Donald Trump is about to discover that it’s very difficult to govern as a populist when the majority of the populace isn’t with you.
One of the most unexpected events in this period of dizzyingly destabilizing socio-political novelties—Trump’s chaotic attempted presidency foremost among them—is the mass resistance to his administration now expressing itself in the streets: The massive post inaugural women’s marches, first of all, and now the stunningly widespread airport protests against his anti-immigrant diktats. The spontaneity, scope and intensity of the latter exceed, I think, anything that occurred at the height of that last great period of popular mobilization, the anti-war movement of the 1960’s and 70’s.
There’s ample evidence, too, that the anti-Trumpite sentiments extend well beyond the activists in the streets. Trump is the first president in modern U.S. history to end his first week in office with more than half the American people disapproving of his job performance, according to Gallup, which has been tracking such things since the Truman Administration. As of Saturday—a day before the outrage over the immigration debacle—Gallup found that 51% of its national poll respondents disapprove of Trump and his policies, while 42% approve.
The new chief executive already has demonstrated that he is almost pathologically insecure about the legitimacy of his presidential mandate and stories attributed to White House sources—and this White House already seems to leak like a bucket without a bottom—report he’s obsessed with the issue. Hence childishly bizarre rants, such as those over the crowd photos from in inauguration, or the size of his TV ratings.
When one takes a step back, actually, it’s easy to see that Trump has much about which to be insecure when it comes to mandates. After all, he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by 3 million ballots and well may have carried the Electoral College through the surreptitious cyber-intervention of Russian intelligence agencies. He is, in other words, in office because of an antiquated quirk in our electoral law and the scheming of a hostile foreign power.
That makes the notion of an alleged blue collar, mid-American populist stamp on his victory all the more important, which is one of the reasons Trump continues to promote the fiction that he lost the popular vote because large numbers of undocumented immigrants voted illegally in November.
There is no evidence of any kind for that, but the “authority” Trump cites to justify his charges is telling in the populist sense: “Let me just tell you, you know what’s important, millions of people agree with me. . .,” he told a television interviewer. “They’re very smart people, the people that voted for me — lots of people are saying they saw things happen. . .”
The perplexed interviewer asked, “Do you think that talking about millions of illegal votes is dangerous to this country without presenting the evidence?”
Trump replied, “Not at all because many people feel the same way that I do.”
There’s another factor gnawing at Trump’s sense of insecurity—the Republican Party.
This new president is singular in any number of dismaying and distasteful ways—the first man ever to occupy the office without previous electoral experience or military service, the first to refuse to sever ties to his business interests, a flagrant braggart and bully—that it’s easy to lose sight of something more uniquely important. He’ not really a Republican.
In fact, he ran against the GOP. His chief strategists, the vile alt-right ideologues Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller basically made their political bones bashing the Republican establishment as a bunch of elitist plutocratic sell-outs and betrayers of the white working class on everything from trade to immigration.
As the Economist’s Washington correspondent James Astill put it recently, “Trump will be more than happy to pick a fight with his party, which he reviles as hostile, weak and captured by special interests in order to score populist points. . .As the troubles of a Trump presidency become apparent, Republicans will also start to fear the wrath of the electorate at the mid-terms in 2018. And so their opposition will mount.”
The magazine’s capitol bureau chief, David Rennie, put the consequences of that squarely: “If the new president is as unprincipled and vindictive in government as he has been in business, members of Congress, too, will have to choose between party loyalty and holding the executive to account.”
That’s particularly true because there are two legs to Trump’s novel presidency: One is populism; the other is the insurgent neo-nationalism carried like a contagion into the Oval Office by Bannon. The former Breitbart CEO is an enthusiast and propagandist for the emerging right-wing nationalism that animates movements like the UK’s Brexit, Marine le Pen’s French National Front, the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders, Hungary’s Viktor Orban and Poland’s Law and Justice Party and others in Central Europe.
Each envisions what Orban has called “illiberal democracy” based on a politics of ethno-national identity and communal majoritarianism supporting authoritarian government.
The Berggruen Institute’s Nathan Gardels aptly summed up their common core in a recent online post. “What animates these movements for national sovereignty, and paradoxically ties them together across borders, is a double antipathy,” he wrote. “Their revolt is against both the faceless forces of global integration represented by trade agreements or Brussels ‘Eurocrats’ and the face-to-face presence of immigrants whom they see as despoiling their own national identities. . .These movements in Europe see their cultural nationalism not as intolerance of others, but as a defense of diversity in the form of their unique, familiar and cherished way of life they now see as under assault. In their conflated anxieties over Muslim immigrants and terrorism, which they share with President Donald Trump.”
Grasp that and you have what’s behind the Trump Administration’s willingness to create chaos at our airports and at the borders with their draconian and ill-though out executive orders on immigration. Worse is to come. The Bannon brand of nationalism is fiercely protectionist and fearless of trade wars and their inevitably devastating consequences.
One of the reasons he actively encourages Europe’s nationalist parties is that he believes their ascendance will destroy the EU and open the way for the United States to negotiate advantageous “America First” trade agreements with the individual states.
As Bannon told the Daily Beast‘s Ron Radosh, he considers himself a kind of Leninist. “Lenin wanted to destroy the state,” he said, “and that’s my goal, too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”
The antipathy Bannon, Trump and Miller share toward immigrants is rooted in a fixation on what the more overtly racist factions of the alt-right call “the historic American nation,” by which they mean the one that was overwhelmingly white and Protestant. It was also one in which that white ruling cadre exercised authority in the name of a homogenous people.
In today’s context, that requires control of the national conversation—what Trump apologist Kellyanne Conway has called “alternative facts.” As the British historian Piers Brendon wrote, “Fascism was form rather than content, style rather than substance. It was, as Mussolini said, ‘a doctrine of action’ (that) denies concepts of the absolute and affirms the vital necessity of the continuous creation of illusion, of relative realities.”
There’s a reason beyond mere pique that Bannon denounces the mainstream American media—and, particularly the New York Times and Washington Post—as “the opposition party.” There’s a reason Trump has called journalists “the worst people on earth,” and agreed with Bannon that “the dishonesty, total deceit and deception makes them certainly partially the opposition party, absolutely.”
The need to dominate all opposition through the manipulation of information is one of fascism’s essential attributes, as Brendon has pointed out. It also means that “the people” must exclude from their number those who do not belong—immigrants, Muslims, Jews, blacks. Sometimes, even in the world of “alternative facts,” the truth slips out, as it did when the neo-Nazi Richard Spencer described his “joy” at the Trump Administration so far.
“The arrow of Donald Trump points toward white nationalism and identity politics,” he said.
And so it does, and it is on the authoritarian impulse behind the fascist fiction of and “historic American nation” that Trump will rely as the populist illusion fades