Racism Doesn’t Explain the Rise of Donald Trump

John Judis argues that populism—and the candidate’s celebrity—has done more to fuel his success than bigotry.

Trump Supporters
Donald Trump greets supporters after a rally on Aug. 21, 2015, in Mobile, Alabama.

Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images

In his new book, The Populist Explosion: How The Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics, John Judis sets out to explain the political and economic forces roiling Western societies. The rise of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, not to mention the recent vote in the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, have called into question the stability of the neoliberal order. Judis, the editor at large of Talking Points Memo, examines the ideological underpinnings of populist movements and places figures such as Sanders and Trump in their proper historical context.

I recently spoke by phone with Judis. (Disclosure: He and I were longtime colleagues at the New Republic.) During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed the distinctions between populism and fascism, the history of populist movements in the United States, and why he believes racism doesn’t explain the rise of Donald Trump.

Isaac Chotiner: How do you define populism, and how is your definition different from how others define the term?

John Judis: I define it in a way that’s very similar to other people, but not similar to some political scientists. Political scientists are always searching for essences; they want to know what characteristics define all kinds of populism, and I don’t think there are such characteristics. There aren’t characteristics of liberalism, for instance: There’s very little in common between a New Deal liberal in America and a liberal in Australia. People say Putin was a populist, Jack Kemp was a populist, Ronald Reagan was described as a populist. That’s not what I’m thinking about. I’m thinking about a political tradition that really began in the United States in the 1880s and 1890s—that’s where the word comes from. The French and Germans use the same word, populiste. I think there are certain things in common between populism in the United States and populism in Western Europe.

What are they?

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.

Why do you think we are seeing these explosions of populism here and in Europe right now?

That’s really what my book is about.

Not everyone has read it.

No, I understand that: It’s just a warm-up sentence. The kind of upsurge we have now really traces back to changes in both Europe and the United States in the 1970s and the 1980s. It was the change from one kind of political worldview to another. In the United States, from the end of World War II roughly through the Nixon period, politics was dominated by New Deal liberalism, even when Republicans were in charge. Nobody questioned progressive taxation, for instance. In Western Europe, even when Christian Democrats were in charge, social democracy had hegemony. In the 1970s, capitalism in the United States and Western Europe came under stress. You had the energy crisis; you had things like steel and textile production spreading around the world and the possibility of producing too much steel in comparison to demand internationally. You got heightened competition.

The corporations, at this point, were faced with a profit squeeze and with a challenge to their own futures. They started changing their own outlooks. What you start to get is a new kind of economic worldview. European political scientists always call it neoliberalism; in the United States a better term is probably market liberalism. The two key features of that are, first, that capital is mobile: You can move a corporation wherever you want, and there are no limits on the flow of money. You start to get deregulation of capital, you don’t get any limits on where corporations can expand to, you get trade treaties that are primarily designed to ease foreign investment. That’s one aspect. The second aspect is labor mobility: that people can live wherever they want. What this means in practice is: You get a lot of low wage, less educated immigrants moving into Western Europe, into the United States from south of the border. That, combined with capital mobility, creates a new kind of stress.

You didn’t, in Europe, get this kind of anti-immigrant sentiment before the 1970s. It’s hard to believe now, because you had a lot of immigrants, but they were guest workers. You had labor shortages. After the 1970s, there were no more labor shortages, there’s much more stress, there’s much more pressure on wages, on social costs. What’s happening now, and really what starts to happen in the 1990s, is a rebellion against this worldview, which is really, again, accepted by both the major parties. In the United States, you have NAFTA, you have financial deregulation in the 1990s. In Europe, you have the socialist parties moving toward the center. You begin to get a rebellion. The rebellion in Europe, initially in the north, is primarily against immigration.

I want to turn to how this explains someone like Trump.

Oh, you want to get to Trump?

Well, is that OK?

Yeah, yeah, that’s fine. Listen, I started to work on this book in May or so of 2015, and at the time, I would say the main populist movement in the United States was the Tea Party. Part of the question I wanted to ask was why this was happening in the United States. We went to New Hampshire for vacation in August, and I dragged my wife to all these political events. We went to hear Trump speak in New Hampshire, and there was a line stretching all around this high school. It was a lot of people who were curious, and I don’t think it was the kind of audience you get now at a Trump rally.

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.

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.

It had a lot to do with his celebrity and with his TV show.  Trump was first on the cover of People in 1981 or so.  When he came to New Hampshire to give a speech during the run-up to the 1988 GOP primary, he got a bigger crowds at this particular venue than Bush, Dole, or any of the other candidates. He has always had this outsized reputation, and the TV show simply added to it.  Perot and Iacocca were similar, but not as big.

I think immigration was always a big deal, that was always extraordinarily important, and there was a lot of continuity with the Tea Party as well. I think what was surprising about Trump, to me, too, and that fit, again, the tradition of populism was that he wasn’t an economic libertarian. He wasn’t a Ted Cruz. He didn’t want to get rid of or privatize Social Security or get rid of Medicare. In fact, he said that he was against the people who wanted to cut it. That fits the profile of, again, the same populist politics you find with Perot and Buchanan.

Trump has also called for the single biggest tax cut, going almost entirely to rich people, of any major candidate in forever, and has called for getting rid of endless regulations and environmental protections. So there is libertarian stuff.

Yes, he got to that sometime in the winter. I think that’s part of his attempt to win the Republicans and win the very standard Republican vote. I don’t deny that, absolutely. It coexists with all these other things, with the defense of Medicare and Social Security and with attacks against the trade treaties. Absolutely, yes.

There has been a lot of data correlating Trump support in the primaries with racial resentment. There’s been a big debate going on between different people about whether Trump’s rise is about inequality and all these economic forces or more about cultural forces and racism. It seems you fall more into the former category.

In 2008, I did an article for the New Republic, where I went to the General Social Survey, which is the huge, expensive survey that social scientists do every two years, and they ask a lot of leading questions that are designed to bring out racial resentment. That’s where you get these surveys and these claims by social scientists, about work, and idleness, and do some people deserve welfare, things like that. What I discovered was that Obama couldn’t possibly be elected president in the United States because there was so much racial resentment, according to these studies. It was inconceivable that he could win, for instance, a state like Ohio. Flash forward to November, and he wins Ohio. I realized there’s something wrong with this theory.

I remember mocking you for that story when we were at the New Republic, yes.

[Laughs] OK, yes, so you know I’m telling the truth. Political decisions are very complicated. By the time you get to actually say what candidate you want, there’s a lot of different factors, and you can’t reduce something to racial resentment.

But that doesn’t explain why in the primary, for example, Trump supporters were much more likely than supporters of other candidates to express racially insensitive views.

It might be a question of class too. I’m not sure. Trump supporters tended to be older; they tended to be less educated; they tended to come from part of the society that would be more susceptible to fears, resentments, or whatever, than the upper class. It still doesn’t explain their vote. Obama still won Ohio. It’s hard to reduce things to that, and I’m very suspicious of these social scientists who make these kind of analyses based upon statistical studies.

Obama’s vote in Ohio probably didn’t include many of the hardcore Republican primary supporters who went for Trump.

Yeah, we don’t know. All we know is that there have been these polls that show Trump ahead of Clinton in Ohio. I expect that Hillary Clinton will win, but again, I don’t think you can explain the votes that Trump might be getting, the support he might be getting from the white working class, simply on the basis of racism.

You’ve got this guy—he’s running as a Christian, but everyone knows that’s a joke. He expresses absolute contempt for ordinary people all the time. He even gets up at rallies and expresses contempt for his audience by saying, “I don’t need to be here, I’m better than this.” He’s spending his supporters’ money in absurd ways, he’s proposing a giant tax cut for rich people, he clearly doesn’t give a shit about anything or anyone. I just can’t believe he’d be forgiven all that stuff if, fundamentally, people who hold racist values didn’t believe “He’s one of us.” Tell me whether you think that’s wrong.

Oh, I think that’s wrong. I think that a lot of what you were citing there is what I call the Berlusconi aspect of Trump, that he’s a successful businessman. They like the idea that this guy is a billionaire. The other thing, the thing about the Christians, again, it’s more complicated than that, but that brings up the same point as the point I was making about race. I was always struck when I went to Christian Coalition meetings that you find the leadership was for all these things like NAFTA, but the rank and file were economic nationalists. The American voters are much more fungible than they appear at first glance. I wasn’t shocked to see people who identify themselves as, quote, “Christian Conservatives” supporting Trump.

You don’t put much stock in Trump’s rise being connected to the fact that we’ve had eight years of a black president?

No, I’m sorry, I really don’t. We had a white president from 1992 to 2000, and I’m old enough to remember the hatred that Bill Clinton engendered then. I think it cost Al Gore the election, especially in states like Missouri. There was a lot of holdover, and I’ve always thought that that was going to be a problem for Hillary Clinton.

You talk in your book about why you think terms like fascism are not helpful for people like Trump. Why is that?

I think fascism is pretty misleading; I think it’s only good to try to discredit someone. The main difference, and here we’re talking about Western Europe and the United States, is that fascism is a movement, in Italy and Germany in particular where it starts, characterized by two things. First, expansionism—the idea of creating an empire, whether the Third Reich or bringing back the Roman Empire. What we have now with all these movements is they’re contractionary; they’re nationalists in a narrow sense. Trump doesn’t want to absorb Mexico; he wants to keep Mexicans out. The British wanted to leave the European Union.

The second thing is that fascism was very much a reaction to socialism and communism, and that’s why the business classes eventually went along with Mussolini and Hitler, because they were going to knock out the socialists and the communists, and there was very little respect from the beginning for democracy, for bourgeois democracy. In Western Europe, the United States, I think that the democratic traditions are pretty much entrenched. Trump saying that he would support Hillary Clinton if she became president, I think you can take that to the bank. He would criticize her, but he’s not going to call the election illegitimate.

I would not take it to any bank.

We’re not going to face a kind of crisis of political legitimacy, unless we have a 2000 situation.

Is there any form of left-wing populism that you see in Europe, either in Spain or Greece, both of which you write about, or even in Britain, that you— yourself a bit of a left-wing populist—are optimistic about?

I think one of the characteristics of populism is that the movements define themselves by making demands that are conceivable—you can have Medicare for all in the United States, for instance—but that the establishment, that the major leadership, is not prepared to grant. There’s a sense in which its very nature is based upon making demands that are not going to be granted. They get in trouble when they get in government.

Podemos in Spain has had a lot of problems because, again, their appeal was initially based upon defying the European Union, but people in Spain are very nervous about that. The past is very important there, Franco, and being part of Europe is extremely important to the Spanish. There’s a way in which the left-wing populists are making an important critique, in the sense that they are pointing to the fact that the European Union and the euro are dysfunctional, that they’re leading toward economic crisis, particularly in the southern European countries, but they don’t have a solution.

At the end of the book, you express a little bit more faith that the neoliberal order has a better chance of surviving in the United States than it does within the European Union. Why?

I see populism and populist movements as early warning signs that a worldview is breaking up, that it’s under attack, and that it’s going to be replaced by something else. In Europe, I think that it could happen much sooner because of the Euro, and because of the way in which that currency works, it puts countries that are in trouble but have trade deficits in positions where the only way that they can solve their problems is by producing incredible austerity among their people. The United States has the dollar. It’s the international currency. We’re cushioned, in that sense, against crises.

So you think that will cushion us from political earthquakes?

I think we’re going to be a mess, the way we have been in effect since 1992, where it’s very difficult to get things done in Washington, where we have alternations between the parties, and where it’s difficult for any party to really pull off a successful even four years, let alone eight years, the way it was with Eisenhower, let’s say, and of course with Roosevelt. I think that we’re in for more turbulence, but I don’t think that we’re in for the kind of crisis that we had in the ’30s that produced an entirely new worldview, or that we had even in the ’70s and early ’80s. I would expect, again, if you forced me to, put a gun at my head, Hillary Clinton to win the election, and then in 2018 for there to be another Republican wave election, and we will be faced with more stalemate and gridlock in Washington. That’s what I would expect to happen. If Trump were to win the election, then all bets are off. Then we’re in a much more turbulent situation.

It’s interesting to think about the neoliberal order under more years of gridlock and frustration, what eventual populist uprising you’re going to have, even if it’s not Trump.

Yes. I started out my political career as a Marxist-socialist, I believed that the solution to all our problems was the democratic ownership that controls the means of production. I lost that faith sometime in the ’70s and ’80s, and became more of a progressive. I’ve come to believe more, partly from going to Europe, seeing the countries there, partly from Bernie Sanders’ success politically, that there really is a kind of solution to a lot of the problems, which is to enlarge our safety net here, eliminate a lot of the incredible anxiety that Americans feel about sending their kids to college, about getting sick. I think that there is a kind of social democracy that could work in America and that would benefit us all, but I don’t see it on the horizon. I think there’s too much conflict. I’m worried about the future of the country.