Trumpism and Authoritarian Populism

For decades opinion polls in the US have indicated that the electorate self-identifies as 43% Democrats, 43% Republicans and 14% Independents. It is the party that wins the swing independent voters that tends to win elections, but the party that fails to turn out its base may still lose even after attracting the majority of independent voters. The US electoral maps have looked all red for decades, with blue regions clinging to the coastal margins, suggesting that Trump’s victory was not as an unexpected as it seems.

Trump appears to have mobilized support from across racial, class, and gender constituencies to pull off an upset in the 2016 election, leaving pundits scratching their heads for answers. Michael Moore gave five reasons why voters would help Trump to win and two of those reasons relate to the outsourcing of jobs through trade agreements that Clinton supported and what Moore called the “Angry White Men” who resented the prospect of losing the centuries-old white patriarchal control of the country to a woman.

Trump was reported to have received support from a coalition of white voters, but he also got more of the minority votes than Mitt Romney. Meanwhile, thousands of white voters in the rust belt who had voted for Obama in 2012 now swung away from Clinton to Trump, or to a third party candidate, or stayed home in 2016.

However, Clinton got more of the wealthy white votes than Obama in some suburbs thereby boosting her popular votes to an estimated 2.8 million more than Trump’s. However, that was not enough to counter the commanding lead in electoral college votes by Trump. Third parties also took five million votes which could have made a difference for Clinton in the swing states.

The explanation for the victory of Trump cannot be a single story of racism, or sexism, or class snobbery among Trump voters, as some analysts have suggested. A better explanation is that working-class men and women actually share the aspirations of billionaires and would support their leadership contests, especially when the choice is between flawed elite candidates who did not share the material struggles of the working poor.

Authoritarian Populism” was a concept that Stuart Hall coined to help explain what he termed “Thatcherism” in the UK and, by extension, “Reaganism” in the US. According to him, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were able to mobilize the popular votes of the British and the US working classes primarily because the Labour Party and the Democrats offered no convincing alternatives to the neo-liberal capitalist policies of the Tory Party and the Republicans against the “corporatist state” and in favor of smaller government, against organized labor, for zero-tolerance policing, for tighter immigration control, and for restricted social welfare programs.

Attempts to explain the repeated victories of the Conservative Party and the Republican Party at the polls with reference solely to racism, homophobia, or xenophobia among the working-class supporters would fail to account for the popularity of authoritarianism among the general electorate.

According to Hall, the concept of hegemony as developed by Antonio Gramsci adequately accounts for why the passions of working-class voters tend to be won over by radical right-wing politicians who, unlike some left-wing parties, appear to offer them intellectual and moral leadership, or by hegemony that promises to dominate or liquidate antagonistic interest groups.

According to Stephen Pfohl, the work of Charles Wright Mills focused on the way in which changes to the American power structure come about without “ideological struggles to control the masses”. However, Mills failed to account for the agency of the masses to change the course of history even while capitalism remains intact. Althusser’s notion of “Ideological State Apparatuses” suggests that even families, educational institutions, places of employment, the media, religion, etc., function as domains of struggle over hegemony. This struggle is why elections tend to divide families, congregations, colleges, and communities.

The Brexit vote, which narrowly rejected the continued membership of the UK in the EU, and the election of Donald Trump as the US president appear to support Hall’s thesis regarding Authoritarian Populism although Trump lost the popular vote while winning the Electoral College vote. Populism is not always the absolute majority tendency in a polity but rather the tendency capable of mobilizing enough support to prevail over opponents.

W.E.B. Du Bois questioned why poor whites, who did not enslave Africans, were the ones at the forefront of the anti-social activism against black freedom during the reconstruction and the Jim Crow eras. The abolition of slavery, the civil rights movement, and the anti-apartheid movement were examples of left-wing Authoritarian Populism with mass participation.

Critics may suggest that the concept of Authoritarian Populism is flawed because the working class fought both for and against the Nazis in Germany and both for and against the fascists in Italy, just as millions of the working poor voted for and against Trump. Authoritarian Populism can be ideologically left-wing or right-wing just as there can be ruling-class or working-class hegemony. However, left-wing or right-wing authoritarian programs do not have much chance of success if the working class is mobilized to resolutely oppose them.

Trump may have attracted many poor voters by directly pitching to them with the message that they live in “hell” and had nothing to lose by voting for a non-establishment candidate, whereas Clinton mistakenly insisted that America was great already and that there was no need to make America great again.

The Clinton campaign may have fallen into a cyborg trap by threatening Trump with the vote of a new American, a Venezuelan beauty queen, who was probably seen as taking the job of Miss Universe from Miss USA in a contest owned by Trump. Similarly, the public grieving of Mr. and Mrs. Khan over the sacrifice of their son in Iraq was expected to call into question the patriotism of Trump, but most Americans do not go around with a copy of the constitution in their pockets and dozens of military generals countered by endorsing Mr. Trump.

The disparities in educational attainment affected the results, in that voters with only high school education or less were more likely to be resentful towards immigrants and were more likely to vote for candidates espousing more stringent immigration controls, presumably to protect their employment status from potential competition with immigrants. There is evidence suggesting that college educated white women rejected Authoritarian Populism, while less educated white men voted for Trump.

An estimated 45% of the electorate did not bother to cast any vote in 2016, and it may be necessary to offer incentives to such voters in order to bring out more of them. Advocates have called for voters to be entered into a lottery to win a million dollars in every state by casting their votes, in the hope that more working-class voters may thereby be attracted to participate.

Poor and middle-class voters appear to be split down the middle between Clinton and Trump in the 2016 election because of the influence of propaganda dealing with such topics as whether gun rights were at risk, whether Obamacare attacks the individual choice of people, whether gay rights threaten straight Americans, whether the Supreme Court would be dominated by liberal nominees, whether welfare is undeserved hand-outs, or whether illegal immigrants are invading the country.

The resentment expressed in the US toward welfare recipients is rarely directed against corporate welfare of the sort that allowed Trump to go for years without paying income tax due to his nearly one billion dollars in losses, which he was allowed to carry forward. This type of corporate welfare is apparently perceived as necessary to enable the positive behaviour of entrepreneurs who take risks to create jobs by investing in ventures which may fail.

The Trump administration should be pressured by the electorate to seriously addresses the “hell” in which the candidate said poor people find themselves in the US. For instance, the administration should be pressured to provide better funding for education to train workers, towards slavery reparations, and towards universal healthcare, even though Trump appears ideologically opposed to such policies given his initial appointments.

Trump should be advised to expand his apprenticeship model by budgeting one billion dollars per state, to be awarded to one thousand trained young cooperatives annually, to start million dollar businesses which will reduce poverty and create jobs. Meanwhile, the cooperatives will pay back the grants through taxes. Job creation through public works alone may not be enough to solve the problem of chronic unemployment. By implementing such policies on a smaller scale, the opponents of the administration could lead from behind in the states or local areas that they govern.

If Trump is ideologically determined to govern only for the benefit of the one percent, he should expect to be opposed even by those who displayed yard signs during the election claiming to be “Deplorable And Proud Of It”. If the Republicans prefer to wage a class war against the poor, a racist war against minorities, and a gender war against women with their electoral victories, they can count on the voters to punish them in the 2018 Midterm election and in the 2020 Presidential election.



Biko Agozino is a Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA. He is an author, performance poet, playwrght, blogger, award-winning video producer-director, and a scholarly journal editor.