Is it too soon to try to see the Trump years through a clarifying historical lens? Not according to this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast guest, Lawrence Rosenthal, chair and lead researcher of the Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies, and the author of Empire of Resentment: Populism’s Toxic Embrace of Nationalism.

Rosenthal takes us through the recent history of populism — a movement which, in his view, led to the rise of Trump. From the Tea Party, with its focus on free-market economics, to the inchoate anger of those left behind in the job market, to a movement transformed by racism, nationalism, and social issues, to a seditious riot resulting in the death of five people, Rosenthal connects the dots.

He finds parallels to Trump’s presidency in early 20th-century nationalistic movements, like the Italian fascism of the 1920s and ‘30s, and links the rise of Trumpism to contemporary developments in Hungary, Poland, and Russia. He explains how what began as economic populism was co-opted to create opposition to a demonized “other” (immigrants, Black people, and refugees).

He argues that Trump’s “hybrid populism” somewhat bridges the old gulf between “left” and “right” by focusing scorn on an amorphous financial elite and engaging in a kind of identity politics that contrasts between those anointed as true believers and their enemies, who are not considered “real Americans.”

While a lot has been written about how and why Trump came to power, Rosenthal spells out a historical explainer in a way that seems so much clearer now that Trump is gone. He makes a strong case that American democracy is still under threat. 

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. Different political eras often become famous for the words that they give rise to. Think about trickle-down economics, light at the end of the tunnel, a new frontier, compassionate conservatism and the Tea Party. Perhaps from the time that CNBC commentator Rick Santelli launched the Tea Party into the years of the Trump presidency, few words have gotten more play than populism. On its surface, probably a good idea, an opportunity for ordinary people to push back against what they perceive as the elites that have more power. In some ways last week’s Reddit incursion against a hedge fund was a kind of populism. Just as the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street were from both the left and the right, but what happens as we’ve seen with other isms throughout history, when it’s co-opted.

Jeff Schechtman: Today, populism has become infected with strains of toxic nationalism, white exceptionalism, and religious fundamentalism. Or to put it in simple terms, the vaunted Trump base in America. And not to be outdone, this is becoming a popular front around the world. To better understand it all, I am joined by our guest, Lawrence Rosenthal. Dr. Lawrence Rosenthal is the founder, chair, and lead researcher of the Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies and the author of the recent book, Empire of Resentment: Populism’s Toxic Embrace of Nationalism. He has taught at UC Berkeley in the Sociology and Italian Studies departments and was a Fulbright professor at the University of Naples. It is my pleasure to welcome Lawrence Rosenthal here to the WhoWhatWhy podcast.

Lawrence Rosenthal : It’s my pleasure.

Jeff Schechtman: Certainly the idea of populism working its way into Republican politics, it’s nothing new, we saw elements of it that go back to Reagan, even that go back to Goldwater. Talk about the line between that and where we are today.

Lawrence Rosenthal : Well it’s important to understand that there is a populism of the left and a populism of the right. And the populism of the left typically takes as its focus financial elites. Populism is a kind of politics which is motivated above all by resentment of elites. On the other hand, right-wing populism tends to be motivated by resentment of what we could call cultural elites. That is to say, things like Hollywood, university professors, the media, the Democratic Party, and more generally, much of Blue America. So the populism that characterizes the right has existed in the kind of increasing arc since where you can go back to the Goldwater campaign, but its modern line starts pretty much with the Reagan presidency in the ’80s.

Lawrence Rosenthal : The right-wing populism has established itself as the largest voting bloc in the Republican Party. So they hold a lot of power in terms of who become the candidates for Republicans. In the ’90s, the strongest expression of right-wing populism was in the form of the Christian conservatism. With George Bush in office, there was the urgency of the ’90s, which was motivated by the Clinton presidency. It diminished under George W. Bush but came back with a wallop in 2009. In January of 2009, Barack Obama was inaugurated as president. In February of 2009, the Tea Party started. The Santelli rant that you referred to in your introduction took place in February of 2009, just about a month after Barack Obama had become president.

Lawrence Rosenthal : Inside the Tea Party, for the first few years, they were very focused. To some extent there were national issues, which motivated the Tea Party. At the very beginning and perhaps people remember this, they were fiercely opposed to Obamacare. That unified the Tea Party across the nation. In the first summer recess of the Obama era, there were congressional representatives who went back to their districts and faced remarkably hostile crowds — threatening and intimidating crowds. That was a hallmark of what the Tea Party would be like. Now I would emphasize that there were people like gun enthusiasts and outright white nationalist racists who tried to influence or make the Tea Party their vehicle, and the Tea Party to their credit really didn’t let that happen.

Lawrence Rosenthal : That would come later. But after the national focus on Obamacare, the next one was debt reduction. You may remember the ‘debt crises’ of 2011 and 2013. One of them shut down the government. Another one threatened to default on the national debt, which is staggering if you consider the impact of that. But in any case, the third issue that wound up motivating the Tea Party beginning in about 2014 was immigration. That was what eventually split the Tea Party. If you think back earlier, Obamacare and the debt crisis, those were indications of the Tea Party, ideologically following a kind of free-market absolutism, the kind of thing you found with the Koch brothers and people like that. But with immigration, they started moving ideologically.

Lawrence Rosenthal : This is what Donald Trump observed in his preparation for running for the presidency, which essentially included paying a lot of attention to right-wing media. He saw this movement to immigration becoming the focus issue as it had in places on the right in Europe during the immigration crisis of 2014, 2015, and so on. What Donald Trump essentially did, the shorthand of how he won in 2016, was that he migrated the Tea Party ideologically from Koch brothers, free-market extremism to his anti-immigrant America First nationalism, and the populous base of the party has stayed true to that ever since.

Jeff Schechtman: How much does it all have to do also with demographic change and complexity in general, just the way in which the world has moved on, and which so many of these same people have been left behind?

Lawrence Rosenthal : There is a really significant question about people being left behind. In fact, a lot of these Republican populists live in places like the Rust Belt, or in Louisiana. If you’re familiar with Arlie Hochschild’s book, she describes people in Louisiana who live in a world environmentally degraded and its extraordinary extent. Who, this was during the Tea Party era but they have become Trumpists as well, could never perceive the Democratic Party or Democratic politicians in any way as a solution for the disaster that had befallen them.

Lawrence Rosenthal : In a similar way, the deindustrialized parts of the Midwest and elsewhere, you had the people left behind who experienced that things like lifespan diminished, opiate addiction, and the general thing — they had to speak in stereotypes — fathers who had good paying jobs in industry, and they found themselves working for $9 an hour as security guards at Walmart. I say that as an example. So yes, there are people left behind. But I would hasten to say that there is a lot of research on who the Trump voters were and things of that nature. And the economic circumstance is less a predictor than what I suggested earlier — cultural things. I’ll give you an example of such a study.

Jeff Schechtman: Before you to do that, let me just ask you to include in that and incorporate this — the roughly 8 million people that voted for Obama twice, and then voted for Trump.

Lawrence Rosenthal : If the Democratic Party has a hope of winning back the distressed former working-class America — those are their people. Obama didn’t solve their problems, and increasingly, they heard an explanation which seemed in part like a solution, but more than that, it was an expression of ‘we can find a scapegoat, someone to blame for this’ and that was the immigrants and what Trump was claiming about the immigrants. One thing I’ll tell you, and the best predictor of who was a Trump voter in 2016, was geographical. The finding, and this is a study of over 80,000 people.

Lawrence Rosenthal : This was a finding that the best predictor of who would vote for Trump was distance from immigrants, not having immigrants in your midst. To the extent to which you had immigrants around, it was the kind of immunity from Trumpism so that the Trump campaign and the media surrounding it were able to fill up people who had no real exposure to immigrants with the images of the 2016 campaign, which Donald Trump became famous for, which is to say that immigrants bring crime, they bring rape, they’re out to get your daughters. The only thing standing between you and violence from immigrant gangs was Donald Trump.

Jeff Schechtman: How did other racial issues — particularly issues regarding Blacks and Blacks in urban communities — how did that get incorporated and inculcated into this same argument?

Lawrence Rosenthal : There has always been a background of that. In the Tea Party, it was taken for granted. We are familiar in the Trump era with talking about people believing in things that aren’t real, in fantasies, in disinformation and so forth. And that was true with the Tea Party era as well. The Tea Party era being precisely covering the presidency of Barack Obama. If you read Tea Party blogs, Tea Party websites, Tea Party correspondence during that period, it was a taken for granted reality that Obama was born in Kenya, or otherwise was not an American citizen. There were many theories around that. That was kind of the way in which racism expressed itself most famously, or most formidably, inside the Tea Party. The kind of restraint about explicitly white nationalist and racist views that would become far more open in the Trump era, after having migrated from as I suggested, from anti- or free-market extremism to anti-immigrant nationalism.

Lawrence Rosenthal : Think about the difference between the 2016 Trump campaign and the 2020 Trump campaign. In the 2016 campaign, as I suggested earlier, the dominant narrative was ‘immigrants are coming for you, immigrants are displacing you.’ Also women, also other minorities, but immigrants are coming, and they want to take your place and wreak violence on you. The 2020 campaign, if you think about it, you didn’t hear about immigrants anymore. What was the dominant narrative of Trump’s 2020 campaign? It was Black Lives Matter, and to some extent, Antifa is coming to get you. The only thing standing between these marauding people on the streets, the only thing standing between them is Donald Trump, Donald Trump’s security forces and Donald Trump’s conflation of those security forces with things like the Proud Boys, the Boogaloo Bois, etc, etc, the guys who faced Black Lives Matter on the street, armed to the teeth with automatic weapons.

Jeff Schechtman: How much of that though, and how much of that shift, comes out of the fact that in 2018, in the midterms, when Trump played the immigration card once again, with the caravans coming across the border any minute, it didn’t work?

Lawrence Rosenthal : 2016 and 2018 were what political scientists called negative partisanship elections. That is to say, people are not particularly voting for somebody they like, they’re voting because they dislike who is running against them. In 2016, so much of the Trump support was based on really despising Hillary Clinton. And as you know, 80,000 votes difference in three states made the Electoral College win for Trump. In 2018, Blue America, who from the instant that Donald Trump was elected, was beside themselves — what in God’s name is happening?

Lawrence Rosenthal : We’ve endured the right wing since Ronald Reagan, but this is different. There’s something strange and disconcerting about this. And it turned out what was disconcerting about it was attacking the kind of taken for granted institutions of democracy, for example. So 2018 was also a negative partisanship election. Blue America had seen two years of the Trump presidency and they came out in numbers that dwarfed any kind of midterm election that one can remember to vote against Republicans, or to vote therefore for Democrats. Hence you had the takeover of the House of Representatives.

Jeff Schechtman: Come back and tie this all back to the idea of populism and the cultural populism versus the economic populism. We all remember Steve Bannon in the 2016 campaign talking about, in this very populist rhetoric, the elimination of the administrative state and how all that ties to where we are now.

Lawrence Rosenthal : Well Steve Bannon had a vision, and Steve Bannon’s vision was that essentially a hybrid between left-wing and right-wing populism. Think about Steve Bannon’s tenure at the White House. He’s gone after about eight or nine months, and the precipitating factor, one of them but a highly significant one, was his view of the tax cut, as I’m sure you remember. The tax cut was and remains the single signature legislative success of the Trump years. What it did was knock down corporate rates a great deal, knocked down the highest interest rate for individuals from, I think it was 39.7% to 37%. Steve Bannon was arguing at that time when he was senior advisor and strategist for Donald Trump, sitting essentially in the seat that Karl Rove had sat in for George W. Bush, he was arguing to raise the highest rate on individual payers from 39 percent to 45 percent.

Lawrence Rosenthal : That was the end of Steve Bannon. Bannon’s idea was that the left-behind working class could join with the right-wing populists who felt themselves being replaced by others — that together that could form kind of the successor to the Tea Party, that it would be a significant bloc that would be the successor to the Tea Party. And essentially, being the kingmaker in Republican politics through primarying people and through legislative obstruction, he saw in Trump the ideal vehicle for that. It turns out that there are models of this abroad, which really attracted Bannon. After he was out of the White House, he in fact went abroad and attempted to put together what he called simply the movement of such political parties abroad, but he was not well received abroad.

Jeff Schechtman: Why is all of this so susceptible to authoritarianism? Talk about that.

Lawrence Rosenthal : There’s a lot of answers to that. One of them is once you move into… Well, in the Tea Party, Sarah Palin gave them their name. She called them the Real Americans. Once that happens, you’re moving into identity politics. We are the Real Americans. It’s different than identity politics on the left. What we might think of as traditional identity politics, or if you hear the word identity politics, this is what you think of, you think of women’s movements or as the Black movements, or Hispanic movements, or gay movements that are arguing essentially, we have never had a seat at the table for power and social justice, and we are demanding it. The real American Identity Movement, or the identity of Real Americans, is the inverse of that. It’s not, we have never had a seat at the table, it’s that we have a seat at the table and it’s being taken away by these newfound Others — and I use Others with a capital O — these Others who are displacing us.

Lawrence Rosenthal : So that the difference between an identity movement of the left and an identity movement of the right is the difference between not having had deprivation and dispossession, the sense of having something that’s being taken away from you. That feeling — and I would emphasize the place of emotion at the center of populous politics — that feeling of dispossession is actually more acid than the feeling of deprivation. It gives itself over to explanations of the Other. Remember, it’s the Others taking our place, we will not be replaced. There’s a whole sidebar about ‘replacement theory’ we could go into. But this idea that Others are taking our place gives onto the scapegoating of the Other and scapegoating requires essentially, depriving the Other, the one who is dispossessing you, depriving them of their rights.  And the only way really to go about it, or the means to that end both politically and emotionally, is scapegoating and authoritarian — both leadership and policies. So it follows from the need for scapegoating.

Jeff Schechtman: One of the other places that it leads is to this whole idea of nationalism and white supremacy, as you talk about in Empire for Resentment.

Lawrence Rosenthal : Oh, certainly, I mean, if you think about the guys, or we can go back to the predecessor to January 16, which is Charlottesville. They had three chants, one was blood and soil, another was Jews will not replace us. Those are kind of throwbacks to the Nazi inheritance that many of these people stood for, and the other one was you will not replace us, meaning a generic sense of this dispossession that I was talking about. Increasingly, in the Tea Party, it’s we’re the Real Americans. Under Trump, it gets translated into anti-immigrant stuff, and that is the opening to racializing — it both radicalizes the identity called Real Americans and it radicalizes it and it racializes it. The Trump years are a story of both of those things.

Jeff Schechtman: The other overlay to that is, and Trump talked about this a lot and some of it falls under this authoritarian rubric, the way in which law enforcement and the military gets conflated with the gangs and the Boogaloo Bois, etc. The way all of it sort of falls into the same framework. We saw this on January 6, oddly enough, with so many law enforcement military that participated in those events.

Lawrence Rosenthal : Well, there is a long history. This goes way back. You can find the same thing in the lead-up to the takeover of fascism in Italy, where fascist gangs would smash local jurisdictions they didn’t like, or labor unions they didn’t like, and there would be a winking relationship with the police. In America, if you think about the militia right, the people who today we look at, the Proud Boys, the Three Percenters, that range of people, the accelerationists, before we used to talk about the alt-right. Remember the phrase alt-right? Three years ago, one heard it all the time. It has now faded, that’s all post Charlottesville, but that’s another story. All of these guys, there is a vision or even a fantasy on the militia right in this country and it is played out in a novel, a dystopian novel called The Turner Diaries, which was published in the late ’70s.

Lawrence Rosenthal : The Turner Diaries is about these people having an uprising and taking control of the United States. It has stood the test of time in the world of the militia right as the model of how it was going to happen. Some people call it the bible of the militia right. In that vision, the police and the military were going to come over to the side of the “Patriots.” Certainly, police in the Trump era with respect to where their loyalties lay are suspect. You may remember that in the Republican Convention last year, the 2020 convention, the renomination of Donald Trump — one of the speakers and he was an angry speaker, was the head of the New York City Police Union, the largest police union in America.

Lawrence Rosenthal : So there is a wink-wink quality among police and in certain sectors within the military often. Often — that’s probably an exaggeration — but there is a significant presence of ex-military people in the militia right. One thing which is really significant, and it has to be acknowledged is that at the command level, the US military has not only not come over, but made a stand against the militia right in the name of, ‘We do not support this. We are not going to deploy our troops against protesters on the streets.’ The one event where something like this happened at the level of command was the clearing of Lafayette Park, and with him was in addition to the Attorney General Barr, and so forth was the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff.

Lawrence Rosenthal : Somewhat later, and not too much later, I forget exactly how much, he apologized. He said, ‘I shouldn’t have done that. This was not an appropriate thing to do.’ So I think it’s really important to hold on to the fact that the American military at the command level has remained, let’s say, has fidelity to the constitution as, let us say how people in Blue America would perceive it. To some extent that’s also true of the FBI and the intelligence agencies. This is of course a great irony for people on the left, for whom the FBI and the intelligence services have long been the elements of the federal government that were regarded as persecutors of the left.

Jeff Schechtman: Another element of all of this, particularly with respect to the paramilitary groups, and you talk about The Turner Diaries, is the element of civil war that is part of a lot of this rhetoric.

Lawrence Rosenthal : Well, again, that comes directly from The Turner Diaries that what they’re going to do is a civil war. The militia right in America has always had two components, two major currents, let’s say one is white nationalists and the other is anti-government. Again, based on the dystopian vision in The Turner Diaries, each of them believed that there would be an event, a spark that would lead to a civil war. And if you think back on some things like Timothy McVeigh blowing up the Oklahoma federal building in the ’90s, I think it was ’95, that was the anti-government current of the militia right expecting or hoping that this would lead to a rise up of the “Patriots.” Whereas, if you think of Dylann Roof who shot nine parishioners in a Black church in South Carolina during the Obama years.

Lawrence Rosenthal : That was the white nationalist current, someone thinking he would be the spark or do an act that would be the spark to bring all the patriots out and an insurgency leading to civil war. So it’s been around and it’s in the DNA of the American militia right. Well, if you think about 2020, there were two successive movements with no pause in between them that mobilized the populist right, including the militia right. The first one was the anti-lockdown demonstrations, the one that for example, led to armed men taking over the Michigan state Legislature and causing the legislators to cut out. But this was about anti-lockdown, anti-mask, and it goes right to the heart of the anti-government current in right-wing militia, which for whom asking people to wear masks and social distance and lock down is just plainly to their view, the first step in tyranny that would wind up making them all slaves.

Lawrence Rosenthal : Goes right to the heart of that current of the militia right. With no stop in between, the anti-lockdown demonstrations segued as it were to the George Floyd demonstrations and the anti-BLM presence of militia right on the streets. Again, this is more obvious — the Black Lives Matter and demonstrations around the murder of George Floyd goes right to the heart of the white nationalist current, just as the anti-lockdown went right to the heart of the anti-government current. So there was a galvanizing and mobilization of the militia right in 2020, which we had not seen since Charlottesville, and kind of dwarfs Charlottesville. In that, explicit was the Boogaloo Bois, and boogaloo very plainly on their websites and in their social media, boogaloo means civil war.

Lawrence Rosenthal : That on both currents of the militia right, the circumstances of three things, one is, well, the first two are what I’ve described. The two causes for being in the street — anti-lockdown and anti–Black Lives Matter, but the third thing was, there was a president who supported them. There was a president who during a September debate with Joe Biden said, “Stand back, stand by,” and if you read the Proud Boys, who he was addressing, they immediately responded on their social media as though, yes, this was their commandant-in-chief. So you had those three things coming together so that the long-held vision or fantasy on the militia right of a civil war seemed closer to these people than it had ever seen before.

Jeff Schechtman: Finally, where does this leave us now in your view?

Lawrence Rosenthal : There’s a book by a German writer called Schivelbusch, which is called The Culture of Defeat. I will repeat that because sometimes people hear me say the culture of deceit — it’s not deceit, it’s defeat. It deals with what happens inside politics that are defeated in war. How did they deal with the loss? One of the things that often emerges, one thing that’s been talked about a lot in recent commentary is the stab in the back in post-World War I Germany — that they really didn’t lose the war, but it was a bunch of schemers who put together the Weimar Republic who maneuvered Germany into surrendering and thereby stabbed the country in the back.

Lawrence Rosenthal : For the Nazi movement, this was a taken for granted reality. In the USA, there is a version of that kind of thing, which I would call an animating myth. That one is the Lost Cause. The Lost Cause is the myth coming out of the American South, the former Confederacy, about their loss in the civil war, and it has remained alive. It had a heyday in the late 19th and early 20th century as Jim Crow was establishing itself really firmly in the South. You got the construction of all these civil war hero monuments, which have come into question and in some places being taken down currently. I say that as a prelude to where we are today.

Lawrence Rosenthal : In my view, it’s an open question, but a significant question, whether the “stolen election” will have the capacity that say the Lost Cause did, going forward to act as an animating myth. Will it have the kind of capacity to keep together a disgruntled, unhappy, and militant minority in America that will hold onto the stolen election, which is something which de-legitimizes not only the government, but the media, the culture at large. It de-legitimizes them in an across-the-board manner. You stole the election. If that has the capacity to maintain itself as an animating myth, then the world that got exposed on January 6 will not fade quietly.

Jeff Schechtman: Of course, the counterargument I suppose, is that things move so quickly today, and the news cycles are so much shorter than they have been at other times, that this energy around this can dissipate a lot more quickly and morph into something else more so than in other historical examples.

Lawrence Rosenthal : Well, I always admire people’s optimism, so your question is well taken. I think you’re right, and I think it’s possible even that the things that are going on in the Biden Administration in the first 100 days, but whatever it’s been now a couple of weeks, that perhaps that it will be seen as something that gets through the furious animosity about Blue America in terms of bringing some relief to Rust Belt America, to left-behind America, to those people you referred to earlier who voted Obama, then Trump. So I don’t dispute whether there is a possibility for the stolen election to fade.

Lawrence Rosenthal : I think you’re right, that there is little that has staying power quite like this. But I mean, if you think about the staying power of things like birtherism, or other fantasies of the populist right over the years, they stuck around for a long time and they didn’t have the profound depth, the power of stolen election. Stolen election goes to the heart of something more profound than, “Okay, this guy really shouldn’t be president.” So yes, things do move quickly. The question is whether this has the capacity to buck the swift turnover of events.

Jeff Schechtman: Dr. Lawrence Rosenthal, his book is Empire of Resentment. Lawrence, I thank you so much for spending time with us.

Lawrence Rosenthal : All right, my pleasure.

Jeff Schechtman: Thank you for listening and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate/.


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Elvert Barnes / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0) and Chad Davis / Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

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