Populism in the US election: an interview with John B. Judis
What are the key ideologies and actors which prompted Trump’s defeat? The acclaimed author and journalist shares his analysis.
John Judis is Editor-At-Large at the independent news organization Talking Points Memo and has written for numerous publications, including The New York Times Magazine, Mother Jones, and The Washington Post. In 1969 he was a founding editor of the magazine Socialist Revolution. He has also been a senior editor of The New Republic and senior writer for The National Journal. He has been described as “a person of the left, who specializes in speaking truth to liberals.” Both descriptive and analytic, his highly praised trilogy on emerging movements challenges many of the ideas and myths held by the Democratic Party. But his trilogy has received compliments from all sides of the political spectrum:
BBC: “If you read no other political book this year, read The Populist Explosion by John B. Judis, which brilliantly sets out the connection to present circumstances.”
The New York Times Book Review: “In November, the fate of the Republic will turn on one question: How popular is the populism of Donald Trump? The Populist Explosion is a cogent and exceptionally clarifying guide to a political phenomenon that is at once elusive and, yes, explosive.”
The American Conservative: “John B. Judis is the rare left-of-center journalist who takes our populist-nationalist moment seriously. Rather than dismiss the leaders and constituencies of the American and European movements as mere xenophobes, he offers an empathetic balls-and-strikes analysis of the socioeconomic factors that make such campaigns viable.”
Joan Pedro-Carañana (JP-C): Hi John, many thanks for joining me. We met a few years ago in Madrid for the presentation of your first book of your highly praised trilogy on emerging movements, The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics, which has become a best-seller.
You then published The Nationalist Revival: Trade, Immigration, and the Revolt Against Globalization and your most recent book is The Socialist Awakening: What’s Different Now About the Left.
I’d like to ask you about the electoral results in the USA from the perspective of the ideologies you have analyzed in your trilogy. Instead of simply attacking Trump voters as alienated people you urge us to think about the reasons behind electoral behavior and reflect on how democratic and socialist forces might engage with them. What is the role of populist politics in the US?
John B. Judis. (J B.J.): In the United States, populism started in the 1890s as an early warning signal that a consensus that was widely held among the country’s leaders had come into disrepute and that there was a large part of the population which no longer believed in the promise of laissez-faire.
More recently, this betrayal happened again with the promise of a kind of neoliberalism in which goods and factories could go wherever they wanted in the world and labor could cross borders and it just wouldn’t matter because we would become more and more prosperous. It hasn’t panned out and both the Sanders and the Trump campaigns in 2016 and 2020 were evidence of a populist reaction.
They were saying as representatives of the people that the establishment, the elite, was out of touch, that it was pushing policies that were getting us into trouble. There was a lot of similarity between what Trump and Sanders were saying. For instance, about factories which were moving overseas, China’s mercantilism and that a lot of American companies were being put out of business. So, there’s a similarity between left-wing and right-wing populism.
JP-C: You’ve noted that Trump is different to other populist movements because he actually achieved government.
J B.J: Trump is really a kind of exception to the rule because usually what happens is that populists get coopted. The populists of the 1890s were co-opted by the Progressives and then to some extent by the New Deal.
With Trump the question was: What’s going to happen when this guy gets into office? It’s mixed. He’s kept a lot of the rhetoric of his 2016 campaign, decrying the fake media, for instance. But he hasn’t gone after Wall Street or American multinationals in the way he did during the campaign.
In terms of the legislation that he passed he really submitted to the will of the conservative and business Republicans. So contrary to the kind of things he said during his campaign, the tax bill was really tilted to business and in fact it had incentives for companies that wanted to move overseas and avoid taxes in the United States. It was completely the opposite of what he was promising. He promised to do a Healthcare policy that was better than Obama’s, but in obeisance to the Tea Party Republicans he ended up calling for its repeal without a replacement.
The midterm elections of 2018 when we turned over the House of Representatives really hurt him. People were worried that if they have pre-existing conditions, if they had asthma, the insurance company would deny them coverage. We have a very leaky insurance system in the United States: but what Trump and the Tea Party Republicans were proposing would have been even worse. So he wasn’t the classic populist, it was more of a lot of hot air.
So [Trump] wasn’t the classic populist, it was more of a lot of hot air.
I always thought that when Trump became president he would sand off the rough edges of his behavior. He’s a TV guy and he made a lot of theatrical claims, for example about Hillary Clinton and the ‘lock her up’. I thought once the guy got into office he would realize he’s President of the United States and is responsible for the whole country and he’d act like a President, in a civil way, instead of lying every day on Twitter. He didn’t change his conduct at all.
Before he became president formally in January he made this crazy claim that five million illegal immigrants had voted for Hillary Clinton and that’s why she had won the popular vote. I think this rhetoric and the policies itself were very damaging to Trump.
JP-C: Did the management of the pandemic affect Trump negatively?
J B.J: He had a lot of advantages. The economy was doing very well until the pandemic hit. He did some things that a liberal Democrat might do like telling the Federal Reserve that they have easy money. He was anti-austerity and didn’t believe in ending deficits, so he wasn’t a classic Republican in that way.
If he had handled the pandemic reasonably; if he had acknowledged that it existed and had told people that they had to do things about it, and spent money on masks and testing, and even if he wasn’t entirely successful, he might very well have been re-elected. But that failure, along with his personal corruption and bigotry, turned off too many people. Right-wing populism has temporarily hit a roadblock in the United States. We have to see if Trump and some of the Republicans can revive it, but for the moment business Republicans like Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell have the upper hand.
Right-wing populism has temporarily hit a roadblock in the United States.
JP-C: Trump used the populist strategy of attacking Biden for being an establishment politician.
J B.J: If Trump had not been such a wild man and behaved himself more reputably, this kind of attack might have stuck. But I think a lot of people, especially in terms of the coronavirus, wanted somebody in charge who was going to manage the government and just do the kind of things that a competent executive would do, so the fact that Biden had been around for years and was Vice President was a plus.
JP-C: What about the role of nationalism?
J B.J: You had two very different versions of American nationalism with Biden and Trump and the majority of people didn’t listen to the siren song of ‘America First’, but preferred a kind of nationalism that advocates for unity.
The American left has a phobia towards nationalism because it views it as xenophobic. It doesn’t understand that in order to do things in a country people have to feel responsible for each other; they have to feel that there’s something in common.
JP-C: Biden’s motto was ‘Restore the soul of America.’
J B.J: Right. Biden ran very much along the lines of Abraham Lincoln: we’re going to unite the country; we are the United States of America. We’re not red States and blue States. If I become President, I’m going to be President of the Democrats and the Republicans. On the other hand, many people noticed that ‘America First’ meant only a certain part of America, not all of America.
JP-C: …and socialism?
J B.J: Socialists are going to be put in the closet for the moment. What we really have with a Republican Senate and a Democratic President is the kind of standstill gridlock that we had during the Obama years and the center of gravity will be somewhere in the center toward the right.
The proposals the left has been making like Medicare for all and free college are just going to be off the map for now. They might make a comeback in 2022 or 2024.
JP-C: What strategies and candidates might socialists adopt?
J B.J: We have a problem on the left in the US, which is that we skip generations. When I was covering the Sanders campaign rallies you could see grandparents from the 60s and 20-25 year-old-people. There’s very little in between. I think that that’s also true of the Democratic Party’s leadership on the left.
There’s also a problem that people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez represent very specific districts in big metropolitan areas where social issues like gender and transgender or defunding the police or ending fossil fuels in a few years make sense, but they make no sense in much of the country.
JP-C: What are some key differences between rural and urban areas or the south and coasts?
J B.J: An obvious problem we have in America is the culture clash. Both sides have to be able to compromise, but in terms of my side I think that on social issues people will have to recognize that it’s not going to go their way.
In the protest against police brutality, you had groups talking about defunding the police. Some groups even advocated abolishing the police and the prison system. But most people are worried about public safety.
To bring the country closer on cultural issues, the left is going to have to learn to compromise and to modulate its message. It needs to focus more on the concerns that people hold in common: support for Social Security Medicare, a good health insurance system, jobs, higher wages.
JP-C: I’m also thinking about the role of the so-called white working class in the election. There’s this myth that the industrial working class votes massively for far right populist parties, but in fact it’s been split.
J B.J: It is split. A huge part of the problem is the decline of the labor movement. In the 1950s about a third of workers were in unions. By now, in the private industry it’s about 6-7% percent and if you include public workers it’s about 10%. That used to be an enormously important factor in focusing a whole part of the electorate on economic issues and staying away from divisive cultural issues.
I had hoped that Biden would change our labor laws to prevent companies from blocking union organizing, but he’s not going to be able to get that kind of law through Congress. He can take executive action. He can appoint a Secretary of Labor who is more congenial to the labor movement.
JP-C: What about the role of women and, specifically, black women? Some say that black women have saved the world’s ass.
J B.J: Historically, beginning with the New Deal, black Americans who could vote started moving toward the Democratic Party. Before that, Democrats were associated with the party of slavery. After the Civil Rights Act in the 60s under Lyndon Johnson, Democrats began to get 80-90% of the black vote, and that is still the case.
The women’s vote has shifted against Trump because of his behavior in office and because of his indifference toward issues that matter to women. It’s not just black women; it’s also women in the white suburbs.
JP-C: There’s also the Latino vote, which is not homogeneous as there are different cultures from different Latin American countries in the United States.
J B.J: American political consultants, pundits and pollsters have this thing about people of color in the United States, or about labels like “non-white” to refer to a whole array of ethnic or racial groups.
It’s total nonsense because many different nationalities and cultures make up the country. They don’t automatically vote Democratic because they say to themselves, “I am non-white.” For example, in Orange County outside of Los Angeles the Republicans won back two Congressional seats in heavily Vietnamese-American districts. These Vietnamese-Americans used to be Republican, they went Democratic in 2018 and this time they switched back to Republican.
In Florida, many emigres from Cuba, Venezuela and Colombia and their children supported Trump because he went as far as he could to break relations with Cuba, and he promoted an alternative government in Venezuela. That was an enormous factor in their voting for Trump.
Many Hispanics in the Southwest and South had different concerns. On one hand, there is a cultural issue. Many Latinos there are religiously observant and socially conservative on issues such as abortion rights or gay marriage. If a Democratic candidate emphasizes these issues over economic issues, they might not vote for that candidate.
The other factor is that Hispanics don’t have the same kind of historic ties to the Democratic Party that black Americans or Jewish Americans do. They are in some ways more similar to the Irish and Italian immigrants who when they came to the United States supported the Democrats, but when they made good at business or in a profession, and became worried about their taxes, began to support Republicans.
JP-C: What can we expect of Biden’s presidency?
J B.J: Unless Democrats win the two Senate seats in Georgia in January, we are looking at gridlock between a Democratic White House and a Republican Senate, maybe at a Republican attempt to sabotage the economic recovery and blame the continuing unemployment on the Democrats in the 2022 elections. That’s what the Republicans did in Obama's first two years. Still, we are better off with gridlock than we would be under Trump, a corrupt, bigoted guy who was out for his own power and had no sense of what the national interest was in spite of all his nonsense about ‘America first’. Hopefully, too, we’ll have a vaccine and that’s important for the world.
JP-C: Many thanks, John, for this conversation.
You can watch the interview here.
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