class voters with no college degrees went overwhelmingly for him, 71 percent to 23 percent. Trump’s appeal to the white working class was striking: of the 660 counties that are 85 percent white with a median income, Trump won all of them with the exception of two. Trump won the white working-class vote because of economic dislocation, fears of professional managerial elites, and social and racial anxieties, as well as opposition to Hillary Clinton for various reasons. 

White non-Hispanic voters went for Trump by a margin of 21 percentage points (58 percent to 37 percent), according to the Pew Research Institute. He fared about a percentage point better among Hispanic voters than did Mitt Romney in 2012, by winning about 30 percent of these voters. Within the black vote, Trump actually received two points over what Romney received. The real difference in the black vote for Clinton was that blacks just did not turn out in the same numbers for her as they had for Obama. She was a white woman from a political dynasty offering the status quo.

Trump entered the White House pledged to an agenda that benefited the national interest over global elite interests. As president, Trump continued to use rhetoric that he had used as a candidate by denouncing global elites, fake media, political insiders, and corruption within the “deep state.” This rhetoric tapped into a wellspring of anger within the Republican base and a segment of the American public who believed, rightly or wrongly, that they had been betrayed by promises of economic prosperity in the new global economy, trade with China, and the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994. This anger within the Republican base had been brewing long before Trump declared himself a presidential candidate. 

The Tea Party movement expressed this anger, which lay festering in the 2012 presidential race, when Republicans rallied behind their party’s presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, who proved articulate, intelligent, and quite polite. He lost to incumbent president Barack Obama, whose campaign portrayed Romney as an elitist, a Wall Street insider, a man who did not care about average people, and a candidate out of touch with current realities of the world. 

The media seized on the image of Romney strapping his dog in a crate on top of the family’s station wagon while on a summer vacation; Romney’s wife was portrayed as a rich woman who loved riding thoroughbred horses; and Romney’s warning that Russia was America’s number-one threat was dismissed as early Cold War thinking. Romney’s seeming refusal to counterpunch left many within the Republican base angry. They were reminded of George W. Bush, who refused to counter accusations of being a warmonger. Thus, when Trump stepped on the stage and hit his opponents hard—whether it was Bush’s brother, Jeb, who was seeking the nomination, or Hillary Clinton—they cheered, even as some cringed and others were repulsed by his rhetoric. 

Below the volcano of emotion lie deeper layers of discontent: a woke culture that criticized white privilege and systematic racism and intolerant and bigoted Christians; continued political setbacks for the GOP; and failure of Republican Party leaders to respond to the concerns of the base. 

Trumpism captured voter discontent, but with or without Trump as the leader of the Republican Party, this populist sentiment within the electorate is not going to disappear. Trump became a conduit for a populist revolt within American politics. He appealed to a sense of patriotism within the electorate, although his critics denounced it as racist and xenophobic, echoing fascist dictators of the 1930s.

Much like “populism,” descriptions relying on “nationalism” and “anti-globalism” lack precise definition. The standard dictionary definition of nationalism is placing one’s nation first, spirit and aspirations to the nation as a whole, and devotion and loyalty to one’s nation. Nationalism is closely associated with patriotism. The nation-state arose late in European history as a socially constructed political organization to bring diverse people and regions together into a political entity. 

Nationalism per se should be distinguished from ethnic nationalism (white or Aryan supremacy), xenophobia, nativism, or imperialism. These tendencies can be found within nationalism, just as patriotism can be translated into a hyperpatriotism that does not allow dissent.

One way of thinking about a healthy nationalism and patriotism is to look at Abraham Lincoln’s nationalism and patriotism. 

As a young Whig in Congress, Lincoln opposed the Mexican-American War as a war of aggression. In his opposition, he continued to proclaim his nationalism and patriotism. The Whig Party, under Henry Clay and the American System, stood above all else as a nationalist party. Lincoln’s nationalism continued into the Civil War. The war was fought, as Lincoln declared, over preserving the nation. In this sense, he stood as a nationalist. 

How else can Lincoln’s opening lines of the Gettysburg Address in 1863 be read other than as a healthy nationalism: “Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.” 

Lincoln understood that a healthy nation—a healthy nationalism, if you will—needed to rest on higher principles, universal principles. For this nation, the American nation, it was that “all men are created equal.” The Civil War was fought to preserve the Union and to uphold the belief that all men were created equal. Seen from this perspective, Lincoln’s was a healthy nationalism. 

When nationalism is used to promote racial or ethnic superiority at the exclusion of citizens of the nation, it subverts the nation itself. When populism—a distrust of elites—degenerates into anti-Semitic, racist conspiracy—it misdirects a healthy suspicion of centralized power. When patriotism is used to suppress legitimate dissent or to rally people for wars of aggression, national values are translated into dictatorships. Yet nationalism should be seen as a double-edged sword, depending on who wields it.

However nationalism is used, the outburst of populism and nationalist expression is not going away in European and American politics until voters believe that established parties have addressed their legitimate concerns. The forms that populism and nationalism take will vary in time and place. 

In the United States, partisan divides within Congress and a polarized electorate have prevented the translation of populist social protest into meaningful reform legislation, at this point, on a wide range of issues, including healthcare, immigration, entitlements, and the public debt. 

If elected representatives and party establishments fail to respond to an angry electorate, found in both parties, the politics of the street can be expected. Violence has already occured. Political protest, however, does not inevitably translate into viable or coherent social movements necessary for political reform. Instead, the politics of the street can easily escalate into mob violence and inevitable reaction from a citizenry insistent on order. The result is greater partisan divide and greater political volatility.

About Donald T. Critchlow

Donald T. Critchlow is Katzin Family Professor of History and leads the Program in Political History and Leadership at Arizona State University. He is author of numerous books, including Republican Character: From Nixon to Reagan, also available from the University of Pennsylvania Press.

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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One response to “Populism and Nationalism Aren’t Going Away”

  1. Russian Orthodoxy didn’t go away in the Soviet Union, either, but it took seventy years of brutal socialist oppression and defeat by a foreign power to free it again.