The Great Disruption

Understanding the Populist Forces Behind Trump, Brexit, and LePen

by Anil Hira (Author)
Monographs XVI, 174 Pages

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Figures and Tables
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Why Populism Is Not Just Trump
  • From 1989 to Despair
  • What We Don’t Know About Populism
  • An Overview of the Book
  • The Rise of Populism—A Global Phenomenon
  • Chapter 1. The Economic Roots of Populism, Something Old, Something New
  • What Is Populism?
  • Haven’t We Seen This Movie Before? Understanding the Economic Roots of US Populism in Historical Perspective
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 2. A Snapshot—Tying Together the Tumultuous Events of 2016–17
  • Who Are the Supporters of Trump, Brexit, and LePen?
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 3. The Seemingly Paradoxical Nature of Social Values Towards Race and Immigration in the Populist Wave of 2016
  • Racial and Immigrant Values Over Time
  • Racial Attitudes in Europe
  • Summing Up Long-term Values Evolution
  • Xenophobic Upsurge Is Tied to Migration and Terrorism Incidents
  • Chapter 4. Empty Rhetoric and Empty Promises—Examining the Phony Solutions of the New Populists
  • Introduction—The Empire and the Rebels Are Both Found Wanting
  • The Establishment Fiddles at the Margins
  • What the Populists Offer Is Equally Clueless
  • The Red Herring of Immigration
  • Why Illegal Is the Real Lightning Rod, But Covers Up Long-term Demographic Shifts
  • Democracy Under Fire—Campaign Funders Use Anger to Obfuscate Real Issues
  • Social Media’s Role in Elections
  • Chapter 5. Underlying Force Number 1: “American Carnage”—A Codeword for Long-term Economic Decline in the West and the Shrinking Middle Class
  • Populist Recognition of the Relative Decline of the West
  • A Brief Set of Illustrations on the West’s Rise
  • Growing Inequality Exacerbates Relative Decline
  • Chapter 6. Underlying Force Number 2: The Collapse of Manufacturing From Globalization, Financialization, and Automation
  • Behind Growing Inequality: Declines in Manufacturing Employment
  • Manufacturing Declines Made Worse by Financialization
  • Why Isn’t Growth in the Service Sector Picking Up the Slack From Manufacturing?
  • Unemployment Rates Are Sticky and Likely to Worsen for Blue Collar Workers
  • The Near Death of Unions
  • Automation Means the Decline Is Not Just a Temporary Business Cycle Downturn or Reversible Through Anti-Globalization
  • An Age of Despair for the Middle Class
  • Chapter 7. Force Number 3: The Rise of China
  • Changes in the Global Order—Implications of the Rise of China
  • Why Can’t the West Get Its Act Together? True and False Sources of US Resentment
  • Trump’s Myopic Foreign Policy
  • Chapter 8. Force Number 4: Rapid Environmental Deterioration
  • Climate Change—A Wild Card
  • Populists Would Have Us Bury Ourselves in the Sand, But There’s Hope
  • Renewable Energy Transition Needs a Lot of Coaxing
  • Chapter 9. Force Number 5: Demographics and the Raw Deal Given to Millennials
  • Prospects for the Millennial Generation Are Bad and Getting Worse
  • Millennial Attitudes Are Nonetheless More Progressive
  • Chapter 10. Global Problems Need Global Solutions
  • Index

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Figure 1.1. Causal Linkages for Conventional Views on Populism.

Figure 1.2. Suggested Sequence of Populism.

Figure 3.1. Percent of US Whites Who Approve of Racial Intermarriage.

Figure 3.2. Percent of US Whites Who Would Live Where Half the Neighbors Were Black.

Figure 3.3. Percent of Whites Who Believe in Legal Intervention to Prevent Racial Discrimination in Housing Sales.

Figure 3.4. Percent of Americans Who Think Immigration Will Make National Unity Harder.

Figure 3.5. 2014: The Number of Immigrants to the US Should Be.

Figure 3.6. Percent of Americans Who Believe Strong Patriotic Feelings Lead to Negative Attitudes Towards Immigration.

Figure 4.1. Percent of US Immigrants by Region of Origin, 1960−2016.

Figure 5.1. GDP Levels, 1−1280 AD.

Figure 5.2. GDP, 1400−1800.

Figure 5.3. GDP, 1800−1900. ← xi | xii →

Figure 5.4. GDP, 1900−2015.

Figure 5.5. Average Real Annual Economic Growth Rates, 1950−2014.

Figure 5.6. Average Real Annual Economic Growth Rates, 1950−2014.

Figure 5.7. UK Top 0.05% Share of Income.

Figure 5.8. US Top 1% Income Share.

Figure 5.9. France Top 1% Share of Income.

Figure 6.1. Top World Merchandise Exporters, 1950−2017.

Figure 6.2. China Employment by Sector, 1950−2010.

Figure 6.3. India Employment by Sector.

Figure 6.4. US Employment by Sector.

Figure 6.5. UK Employment by Sector.

Figure 6.6. France Employment by Sector.

Figure 6.7. US Corporate Profit/GDP.

Figure 6.8. Top Commercial Service Exporters, 1980−2013, % of World Total.

Figure 6.9. US Unemployment Rate, 1947−2016.

Figure 6.10. US Median Income by Educational Attainment.

Figure 6.11. Percent of Employment in Manufacturing, 1971−2012.

Figure 7.1. Defense Expenditures by Major Country, 1949−2017, (2016 $millions).

Figure 9.1. India 1950 & 2010.

Figure 9.2. Iraq 1950 & 2010.

Figure 9.3. UK 1950 & 2010.

Figure 9.4. France 1950 & 2010.

Figure 9.5. US 1950 & 2010.

Figure 9.6. China 1950 & 2010.

Table 6.1. Rankings of Top US Companies by Market Capitalization,1917, 1967, and 2017.

Table 7.1. Military Expenditures as a % of GDP, Average by Decade.

Table 7.2. Average Trade Deficit by Decade, Major Economies.

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This book is written for a general audience interested in politics, coming out of several public discussions and numerous interviews in the wake of the events of 2016, and particularly the election of Donald Trump. Observers everywhere seemed shocked and befuddled not only by his election but also the rise of right wing and left wing extremes throughout the West, and nationalistic reactions to globalization capped by the Brexit (the UK leaving the European Union). Is all of this a temporary blip, a hiccup of madness, or can we reach a wider conclusion that Western society is going through a sea change? A flood of social science analyses is emerging to examine these events, teasing out demographic “swing” voters, looking at political party formation, and trying in general to gauge citizen sentiment. The research for the most part focuses on each event separately, seeking to explain election/referendum results through two main variables- latent racism and anger over lingering economic conditions of recession. The events are separated in the analysis as they occur in different electoral systems.

While I see the merit of the “trees” view, I believe that a wider, “forest” view is necessary to truly understand and link these events. What has come from much of the public discourse is the usual kind of global schadenfreude on events in the U.S. as kind of inevitable racial paroxysm and the events in Europe as a kind of faint hiccup. Having grown up and worked in ← xiii | xiv → my formative years in U.S. politics and witnessed the steady improvement in race relations, I can not help but believe a better analysis is required. As someone who has studied world events for the past 50 years, I can not also help but wonder what the links among the events are, and what might be the explanation that would place them into a wider sense of historical trajectory. From my experience as a veteran of international relations studies, if we focus too much on short-term analysis, we miss the wider trajectory of events, one that could better inform our choices and aid a fuller understanding of causality, rather than correlation and replaying event sequences. I have seen this time and again in my life, from the optimism of the moon landing and the fall of the Berlin Wall to the “malaise” of the late 1970s and the US invasion of Iraq. There was analysis aplenty on each event, but academics not only failed to predict the long-term points of change, from the fall of the Soviet Union to the rise of the age of terror, we have for the most part, failed to help society to put such events into a wider perspective in order to properly respond to them. I write this book unabashedly, perhaps foolishly, in this age of Twitter and Instagram and election models, to do just that. I have therefore tried to reduce the jargon and endless citations of ordinary academic usage in the hopes of making the discussion more approachable. If you take the journey through this book, you will see the Trump, LePen, and Brexit are but epiphenomena of much wider trends and currents, ones that if we pay attention to, can uncover the real challenges we face, ones so far buried beneath the sandstorm of global populism.

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This book comes out of a shared sense of bewilderment at the election of Donald Trump in 2016. This led to several public discussions through Simon Fraser University’s Philosopher’s Café and the School of International Studies to try to explain the results to baffled Canadian audiences. Conversations with my Canadian colleagues, particularly Dr. Sanjay Jeram, pushed me to look beyond the headlines of race and xenophobia towards my key discipline, political economy. These conversations (around race vs. economics) enabled me to move beyond examining a singular event to thinking through the reasons behind the current populist zeitgeist. I began to realize that there were much deeper forces at work on the global scale, and started to think about this as a project not just as a diagnosis of this strange and unexpected turn of events but as a vision for the future, one that finally resolves what ails us. I also want to thank Leighton Kerr and Raphael Ochil for their research assistance; funded by Simon Fraser University’s work-study program, Ron Hira, for taking the time to read through and make valuable comments and suggestions; and Patty and Sarita Hira, my best sounding boards, for their help with research and editing that helped to improve the manuscript immensely.

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Why Populism Is Not Just Trump

From 1989 to Despair

Remember 1989. The Berlin Wall collapsed, a sense of euphoria spread across the world. The West had won the Cold War! The fight against evil communism was over. President Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, with the song, “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow” ringing in the ears of viewers from his nomination gala. A new generation, the baby boomers, were finally taking over, and with their mix of optimism and sense of compromise, they would create a new type of politics. Tony Blair promised a “Third Way,” more compassionate than conservatism, but more fiscally responsible than progressives. Bill Clinton and others promised a “peace dividend,” a promise to dismantle the billions spent annually by NATO to check the Soviet Union. The same year Clinton was elected (1992), Francis Fukuyama wrote The End of History and the Last Man, proclaiming that the triumph of bourgeois democracy and free markets had won the century long war of ideas. The party continued throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s, as Time magazine and The Economist (in story after story) exuberantly proclaimed the internet age and the spread of capitalism would usher in an age of unprecedented prosperity that would benefit not just the West but also lift the rest of the world out of poverty. Even Africa would be lifted by its turn away from nasty socialism. Thomas Friedman capped off the ← 1 | 2 → era with a toast towards globalization called The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-first Century (2005), claiming that an even playing field would bring the South into global capitalism through the internet, bypass corrupt and inefficient governments, and create huge new consumer markets. The end of the Cold War and the abandonment of socialism meant that the Soviet Union no longer played in the Third World, and those countries had come to see the light that global capitalism and democracy were the only viable options for progress. The new hungry rising middle class of the developing world wanted our Western lifestyles and cherished our products, providing a century long stimulus now that we were more or less saturated with the goods we needed.

Robert Reich wrote a celebrated book, The Work of Nations (1991), that proclaimed we were entering a new “knowledge” economy, where national competitiveness would be determined by human capital, i.e., a highly skilled workforce. This, of course, would put the West into a dominant position for the foreseeable future as we are the leaders in higher education and particularly research and development (R&D). The West’s entrepreneurial capacity coupled with its more highly skilled workforce would ensure we would lift the rest of the world up towards us, not vice versa. They would do the “dirty” and tough jobs of heavy manufacturing and food production, and we would take care of the more highly paid managerial and design jobs of creating new products and services that all the world wanted. Our inventiveness would justify continuing high salaries, even while all the world would move out of poverty.

Even proclaimed geniuses such as Alan Greenspan, Chairman of the Board of the US Federal Reserve from 1987–2006, across both Republican and Democratic administrations, suggested that we were entering a period he called “the Great Moderation,” when the business cycle was finally conquered and the worst we had to fear was a mild recession. The exuberant 1990s seemed to bear him out as, despite the dot com bubble, the West and the US in particular seemed to dominate the “new economy” of the internet.

Such “irrational exuberance” as Greenspan later morosely declared, seems like science fiction today, a world where the West experienced the greatest economic downturn (2008) since the Great Depression; where we live in continual fear of a bomb going off on a subway train, or to interrupt a public celebration; where migration flows from the Middle East and Africa to Europe and from Central America and Mexico to the US seem unstoppable and have created a xenophobic backlash; and where previously unthinkable right wing authoritarian figures threaten democratic institutions, spearheaded by Trump in the US, but highlighted by the viable candidacy of French National Front ← 2 | 3 → candidate LePen, and the elections of Haider in Austria and Orbán in Hungary. Meanwhile fringe left party candidates such as former comedian Beppe Grillo of the 5 Star Movement in Italy became viable, even as right wing forces gain counter-momentum; and fringe socialist movement Syriza won a majority in Greece in 2015. The long Eurozone crisis related to governments unable to plausibly back further government debt marks a decade of economic woes, capped by the Brexit victory through which the UK shockingly voted to leave the European Union.

So, what happened in the past two decades to switch from a triumphant West to one where we seem to be nursing our wounds and wane nostalgic about “the good old days.” Anyone with an historic knowledge recalls that the good old days of the 1950s were a time of red scares as illustrated by McCarthyism; the 1960s of radical action, including terrorism in the West, such as by the Baader Meinhoff gang in West Germany; the 1970s, a decade of doldrums, highlighted by long petrol lines and “stagflation” (a combination of high unemployment and inflation); and the 1980s by ongoing proxy wars, including a successful communist revolution in Nicaragua, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The crackdown on democracy in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989 was the counterpoint to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Clearly part of the problem is that we have a selective memory, but part of it also likely lies in long-term trends, well-preceding the tumultuous events of 2016. In short, election results reveal who voted for whom, but not why major shifts in election patterns take place. They are a snapshot of individual sentiments at any given moment, which is why predictive models are inconsistent when anything unexpected happens; almost every poll suggested, for example, that Hillary Clinton would win the US election in 2016. Almost none predicted the Brexit or the rise of LePen, let alone the Five Star Movement or Syriza.

What We Don’t Know About Populism

Populism, like a lot of social science/history terms, is a fuzzy concept. We know that it refers to the idea of a singular political leader who is able to command previously marginally engaged individuals to shake up the political system. Populist leaders claim to be working on behalf of an oppressed majority, to return the system to a more authentic form, often in a pseudo-nostalgic sense (Canovan 1999; Stanley 2008). As Mudde (2004) notes, populism tends to have a dualistic sense of morality, but lacks a program for change. The general approach is useful but that does not give us any sense of why, how, or the mechanics of it. ← 3 | 4 →

The particular debate focused on in this book is the interaction of economic and identity variables. Part of the new populist literature claims that everything comes from xenophobia, and that economics is marginal (Ivarsflaten 2008), while another part suggests economics is important, but only considers it in an immediate sense (e.g., the loss of manufacturing). Iconic populists in history have mostly been treated in a biographical, rather than social science sense, and we do not wish to try to make parallels to present day democratic contexts here. However, it bears mentioning that Napoleon took over in the wake of the French Revolution, one based primarily on a struggle that had clear economic roots, as it reflected an upheaval along class lines. One of the first actions was the abolition of feudalism, to reduce debt peonage. Hitler took over in a period of economic freefall and hyperinflation in Germany. Other candidates, such as Stalin, Mao, Kim Il Sung, and Fidel Castro won office through party appointment and military victory, but then developed populist cults afterwards, promising egalitarian and prosperous modern societies.

In general, populism is not seen by theorists (Mudde and Kaltwasser 2017; Stanley 2008) as having any particular economic component; thus ethnic strife could just as well lead to populism. Laclau (2005) offers a different perspective from a critical lens, seeing populism initially as arising from class antagonism, though he later claims that it could come from any part of the “socio-institutional structure,” representing the need for a restoration of justice that can be emancipatory and help to reform democracy to become more representative. Again, while such ideas are useful, they don’t give any kind of analytical framework for understanding the ultimate causes behind the particular events around the global populist uprising in the last decade. That is what this book sets out to do, by examining in careful detail the ties between race/ethnicity, economics, and populism, applied to the current context and focused on the three events mentioned in the title. This work can serve as a way to frame the interaction of economics and populism more broadly across a variety of cases not covered here, such as the populist left movements around Lula, Chávez, Morales, Kirchner, and Correa in Latin America, but it tries to do more than simply make the tie. I argue that the global nature of this populist moment can only mean that there are shared causal forces. The fact is that almost all of the populist literature is so focused on the epiphenomena of parties getting elected, generally on slim margins and without clear platforms (Mudde 2013), that they miss the wider causes and opportunities for systemic transformation. My initial argument here parallels a recent short article by Inglehart and Norris (2017), that points to rising long-term economic ← 4 | 5 → insecurity and inequality as the ultimate source of the current wave, but goes well beyond their scope in its analysis and in considering several other key forces. This moment is much bigger than just a handful of populist elections.

An Overview of the Book

We begin by exploring the nature of economic populism which is what we see in such movements, through the general prism of the book, which is to examine events from a long-term historical perspective. In the following chapter, we will take what we have learned to look more closely at the xenophobic and latent racism explanations behind the rise of Trump, LePen and Brexit. Though such short-term factors are getting the most attention, we find them wanting in explaining the surprising reactionary movements, instead we see through a wider perspective on changes in the world related to terrorism and migration that such reactions are natural and understandable, if regrettable. We then turn to an extended examination of economic factors, which have been questioned because the recovery by all standard measures appears robust. Indeed, stock markets reached new highs and unemployment was sharply down in 2017, suggesting that the crisis would be passing. Our focus in each section is to try to examine long-term structural factors that have built up over time to see if we can find some root causes as opposed to symptoms. This wider perspective reveals a host of budding problems that go well beyond xenophobic candidates or economic recovery rates. Understanding this wider perspective gives us a chance to arrest these trends well beyond simply waiting for the next election.

We support the following claims that differentiate this book from other analyses and explain why you should read it:

1. Studies of populist phenomena such as the rise of Trump or the Brexit vote are focused on elections and demographics, essentially studies of patterns as to who voted for these options that were unexpected to win. We are awash in discussions of “suburban moms” and accusations of “whitelash” (white racist backlash) that seem to fit the facts and our sense of what is happening in particular instances at a given time period. While such explanations are valuable, they miss the wider patterns of populism as recurring and global phenomena.

2. Populist movements are appearing across the globe now. Mostly, right wing movements are appearing, but there are leftist counterparts as ← 5 | 6 → well, such as the “antifa” movement in the U.S. If places across the globe, from the U.S. to Malaysia to Brazil to Italy, are all experiencing the same phenomena, there must be something beyond local politics and white racism that explain it. Though our focus is on the U.S. in the first chapter, through the rest of the book, we trace the deeper roots of discontent towards long-term changes that are global, wide-sweeping, and largely unavoidable.

3. While we do not deny that there are racist and xenophobic elements in every society, and that populists are skillful in manipulating them, we contend that the race card is one of a scapegoating variety, selected as an easy target because of the ignorance and lack of acknowledgment of the sweeping changes facing the planet.

4. While we can not trace long-term sources of change directly to voters’ motivations, we provide plenty of evidence in the first few chapters to show that broader concerns, particularly those related to economics, are the most important reasons for populist elections.

5. The essence of our argument is that there are key sources of changes that are felt even if undetected by superficial events- or voting-based analysis: geostrategic, environmental, demographic, and economic. The second half of the book is set up to explore them. In doing so, we point to the relative decline of the West, and the ineffectiveness of existing policy approaches.

6. From this review, we begin to present some ideas about how these new challenges can be met. The urgency and global nature of the issues we face requires concerted action, but that can only happen once the problems are recognized. This book seeks to take a first step in doing so.

The Rise of Populism—A Global Phenomenon

The election of Donald Trump has largely been seen as an isolated phenomenon. In trying to explain from my years in Washington what happened and why, I was struck as a political economist with the links between two other largely concurrent phenomena—the Brexit vote, requiring the UK to leave the European Union (EU), and the surprising run of Marine LePen of the National Front Party in the French Presidential elections. While the Brexit vote didn’t have an overwhelming personality, it was spearheaded by the efforts of the UKIP (UK Independence Party) led by Nigel Farage, a party ← 6 | 7 → that had scarcely registered in previous elections. The populist movement, as noted above, spreads much farther, and one can trace it to economic discontent and the desire for structural reform to reduce corruption in politics in most cases. We would not have time or space to go through all of the global cases in depth, but we provide here some snapshots of cases outside of Trump, Brexit, and LePen that are discussed extensively in chapter two. We note that if racism was the cause, we can’t explain the timing of such movements. The movements’ axis is the 2008 economic crisis. However, once in power, the populists are unable to carry out any coherent program of reform, a theme we return to in the next few chapters in greater depth.

Syriza, a left wing movement, also adopted an anti-EU platform, but was motivated and came to power in 2014 primarily as a reaction to the austerity conditions imposed by the Greek debt crisis. Before the economic crisis, in 2004, Syriza had received 3.3%; in 2007, just 5%. Anti-immigration is not in their platform; if anything the Greeks have been remarkably tolerant about accepting the wave that came from Syria. It came to power in 2015 in a coalition with right wing party ANEL on an anti-austerity platform. Syriza’s best effort at solving the issues faced by the country were resorting to old-fashioned economic ideas and the nationalist notion that they would reform the economy with internal resources and will force Greek creditors to fund their policies (Pappas 2013). Once in power, like other populist movements, Syriza did not have a clear plan for its grandiose but ill defined promises. The “Troika” a committee including the IMF, the European Central Bank and the European Commission refused to consider debt forgiveness on a large scale. Greece did not secede from the EU and did not renounce its debt, though it did make economic deals with Russia and China. The government faced widespread strikes protesting pension reform in 2016 leading to new elections and it came back to power through another coalition (Aslanidis and Kaltwasser 2016; Katsourides 2016; Markou 2017). As of this writing, the debt is almost paid off and unemployment has dropped considerably, but the economy remains extremely fragile.

In Spain, a number of populist parties have arisen out of the frustration following the 2008 recession. Podemos, a left wing populist Eurosceptic party, supported the previous socialist government, created the Union Podemos, a coalition of similar parties in 2016, but has been unable to increase their number of seats (Iglesias 2015; Zarzalejos 2016). ← 7 | 8 →

In Hungary, Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party won its first elections and made him Prime Minister in 1998, following a period of economic austerity that created widespread consternation (Phillips, Henderson, Andor, and Hulme 2006). The platform was a classic populist one, promising a “return to order” and cleaning out corruption in government. In practice, the government’s actions were centered on reforming the state bureaucracy and creating a super-ministry for the economy. Hungary was not a part of the EU at this time. Allegations of corruption and flat economic performance reduced support for Fidesz. The party lost power until Orbán and a new coalition was re-elected in 2010. While his platform is centered around reducing immigration, the timing of his election comes in the wake of the post-2008 recession in Hungary. The new government promised to create a million new jobs, and once in power, dramatically increased public spending to this effect (Szikra 2014). A recent article on this topic concludes that the political overhaul conducted by Fidesz has “been less directly, but still, dictated by the economic crisis” (Avbelj 2016). Fidesz’s platform was nationalistic in economic as well as immigration issues. Orbán nationalized Hungary’s foreign-controlled pensions funds; placed windfall taxes on a variety of sectors including banking, telecommunications, energy and retail where foreign companies had large shares; cut utility prices and took some over; and helped to redistribute some agricultural land into partisan’s hands. Yet, none of these actions has yielded a coherent economic alternative, instead falling towards “crony capitalism” according to Innes (2015, 95 & 100). As in Greece, the Orbán government has courted Chinese investment.

In Italy, the leftist populist movement that coalesced into the 5 Star Movement (5SM) led by Luigi di Maio, entered into a coalition with a rightist populist movement, the Northern League (LN), led by Salvini, in 2018, to form a government. The real charismatic leader of the 5SM is Beppe Grillo, a former comedian with a knack for using social media and protest actions to galvanize popular disgust with corruption in Italian politics. Grillo denigrates normal Italian media and ridicules normal politics, promoting an idea of a grassroots rebirth of a more authentic politics (Fella and Ruzza 2013). A stranger coalition could not have been predicted. It comes on the heels of Italy’s struggles with debt and slow growth as it recovers from the 2008 recession and ensuing Eurozone crisis. The M5S says it is against all normal politics, ← 8 | 9 → seizing on the widespread notions of corruption in Italian politics. Such feelings may have reached their apogee under media mogul and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, whose womanizing behavior and business roots resemble Donald Trump. Berlusconi was also elected as a populist, promising to clean up corruption and bureaucracy, and promising the same business efficiency would be brought to government as Trump. Like Trump, he pushed for more power to carry out his agenda and used his position to favor his personal allies and business interests (Fella and Ruzza 2013). Berlusconi was convicted of tax fraud in 2013 after serving 4 terms as the Italian leader. Berlusconi set up the Contract with Italians laying out his platform in his 2001 campaign. It has remarkable similarity to Trump’s, including simplifying the tax system; reducing unemployment by 50%; engaging in a massive new public works program; and reducing crime. He also pushed consistently for greater power for the PM’s office, and made a wide range of insensitive remarks. His control over his media outlets skewed coverage of him. The M5S innovated using social media and running political discussions and decisions through on-line platforms. It claims that politics is a temporary duty, not a vocation. Initially, it stated it would not join coalitions, but this changed. It is interesting that neither the M5S nor the LN have well-defined platforms, and also that Grillo did not want to enter into office and become a normal politician. The latter has expanded from a regional to a national party and is for greater decentralization and generally support conservative social values, including curbing immigration and increasing skepticism about the European Union. Its ascendancy has come alongside the rise of Salvini’s rise to leadership and the imprint of his personal style on the party is unmistakable, according to recent authors (Albertazzi, Giovannini, and Seddone 2018).

In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the head of the Justice and Development Party, has taken over as an authoritarian leaning populist. While claiming to return to Islamic inspired values, his main appeal has been to restore economic growth and to reduce poverty. His policies include major infrastructure spending and targeted anti-poverty programs. In 2018, in the wake of a coup attempt, Erdogan was able to get a referendum passed that abolished the post of Prime Minister and effectively made him both the head of state and of government (Altun 2018; Bozkurt 2013; Grigoriadis 2018). ← 9 | 10 →

In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte’s promise to crack down on drug dealers and addicts was given as the primary reason behind his victory. However, at the root of this reason is the perceived growing economic inequality between the rich and the poor, Duterte making appeals to the middle class. Like other populists, he accused the current system of being corrupt, stating that politicians are “trapos” (a contraction of “traditional politicians,” which means “old rag” in a Spanish derived word in Tagalog) who are corrupt and a promise to root them out and bring in a fresh approach. Like Trump, he used social media (Facebook and Twitter) to mobilize support and bypass mainstream media. Duterte also sought to undermine established media and academic and scientific knowledge, through the manipulation of information and projecting “alternative facts” that reinforce his position on issues (Teehankee, 2016).

In Ethiopia, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) took over power in 1991, forcing social dictator Mengistu out. Meles Zenaawi took over as Prime Minister in 1995. The period under his rule was marked by continuing conflict with Eritrea over borders. His long stay in power is marked by both authoritarian tendencies and remarkable economic growth. In fact, he wrote a much discussed 2012 paper stating the need for a developmental state to guide economic transformation. This summarized lessons from the Ethiopian Growth and Transformation Plan from 2010–15 seeking state leadership in several key sectors, including sugar and metals, in an effort to move the economy away from subsistence agriculture (Aalen 2014, 194). The EPRDF owns companies that dominate the private sector through ownership and privileged access to credit. It has promoted large scale agricultural projects, some industrialization, and large infrastructure projects. Agricultural consolidation has created land disputes from the former activities (Matfess 2015, 185, 190–2), particularly those involving leasing land to foreign interests. Zenawi is credited with creating a high level group of advisors to initiate an industrial policy (the Industrial Development Strategy) focused on export diversification (Mbate 2015). In fact, GDP per capita over this period went from $133 in 1990 to $767 in 2017 (World Bank World Development Indicators, accessed Nov. 19, 2018). However, this came with a dominant political party and clamping down on dissent, including media outlets. Zenawi passed away in 2012, opening the way for a transition government. In ← 10 | 11 → 2018, Abiy Ahmed Ali’s rise to the position of the chairperson of the Oromo wing of the EPRDF and the third Prime Minister of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia came as a surprise. His ascendancy is usually described as an accident, rather than design. Abiy Ahmed was chosen to lead the ruling Ethiopian People Revolutionary Democratic Front coalition when Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn unexpectedly resigned in 2018. Ahmed promised to end longstanding tensions with neighboring Eritrea and achieved that promise within months of assuming office. He also promised to bring more transparency to government and reconciliation to a country that had been plagued by protests since 2015 of which he was a central part. Ahmed’s appearance on the Ethiopian political scene had been orchestrated by the message of ending the 27 years of ethnic politics and the need to unite the country towards a common goal as well as his charismatic persona which has seen him become popular with the masses (Weldemariam, 2018). Ahmed was also able to sign a deal with the ethnic separatist group the Ogaden National Liberation Front.

Since the Genocide in 1994, Rwanda, a small landlocked country in central Africa’s Great Lakes region, has seen rapid economic development. The Paul Kagame-led Rwandan Patriotic Front government has made a significant effort to improve the country’s health and education systems, boost agricultural output, promote investment, and increase women’s participation in politics which have garnered international praise (Strauss, 2014). Economic growth has been impressive over the period of his rule, with GDP per capita rising from $352 in 1990 to $748 in 2017 (World Bank World Development Indicators, accessed Nov. 19, 2018). Kagame has pushed the introduction of a digital economy. More controversially, like Ethiopia, have been the agrarian reforms which created private property and incentivized commercial agriculture, rewarding farmers who use modern techniques (Reyntjens 2015). Kagame, like his counterparts in Ethiopia, follows a developmental state model, with the government exercising control in key economic sectors through holding companies, such as Tri-Star Investments/Crystal Ventures Ltd., including metals trading, road construction, housing, fruit processing, mobile phones, printing, furniture, and security services (Matfess 2015, 189). Like the East Asian states and China, Kagame laid out a Vision 2020 in 2000 laying out goals for building a “knowledge-based society,” and eliminating foreign aid. President Kagame, seen by many as ← 11 | 12 → the Rwanda messiah is also largely perceived as a populist authoritarian leader who rode on the fears of a relapse of the country back into ethnic conflict to gain political power. Since his election in 2000, he has seen his electoral fortunes enhanced with his reelection in 2017 garnering him 99% of the votes after a new constitution adopted in 2015 carved out an exception to term limits for him. His overwhelming margin of victory was understood by some political commentators and observers as reflecting popular support for the president’s efforts to stabilize and transform Rwandan society, while others viewed it as result of a political system that cracks down on opposition activity and dissenting voices against government behavior (Agaba 2017).

In Brazil, left-wing populism came into power in the late 1990s and early 2000s, mirroring a wave of leaders across the region, including Chávez in Venezuela, Correa in Ecuador, Ortega in Nicaragua, Kirchner in Argentina, and Morales in Bolivia. I was initially part of a group led by pre-eminent Latin American scholars Eric Hershberg and Maxwell Cameron organized to study the so-called “pink tide” of moderate leftist reform in some of the countries. The group made heady pronouncements about the pivot that Latin America was supposedly taking, towards addressing inequality in a growth-friendly manner, and published analyses suggesting a permanent benign shift in Latin American politics. When I dissented, based on my long-term analysis of the commodity dependency of the region and the fact that the boom at that time, based on Chinese demand, could not continue, I was kicked out of the group, who simply didn’t want to hear about an economic argument. The poster child of the pink tide was Lula, a former shoe shine boy and leader of the Workers’ Party (PT) who instituted social welfare programs such as a conditional cash transfer to poor families whose kids attended school that conformed to but did not challenge the predominance of the market economy. On top of record commodity prices, Lula was fortunate to be in power when substantial offshore oil fields were discovered as exploitable. The booming economy and veneer of social reform made Lula a celebrated figure, a status he retains today, despite being jailed on corruption charges. As we have seen with the other cases, both on the left and the right, the PT did not have a long-term plan for the economy; they simply redistributed to a certain degree the largess of the commodity boom, in some cases through direct contracts to cronies, which is what led to their downfall. Once ← 12 | 13 → Lula’s constitutionally-permitted two terms were finished, he handed the reins over the to the decidedly less charismatic Dilma Rousseff, who was subsequently impeached and removed for her connection to Petrobras, the mixed public-private company that engaged in corrupt contracting practices. This reinforced the cases of vote purchasing against the PT dating back to Lula’s first term. In the backdrop was the end of the commodities boom and the sudden decline of economic fortunes. In the aftermath of the scandals, conservative Temer took over as interim President in 2016, overseeing a continuing tailspin in economic conditions. (An eerie parallel has occurred in Argentina, though former populist President Cristina Kirchner has been spared from jail by the fact that she is a Senator. Still, her rightist successor, Macri, has equally failed to restore economic growth.) As of this writing, a new rightist populist figure, Bolsonaro had just won the election in Brazil. Bolsonaro was an insider outsider, like almost all of our populist figures, a previous politician in the Chamber of Deputies, with a decidedly undistinguished record of legislation, known for making inflammatory, racist, and sexist remarks (also like Trump). Like Trump, he cites fake news at any critique, stands for law and order (as a retired military officer), promises structural reforms of a broken political system, and has no clear economic agenda. While his previous statements indicated a nationalist agenda, his advisors appear to be more market-oriented. His popularity only increased when a fanatic stabbed him during a rally. In an interesting new study of populism over time in Latin America, Houle and Kenny (2018) find populist governments make no significant difference in either participation in elections or in redistribution of income/spending on social welfare.

The election of center-left populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) in Mexico in 2018, riding a populist wave after he had been denied (partly through fraud) victory in 2 previous elections created euphoria among marginalized groups in Mexico. AMLO promised to revitalize the Mexican economy through increased state intervention. His platform includes renationalizing the oil and gas industry, promoting the agricultural sector, boosting social spending and cracking down on corruption. The population, fed up with growing crime related to narcotrafficking, widely sees the Mexican state as rife with corruption, and AMLO’s victory signals skepticism with the rightward spin of previous governments who had leaned towards revitalization through ← 13 | 14 → privatization. This is understandable given privatization in the past had led to private monopolies/oligopolies that further concentrated wealth, such as the telecommunications empire owned by one of the world’s richest men, Carlos Slim. He has also discussed the idea of a universal basic income in lieu of expanding social welfare.

There are still others we could explore—such as the rise of the far right in Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, the Czech Republic, Scandinavia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, and a right wing populist in Colombia, Iván Duque, who ran on a platform of economic revitalization. Like Brazil, Colombia has also been affected by a wave of Venezuelan refugees. All these events beg for something beyond the national level analyses we have seen so far. While we focus primarily on the U.S. as the archetypal case, we attempt to show that a framework for understanding populism from the lens of long-term shifts is widely applicable.


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What Is Populism?

A wave of populist leaders and decisions has swept across the globe in recent years. In the first section of the book, we make the case that the events of 2016 are a natural reaction to insecurity, one that we have seen before in history. While we focus on the US case, examining previous history in Europe, from Napoleon to Churchill to DeGaulle, one can easily find that populism tends to be a natural reaction to acute feelings of insecurity in a society.

Like many social science terms, “populism” lacks a clear definition (Moffitt and Tormey 2013), but most political scientists/analysts intuitively know to what it refers. The underlying idea is a political leader who bypasses formal institutions and entrenched elites to reach “the masses,” or more accurately large groups of constituents who feel disaffected with the current political regime. In noting the importance of a maverick leader, we distinguish from general outsider or anti-establishment campaigns which would be part of a broader umbrella of fundamental reform movements (Barr 2009). I speak here of populism not as a campaign style so much as an approach to governing. Populism is most likely to appeal when there is a sense of crisis to which regular establishment forces do not seem to have a satisfactory answer. Seen in this way, we find populism throughout history is linked to a sense of dislocation and ← 17 | 18 → disaffection. For example, Elchardus and Spruyt find in a 2016 survey of Belgium that populist supporters tend to believe that society is in decline, due to increased migration and globalization. Populism thus entails a promise of revolutionary reform of institutions and, often, some form of redistribution of power and resources away from elites towards popular forces. It tends towards a Manichean approach, painting the status quo as corrupt and tainted, and offering a “return” or shift towards purity and goodness.

It is not a surprise that most voting models, based on snapshots in time rather than a long-term dynamic theory of political alignment, will miss the strength of populism, which usually ignites members of society who have infrequently or never participated in mainstream politics. Populist movements are by nature volatile, with generally quite ambiguous sentiments (led by emotionally charged groups, rather than median voters) leading to an unclear program of reform, diverse constituencies, and so an inevitable disappointment and frustration. It fits the pattern that Trump has had no clear legislative agenda, and thus initially made an entente cordiale with the Republican establishment he has so frequently railed against. Populists offer easy change, but major threats to the status quo absent a serious external intervention or fundamental crisis are going to lead to a Thermidorian reaction by conservative forces who through controlling existing institutions are better organized and control power and resources. These forces are likely to engage in a form of “window dressing” whereby they enact superficial reforms and wait for the wave of resentment to die. To wit, Trump’s team has made no structural changes to lobbying or campaign finance that are arguably the root of the sense of alienation by mainstream voters and were central to his campaign. In creating an anti-perspective as the main unifying force, once in power, populists are bound to fragment their constituencies with the tradeoffs inevitably involved in decision-making and resource allocation (Abts and Rummens 2007). Like Trump, they tend towards authoritarian perspectives that may come to threaten democratic institutions themselves. Populists will tend to blame existing institutions for the lack of progress, along with other convenient enemies (e.g., immigrants), continuing the political campaign once in office in order to explain the lack of meaningful progress as the institutions rebel or are slowed by conflictive populist reform efforts.

The exact nature and results of a given populist movement are therefore quite idiosyncratic and unpredictable. If on the right side of the political spectrum, for example, parties are often based at root on either nationalist or neoliberal (“market” or “deregulation” as a magic solution) bases. In fact the ← 18 | 19 → range of possible beliefs within populism is often wide beyond just a radicalization of “normal” considerations. Thus populism has the potential to reach a broad spectrum of temporarily aggrieved segments of the population who are part of the mainstream (Mudde 2007, 294, 297). Populists have to explain the inevitable shaping and dilution of their policy program once they are in office in terms of both change and institutional reform (Rooduijn, Lange, and Brug 2012). Simply put, they paradoxically have to use existing institutions to revolutionize them. Even if they do away with the institutions, they are likely to re-create them in some form and/or be left with latent powerful establishment interest groups that threaten their progress.

In the sense that populism can begin to incorporate marginalized groups and issues, it can have beneficial effects for democracy. As Roberts (2006) points out in his study of Latin American populism, the nature of the movement depends in part on the personality of the charismatic leader, in part on how threatening it is to establishment forces, and in part on how well the movement can organize itself into a more permanent operation. This, of course, puts the nascent party in a contradictory position, between charismatic leadership and the need for more normal and permanent operations, and between the hard core of the movement and the need to capture elements of the mainstream. While mainstream political science predicts a convergence in the middle for parties, Trump and Brexit show that turnout of the base can be a good strategy, at least for the short term. Thus extremism can be rewarded, as long as the base is angrier than those in the mainstream. The traditional political science models based on a rational “median” voter completely ignore the role of emotion in politics, thus missing the obvious strategies to inflame passions, including the 2018 midterm ads run by Trump and the Republicans claiming that a caravan of undernourished desperate migrants from Central America were “invaders,” contained significant Middle Eastern elements, and required a military response. Other ads presented the democrats as angry mobs who would sow chaos and ruin the economy.

As noted, populism can take on both right and left wing forms. The Tea Party movement of the early naughts is an example of the former, and the momentum around Bernie Sanders, a self-avowed socialist, an example of the latter. Leaders have to be able to make some credible claim of being marginal to the establishment, i.e., they are “outsiders.” In reality, they are usually not led by “the people,” but marginalized elites as they need access to resources and media to become known and campaign. Right wing populists generally follow a narrative that recent events demonstrate a change that has gone too ← 19 | 20 → far, and/or that threaten the core identity and purity of a state. Left wing populists go in the opposite direction, claiming that change is too slow and inadequate to meet social needs. Both types of movements make claims on what is “just” and “right,” while finding themselves caught in the aforementioned paradox of having to use existing institutions (or recreated versions of them) in order to carry out that change.

We can summarize the conventional view of populism according to the following diagram:

Figure 1.1. Causal Linkages for Conventional Views on Populism.

While these standard views on populism are very helpful at understanding the dynamics and reasons for the rise of an individualistic leader, as well as the inevitable disappointment that comes with it, they don’t really explain why a wave of populism arrives in any substantive sense. Instead, the root causes are as idiosyncratic and local to the analysts as they are to the populist machines who take over. To better understand them, we turn to a deeper look into U.S. history. What we find is that we are not in such a unique moment, after all.

Haven’t We Seen This Movie Before? Understanding the Economic Roots of US Populism in Historical Perspective

Put in proper perspective, Trump’s rise is part of a pattern, not an aberration, in American history, of populism reaching a boil under crisis conditions. Morton Keller’s magisterial 2007 work on US history suggests broad continuities amidst long-term evolutionary change through American politics, peppered by waves of populism, and provides a framework for understanding these patterns throughout history. He divides the country’s history into three broad periods that can help to ground our analysis of such patterns. The first, from the ← 20 | 21 → colonial period until the 1820s, he calls the Deferential-Republican regime; the second, from 1830s to the 1930s, the Party-Democratic Regime; and the third, from the 1930s to the present, the Populist-Bureaucratic Regime. From the 2nd period on, the country witnesses various periods of populism; this naturally reflects the expansion of the voting franchise. Kazin’s well cited work (1998a, 289) suggests that populism in US history on both sides of the spectrum is a reaction against elitism, either that of big business or of government elites; this matches with Keller’s historical sketch.

In regard to the early history of the Republic, certainly there were divisive issues, from the degree of power of centralized government to the role of the national banks, as reflected in Shay’s Rebellion,1 but the spirit of elite compromise as reflected in Clay’s famous efforts to forge a workaround slavery kept a lid on conflict until the Civil War. The election of Andrew Jackson in 1829 reflects a shadow of the future in the slow evolution towards party-based politics. Jackson is widely renowned for his populist leanings, reflecting a rapidly growing population, uneven economic growth and a related worsening regionalism. He is famous for inviting “the people” to the White House to celebrate his inauguration. His election coincided with an anti-elitist wave, aimed at the Masons (Keller 103) who supposedly dominated government, with reflections in Trump’s “drain the swamp” promise. Jackson’s tone differed markedly from previous administrations in his efforts to emphasize his humble origins and attempt to connect to the common man, though voting was still highly restricted. As Keller relates, even when small government federalists such as Jefferson and Jackson took power, the reach of the central government continued to grow, from the Louisiana Purchase to the rejection of Calhoun’s arguments for states’ abilities to nullify federal laws. Jackson brought in a “Kitchen Cabinet” of informal advisors not unlike Trump’s family members and cronies (Keller 88–89).

Long-term economic trends can help to explain the wave of populism that swept the country by the mid-19th century. The Know Nothing anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic party of the 1850s was not too far removed from Trump’s platform. As Formisano (2008, 202) notes, Know-Nothingism was a rejection of politicians, viewed as captured, and a culture shock from the economic dislocations of industrialization and massive immigration, long-term trends that, like today, finally reached a head. Racial tensions existed in the North as well as the South. The deadly Irish-led riots in New York City in July 1863 were related in part to conscription (to which the wealthy could buy their way out of), but by most accounts were a boiling over of tension by Irish, who saw African Americans as competition for unskilled labor positions (Man Jr. 1951). ← 21 | 22 →

After the Civil War finally settled the question of slavery, an ensuing economic crisis once again fanned the flames of populism. This was related to a global economic contraction that occurred in the aftermath of the Civil War in the US, leading the Treasury to demonetize silver in order to gain confidence with gold backing the currency (Downs 2011, 168). More fundamentally, Kazin (1998b, 76–78) notes, populism was linked to a coalition of agrarian producers who felt squeezed by liberal financial elites (“parasites”) amidst growing perceptions of inequality not unlike those evoked by Bernie Sanders and others today. The politics were personal, like today, missing the wider economic transformation underway from an agrarian-based economy to one that was driven by industrialization. There were certainly idealistic elements, such as the Grange movement seeking to build agricultural cooperatives throughout the Midwest as an alternative to corporate dominance (Schneiberg et al. 2008). Still, early populist movements achieved serious electoral reforms to reorient democracy, albeit with mixed results, such as the direct referendum/initiative possibilities in Western states, and the direct election of senators.

Like today, economic crisis was at the center of populist movements of the late 19th century. The populist surge was capped by William Jennings Bryan’s campaign of 1896, which, according to some, marked the beginning of a shift of the Democratic Party towards a more progressive agenda. This came from his championing of the “free silver” issue, arguing for restoring the use of silver as bullion for coins and as a means to stabilize monetary value. Silver producers in the West were in freefall after European countries had removed silver from their money (DeCanio 2011). In his 1896 Presidential speech, Bryan railed against the moneyed interests in the East associated with the Republican Party, siding with rural interests against urban elites, and made personal attacks against his opponents (Harpine 2001).2 This coincided with the movement towards machine politics as reflected in the infamous Tammany Hall operation in New York, as well as organized corporate monopolies, again parallel to Trump’s “drain the swamp” refrain. Political machines were organized to incorporate the waves of immigration reaching urban areas and traded votes for favors. It is not too far removed from recent Democratic suggestions about “rainbow coalitions” embracing immigration and encouraging minority turnout as essential to the character and success of the country, also arousing nativist spirits as is occurring today.

The key point from our review so far is that xenophobic and nativist outbursts were traced in the short-term (at the time) to anti-immigration and racist sentiments, but the economic forces behind the transformation of the ← 22 | 23 → country were central to the underlying discontent of the populist forces, who then scapegoated immigrants for economic dislocation.

If there is a pattern here from what followed, namely a progressive movement towards environmental protection (including the establishment of national parks) and, eventually, the New Deal establishing the welfare state, it suggests that Trump is the last gasp of a dying order, one which will cap a long-term social evolution and a period of reform. This is reflected in the support for Bernie Sanders in the U.S., the non-partisan triumph of Macron in France, and the Five Star Movement in Italy. In the case of the U.S., the Know Nothing movement was followed by a major shift towards progressive reform. Progressivism in the early 20th century can ultimately be understood as a policy reaction to long-term trends of industrialization and urbanization, and led to anti-trust and pro-union legislation that supported such causes. Mass education, health care, and other social provisions became necessary to maintain a strong industrial workforce as manufacturing became the centrifuge of economic growth. Then, as now, there was great concern about the overreach of big business from the Teapot Dome scandal3 to Roosevelt’s anti-trust actions. Unlike today, the progressive coalition included both farmers and workers calling for expansion of government to improve equality of opportunity. However, like today, the populist surge embraced a managerial, non-partisan vision (Postel 2007, 17–19 & 288). As in the most recent election, significant elements of the working class were anti-immigrant, seeing employers’ support of mass importation of Irish and Chinese laborers as threatening to their jobs (Fink 2015, 20).

What we see from our review of US history is that politics tends to move in a pendulum while slowly evolving in a progressive way, between reaction and reform in response to continual demands for change based on often hidden long-term economic and social factors. For example, Woodrow Wilson’s idealism of 1914–18 was followed by the pro-business administrations of Harding, Coolidge and Hoover, not unlike Trump following Obama or Reagan Carter, Nixon Johnson, etc. Racial politics, with the Democrats controlling the solid South, were as regionalized as they are today. Racial politics did not come out of a vacuum because Obama was elected, as one might surmise from recent media coverage; they merely resurfaced.

To continue to trace the pattern, the economic exigencies of the Great Depression led FDR unwittingly to shift towards a party-bureaucratic state, with a vast expansion of government into social welfare that remains today. Readers will recall that there was a real sense of state failure at that time, with populist movements such as Eugene Deb’s socialist presidential campaigns ← 23 | 24 → and Huey Long’s populism in Louisiana offering stark alternatives to conservativism, not too far removed from Sanders and Trump compared to their party establishments. Keller argues that FDR’s shift was not a singular but a widespread movement including state-level efforts to set up utility, worker safety, and other types of regulations needed in a modern industrial society (163). Keller reminds us that, during the 1950s, McCarthy’s approach to the infamous hearings was populist, and reflected fears of communism and concerns about elitist control of government (223), not unlike Trump’s appeal to xenophobia or increasingly common evocations of “the deep state,” that are essentially a reaction to social and economic changes moving too fast for large groups in society.

The conservative turn to Eisenhower was followed by the seeming apogee of progressivism under Kennedy and Johnson, when the welfare state expanded along with revolutionary social change in the civil rights, environmental, and women’s movements creating a serious identity crisis, and Democrats and Republicans completing their switches from conservativism to progressivism and vice versa. The third party candidacy of George Wallace in 1968 presaged the racist tones of Trump’s campaigns and the premonition of the power of the aggrieved white working class. Then, and before, as now, right wing populism was enveloped in a narrative that minorities and immigrants were sucking the marrow from the work of the small business owners and blue collar workers through welfare and special privileges, aided and abetted by a liberal elite (Kazin 1998b, 82). Yet, rapid economic growth and increased access to income mobility through expanding means, such as higher education, made promises of a “Great Society” that wiped out poverty seem plausible to ensuring Democratic majorities until Vietnam split the country. In short, what we see again in this period is a nativist reactionary response to long-term economic changes and the sense that reform was progressing too rapidly.

The pendulum swings back somewhat with Nixon, who, though he maintained elements of a progressive agenda, such as an environmental policy, also usurped some of Wallace’s (and Huey Long before him) rhetoric about “the silent majority” (a term that directly parallels phrasing in many of Trump’s speeches, including his phrase, “the forgotten man”) during a period of tumultuous change (Lowndes 2017). The Watergate and OPEC-induced stagflation economic crisis of the 1970s typified the post-Vietnam loss of faith in political institutions and opened the way for the maverick Democratic President (and former “peanut farmer”) Carter, who, like Trump, promised to cut through ← 24 | 25 → normal politics (also with very limited success). Both Carter and Bill Clinton were notably Southerners, able to assure elements of the white working class that they understood their interests. The swing back was more definitive with right wing neo-populist Reagan, who blamed government overreach for America’s decline and, as Carter famously put it, a feeling of “malaise,” recapturing elements of the white working class along the lines of restoring social values amidst hyperinflation, promising “morning in America,” a precursor to “making America great again.” Through all these changes, racism in terms of inequitable economic opportunity and standards of living continued, especially in northern manufacturing towns where workers lived in separate neighborhoods with differential access to education, even while ameliorating policies such as affirmative action preceded shifts in social values and slowly improved conditions.

Keller sees the modern era (201) as a time when party discipline is breaking down amidst the entry of newly powerful actors, including the media, advocacy groups, bureaucrats and experts. Voters become more like consumers of party platforms, with loyalties starting to break down, and the suburbs becoming a key location for swing voters. This presages the notable split between Trump and Sanders and their traditional party wings, as well as the demographic groups helping Trump to win. Clearly, Trump is drawing from a playbook that has existed through much of American history. Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot’s failed Presidential runs in the 1990s featured xenophobia and anti-globalization and challenged political party mainstreams well before Trump made it his platform. Jesse Jackson was their counterpart on the left; interestingly, both the far right and left are anti-globalization. All of these candidates set the plate for Trump and Sanders in intuitively understanding that globalization was transforming the industrial heartland. Clinton’s national health care plan, an abysmal failure, shows the clear limits of progressive politics in the 1990s. Bill Clinton understood that the economy was at the root of issues, with his campaign slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid,” but he did not substantively understand economic transformation. Clinton’s timing amidst the beginnings of yet another economic transition, namely the beginning of the internet-based economic revolution, was fortunate, and thus blinded him and the Democrats to the true costs of moving towards a global economy as symbolized by NAFTA, one of Trump’s favorite piñatas. In short, instead of making the required pro-active changes in policies required by a globalized and knowledge-based economy, Clinton was largely reactive. ← 25 | 26 →

Consider the differences in US politics just over 10 years later, but the continuing lack of vision and understanding about the transformation taking place in the economy by revolutions introduced by globalization and the internet. Obama’s promise of a new progressive era brought only limited change beyond expanding health care, though it was symbolically important. Obama was successfully depicted as an interloper-outsider by reactionary forces, in regards to both his name and biracial background, and as a “socialist” by right wing media, aided by the rise of Fox News’ 24 hour conspiracy theories. The approach was a continual stoking of fears among conservative constituencies towards emotional apotheosis; conservative constituents could be seen adopting wholesale the conspiracy theories fed to them continually by talk radio and Fox News. This bedrock of falsity explains why the Republic mainstream candidates lost control of the party. In the end, whether Obama’s campaign agenda was hijacked by Republicans in the Congress,4 by a continually hostile right wing media, by a strong business interest reaction, or some combination including other factors, or whether he was actually more mainstream than perceived, will have to be decided by historians. More important still and consonant with our examination was the timing of economic cycles—the crash of 2008 doomed Obama’s progressive agenda and left popular impressions of him as an ineffective steward. The failure to hold any bankers accountable and to regulate risk taking, a natural solution to the problems leading up to the crisis, as I argue in a forthcoming book, was paralleled by Obama’s calculation that he needed mainstream economists such as Larry Summers to save the economy. This ran right against the very premise of his campaign, promising “hope and change,” distressing a generation of disaffected Millennial (generally referring to those born from 1981–1996, as opposed to Gen X, 1965–80 and the Baby Boomers, 1946–64),5 voters who saw nothing of the sort.

What was missing was and is the (mis)understanding that economic transformation would lead to a recovery that still left many in the industrial belt rightfully feeling uneasy about their economic possibilities, no different than agrarians had the century before. Little wonder that the “winners” in this economic transition, concentrated on the two coasts, can not for the life of them understand the sources of anger, which the holders themselves fail to properly identify, and that Hillary Clinton (HRC) failed to recognize that the swing voters in the Midwest would go Trump. Trump’s instinctive understanding of the desperation of a generation of blue collar workers losing their livelihoods was reflected in his promise of bringing back coal and manufacturing jobs, ← 26 | 27 → while scapegoating immigrants depicted as criminals and foreigners who gave the US a “bad deal,” in both trade (NAFTA) and security (NATO), while HRC offered nothing tangible or visionary. She simply ran against Trump, expecting to win on a negative vote (against him). This suggests a lack of recognition of the populist moment by the Democrats—that an insider candidate was tainted by association, as seen in the Republican primaries where Trump eviscerated the field of established politicians. The fact that such a flawed candidate ran the field shows how difficult and unattractive running for office has become.

More immediately, the portentous initial reaction to Obama’s (and later HRC’s) failure to understand or explain the underlying economic transformation of globalization and the internet economy was the emergence of the Tea Party reactionary movement which seized on the historically deep-rooted notion that government was becoming too big, not unlike Jefferson’s federalist platform and Reagan’s refrain, and demonstrating the widespread lack of understanding of the underlying sense of dislocation. The Tea Party instead focused on the profligate ways of the Republican establishment in running up budget deficits and with illegal immigration as the purported sources of the problem. Like its leftist counterpart, Occupy, it was frustrated with the lack of accountability for Wall Street executives who helped to cause the 2008 global financial crisis and were subsequently bailed out by the Federal government, and thus captured the anti-elitist sentiment that we have seen throughout the history of populism in the US. Had there not been such a divide on social issues, we likely would have seen a populist push for major economic reforms earlier. Both the Tea Party and the left agree on the need for structural reform to reduce corruption and elitism in US politics but lack a coherent platform of solutions for doing so. Both are ironically backed by big money donors, such as the Koch brothers, who undermine and enable their populist leanings at the same time. In fact, in 2011 54% of Tea Partiers rated the state of the American economy as “very bad” as compared to 34% of the general population; 58% said that the best days for good jobs for workers were behind them as opposed to 45% for the general population (Ashbee 2011, 157). It is worth noting that the numbers for the general population are much higher than one would expect, thus showing that there is a swing voter element open to economic populists.

The Tea Party lacks any clear agenda beyond being for restoring some nostalgic sense of a simpler America and for fiscal responsibility. Moreover, the Tea Party did not engage in organized engagement with policymakers (Berry ← 27 | 28 → and Portney 2017, 128); like the Occupy and other populist movements they know more about what they are against (emotion) than what they are for (facts). As a result, the Tea Party was used by the Republican establishment (until Trump) to reinforce Fox News and the Republican establishment’s claims that Obama had a “socialist” agenda; reality mattered not. Defeating Obama thus became the new target of the Tea Party and explains its inability to create an organized bloc. As Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, famously said in 2010, “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” The tactics of the Republicans thus moved towards personifying Obama as the danger, playing on his race and supposedly progressive credentials; this was not a simple question of differing on issues. They refused any compromise on the budget until the closure of government backfired on them. They made Obamacare the enemy, despite its market basis, including rejection of a public insurance option, and its intellectual basis in Republican think tanks and the experience of Massachusetts under Republican Governor (and their former Presidential candidate) Mitt Romney. In moving politics to the personal realm and ignoring facts, they set a playbook for Trump to follow, beginning with the “birther” movement which he adopted claiming Obama was not born in the US but abroad. Recall the “makers and takers” phrase oft-used by Republican candidates, ignoring the fact that many red states are net takers of Federal transfers, and have large population segments on Federal programs, including Medicaid/Obamacare and welfare. In fact, studies show that the blue states are paying for federal government tax redistribution to the red states. The top 10 states in regard to dependency on tax receipts are in sequence: New Mexico, Kentucky, Mississippi, Alabama, West Virginia, South Carolina, Arizona, Alaska, Montana, and Louisiana. Of these, only New Mexico is a democratic state.6 Red state populations are documented as being for the new health care programs but against “Obamacare,” a reality that hit home in the 2018 mid-terms when previously staunch Republican opponents to health care expansion, such as Ted Cruz, guaranteed that pre-existing conditions could not affect health care coverage.

Such reversals of reality show the power of the media and repeated falsehoods to shape perceptions of truth, an art that Trump has perfected. Government programs are discursively linked to “blacks,” quite successfully, going back at least to Reagan’s evocation of “welfare queens” exploiting the system. As Trump seized upon, immigrants can be associated with crime and dereliction, just as the Italians and Irish were at the turn of the century, blamed for ← 28 | 29 → “taking jobs” from Americans. Here again, the emotional discourse amidst a sense of economic crisis is far more important than any policy discussion for understanding elections, just as Obama’s (now duplicitous) promise of hope and change offered a different emotional take for the American future (also missing an understanding of what was happening beneath the surface). But getting to the roots of that anger requires revealing the underlying economic transformation to the internet (automated, knowledge-based service) economy. The general blindness to long-term factors leaves the political establishment reeling for answers to the dislocation and loss of identity (tied to stable career paths) felt by much of the population, albeit in very different ways across generations and regions, based on winners and losers from that transformation, no different than Londoners being shocked that those in parts of the UK left behind economically would vote to leave the European Union (EU).


What we have seen in this chapter is that long-term economic trends can help us to better understand the recurring pattern of populist uprising throughout American history. When anxiety from the evolution of social values driven by economic transformation hits a boil, nativist and xenophobic reaction ensues. Admittedly, social values, particularly abortion and gun rights, continue to be a major differentiator between the parties, and the stunning changes in social norms and legality, such as gay rights and the #MeToo movement, must be shocking to conservative and generally older elements of the population (as symbolized by Fox’s attacks on Christmas features under the label of pc (political correctness)). Trump’s use of social media and Twitter in particular to bypass the media reflects innovation in campaigning, building upon the strategies developed by the Obama campaign, but fanning the flames of populist anger in a way not seen before. Despite these technological innovations, his message is (alarmingly or reassuringly, depending on your perspective) resonant with populist surges going back to the mid-19th century. In the rest of this book, we lay out the groundwork for this argument, first by exposing the temporary nature of the xenophobic reaction, and then by digging deeper into its economic roots. Economic transformation, we maintain, is the true cause of Western anxiety; an upsurge in xenophobia and racism is a symptom. We can now revisit our causal diagram to add the importance of economic values. Fig. 1.2 gives a simplified version of the proposed causal sequence of populism in this book. ← 29 | 30 →

Figure 1.2. Suggested Sequence of Populism.

In the next chapter, to show that our new causal sequence makes sense, we first have to discuss the main reason given for the rise of populism in contemporary accounts—that it is a xenophobic and racist reaction. Van Jones, a commentator on CNN, famously said during an unscripted commentary that the unpredicted election of Donald Trump was “whitelash.” Trump’s attempted ban of immigrants from Muslim countries, his scapegoating of Mexican immigrants, and his botched efforts to explain the violence around the Charlottesville racist march in Aug. 2017, were all given as the reasons behind his populist rise. Commentators have consistently done the same in Europe, with frequent reports of Steve Bannon, Trump’s advisor, coordinating an alt-right effort there, and sensationalized reports of fringe movements such as Nazi sympathizers in Germany, creating a climate of fear. There is no doubt that such a fanning of flames is a deliberate attempt by Trump as fed by Bannon to create division and anger, emotions he can then use to whip up his base into an emotional frenzy as seen at his rallies. What explains the timing of the resonance of the population to newly racist charges (not only in the US but in Europe)? Here some commentators, such as Ta Nehisi Coates, suggest that there are darker undertones to Western society—effectively racism has never diminished, it continued just below a shiny surface of greater equality. In the next two chapters, we pick apart some of the evidence behind our three featured events to see how poorly they support such an account.


1. An armed rebellion led by Daniel Shay’s in 1786–7 in response to a financial crisis that motivated and led to a more centralized government in the newly independent U.S. ← 30 | 31 →

2. Bryan was also famous for attacking the theory of evolution in the (in)famous Scopes monkey trial, taking the side of common wisdom/people’s values against scientific reason. Bryan was also a white supremacist.

3. The scandal occurred under Pres. Warren G. Harding in 1921–23 involving members of his administration jailed for accepting bribes from oil companies to lease out reserves on public lands at below market rates and without competitive bidding.

4. Even when there were Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, the Republicans in the Senate were able to use the filibuster to hold up legislation. The Dems needed 60 votes in the Senate to prevent this, which they had only for 4 months, September 24, 2009 through February 4, 2010.

5. http://www.pewresearch.org/topics/millennials/

6. See https://wallethub.com/edu/states-most-least-dependent-on-the-federal-government/2700/ and https://www.apnews.com/2f83c72de1bd440d92cdbc0d3b6bc08c both accessed Nov. 11, 2018.


Abts, Koen, and Stefan Rummens. 2007. “Populism versus Democracy.” Political Studies 55 (2): 405–24.

Ashbee, Edward. 2011. “Bewitched–The Tea Party Movement: Ideas, Interests and Institutions.” The Political Quarterly 82 (2): 157–64.

Barr, Robert R. 2009. “Populists, Outsiders and Anti-Establishment Politics.” Party Politics 15 (1): 29–48.

Berry, Jeffrey M., and Kent E. Portney. 2017. “The Tea Party versus Agenda 21: Local Groups and Sustainability Policies in U.S. cities.” Environmental Politics 26 (1): 118–37.

DeCanio, Samuel. 2011. “Populism, Paranoia, and the Politics of Free Silver.” Studies in American Political Development 25: 1–26.

Downs, Gregory P. 2011. Declarations of Dependence: The Long Reconstruction of Popular Politics in the South, 1861–1908. Chapel Hill: The U of North Carolina Press.

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Harpine, William D. 2001. “Bryan’s “a cross of gold:” The rhetoric of polarization at the 1896 democratic convention.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 87 (3): 291–304.

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Kazin, Michael. 1998b. “Democracy Betrayed and Redeemed: Populist Traditions in the United States.” Constellations 5 (1): 75–84. ← 31 | 32 →

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XVI, 174
ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2019 (July)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2019. XVI, 174 pp., 36 b/w ill., 3 tables

Biographical notes

Anil Hira (Author)

Anil Hira is Professor of Political Science at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. He is a political economist specializing in industrial, technology, and energy policies for development, of which he has written extensively. His current interests are on climate change strategies for the developing world. Hira is a frequent contributor to media outlets in Canada.


Title: The Great Disruption