During 2016, the common description of Trump’s campaign was a “populist” or “populist nationalism”. It was a useful trope for the media but entirely misleading.
If you accept that his support was populist or nationalistic or both, then why has his support continued when his policies are clearly not populist?
The answer is one we must all struggle with because it lies at the heart of whether we continue to progress as a democracy. Yes, that sounds somewhat melodramatic, I agree. However, as I look back over the growing disparity between “parties” over the last 30 years, something I take back to the early Clinton years and Newt Gingrich and the rise of Fox News and the media right, what you see is not a rise of populism but the rise of tribal affinity. Tribalism is the enemy of a democracy and the friend of plutocracy.
Tribe is about “us” versus “them”. Tribe means that whatever is good for the tribe, is good, period. Tribe means that we fight for the tribe and anyone in the tribe — that is the morality, the right/wrong, the rules.
Through that prism, it is clear to see that Trumpism is Tribalism. Trump is not criticized by those in his tribe (though any of his actions in the last few months committed by a Democrat would have caused a shitstorm on the media right and social media outlets) because Trump is the tribal leader — if Trump is doing it, it is good for the tribe, and that makes it right.
Tribalism is instinctual. It is how, as a species, we survived to evolve. It is deeply embedded and can be weaponized when any group begins to see themselves as distinct from the other — whatever that other might be. When that perception is highlighted, honed, and amplified over years through an echo chamber of your own making (right media, social media, etc.) then the tribe becomes cohesive. What is more comforting than moving from a world where you are continuously watching your future become less secure to one where the tribe will protect you, will nurture you, will save you from the wicked other?
Tribalism is the problem. It is not populism. In fact, I think an argument can and should be made that it is populism that is missing from our politics. Think Bernie Sanders when I talk about the type of politics that is populism — it is the politics of everyone who is not of the elite classes — that kind of populism is the only cure for tribalism.
We mistake Trumpism for populism at our own peril — because that mistake tarnishes the concept of real populism — that is the answer.
What say you?