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Barring a convention coup, Donald Trump is now the almost certain Republican nominee. And Hillary Clinton’s victories across the industrial Midwest in the March 16 primaries put the brakes on the momentum Bernie Sanders had gained with his upset win among working-class voters in Michigan.
For better or worse, Trump is now the dominant populist candidate for President. His scary brand of popular rightwing outrage, featuring racial antagonism and explicit calls to violence, is overshadowing the friendly democratic socialism of Bernie Sanders.
So how scary is Donald Trump?
For decades, the watchdog group Political Research Associates has followed the far right. Its researchers warned about the growth of militia groups and the threat of white supremacist terrorism before Timothy McVeigh bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. If anyone knows the depth and breadth of the rightwing populist movement in America—the movement Trump is mobilizing—it is Political Research Associates and its executive director Tarso Luís Ramos.
I caught up with Ramos by phone recently, to talk about Trump’s appeal, what the left gets wrong about him, and why Ramos thinks he could win not just the nomination but the general election.
“Is there potentially a mass base for Trump’s brand of bigoted nationalism? I would say yes, absolutely,” Ramos says. “Many think Trump could not prevail in a general election. I’m not convinced,” he added.
Trump’s campaign has been a magnet for organized white supremacist groups, which have been actively recruiting members at his rallies. But more importantly, Trump is attracting large numbers of new voters with a classic rightwing populist message.
While Trump himself does not come out of the white nationalist movement, from the David Duke point of view, Trump is helping the cause by broadening the constituency for white nationalism, and allowing hardcore white nationalist organizers to “reimagine” the possibilities for themselves.
“If you can be the nominee of the Republican Party as you call for deporting 11 million brown-skinned people—that really opens up the possibility for far-right organizing,” Ramos says.
Ramos sees Trump’s success across party lines as a sign of his potential. Like the Reagan coalition in the 1980s, or Pat Buchanan’s appeal to union members who felt abandoned by the Democratic Party in the early 1990s, “you’re seeing a similar cross-over among Trump supporters,” he says.
Trump’s rightwing populism draws from that of George Wallace and Pat Buchanan, in which “real Americans” are assailed by enemies both above and below, Ramos explains.
“Below are dark-skinned parasites, sexual deviants, welfare moms, and immigrants,” he says. “The same class of ‘real Americans’ is being squeezed by elites who are seen as pandering to these dangerous and undeserving classes through social programs.”
“Rightwing populism can confuse folks on the left,” Ramos adds. “They hear the critique of wealthy elite and think maybe we can make common cause. The problem is it’s a package deal. The bigoted scapegoating isn’t just window dressing”
True, Trump’s economic populism and rejection of free trade deals sometimes sound progressive. He has not been a big critic of government supports like unemployment insurance and health care. He has not been attacking unions, and while he is now anti-choice, Trump has even pointed out that millions of women rely on Planned Parenthood for basic health care.
But don’t be fooled, says Ramos: “Whether people are attracted to his white nationalism or his economic populism, his message synthesizes those two elements.”
And the incitements to violence (“Get ’em out of here!” “punch em in the face,” “kick the crap out of ’em” and “in the good old days” protesters were treated ”very, very rough”) are mainly directed downward toward black and brown people—except for his recent threat that, if his own party doesn’t nominate him at the convention there will be “riots in the streets.”
“You notice none of the talk about riots or violence is against the banks or corporations that pay poverty wages,” says Ramos.
“We get this question all the time: Is Trump a fascist?” says Ramos. “He’s an authoritarian rightwing populist who is stoking white nationalism to build his constituency,” says Ramos. “His campaign is creating an opening for the racist right and could redefine what white nationalism looks like in the United States.”
Trump appeals to the losers from decades of pro-corporate, race-to-the-bottom economic policy, austerity and privatization.
The Democratic Party helped pave the way for him, by abandoning its role defending Main Street against Wall Street.
“We have two neoliberal parties with some significant differences but far too little on offer for the majority in economic terms. It’s a very explosive contest,” says Ramos. “The rage is real, and it’s not clear that establishment neoliberal politics can trump it.”
If Bernie Sanders is not in the race, the sharpest economic populism on offer in November will likely be coming from Trump.
“Progressives can’t afford to cede economic populism to the man who could prove to be the most effective white nationalist campaigner of our generation,” says Ramos.
The tragedy is that bigoted appeals have already done a lot of economic damage to Trump’s own base of supporters.
“The right has successfully mobilized racial resentment to undermine the infrastructure that once supported the white middle class,” Ramos says. “Schools, income supports, basic infrastructure, job security, the public sector overall—have all been badly undercut by campaigns that portray communities of color as undeserving. Consider the massive transfer of public spending from education to incarceration.”
“So much of what the right has built through mobilizing racial resentment has undermined the infrastructure that supported the white middle class.”
And that bring us to the missing piece in Bernie Sanders’s message: connecting economic inequality and racism. At the Democratic debate in Milwaukee, Sanders failed to point out how trade policies, austerity, and the flight of manufacturing contributed to the downfall of the black middle class. Clinton, with her ties to pro-corporate policies and Wall Street, has done a better job of speaking to African American voters, and beat Sanders in Missouri, Illinois, and Ohio. We’ll see what happens in the Wisconsin primary on April 5.
Bringing together white, working-class voters and people of color around their common interests is an urgent task for progressives.
As Ramos explains, “People understand racial politics is critical to the future of the country—so it must be addressed.”
And it is being addressed—by Donald Trump.
Ruth Conniff is editor-in-chief of The Progressive.