American politics has always stood as the ultimate confirmation of the notion, roughly quoted from Winston Churchill, that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. In 2015, no phenomenon better demonstrated this truism than the rise and impressive staying power of bellicose billionaire Donald J. Trump, who floated like a piece of solid waste to the bubbling surface of the Republican Party septic tank and has remained there ever since.
With a brazen combination of Tourettes-like “straight talk,” anti-immigrant nativism, bone-headed “kiss me, I’m rich” charm, and the seemingly inherent gift of never overestimating the intelligence of the average white American slob, Trump turned what many Washington pundits dismissed as yet another political ego-stroke by an eccentric billionaire into a full-throttled run for the GOP presidential nomination. Indeed, much to the dismay of Republican Party elites, 2015 was the Year of the Trump, and his uncouth dominance of the early presidential race has many party king makers worried that The Donald’s low-brow moron style of campaigning simply won’t play well outside of the bone-strewn pit of Middle American Radicalism.
Nothing about Trump’s rise, however, is unprecedented in U.S. politics. The people who flock to his campaign like crabs to a chum bucket are the most recent manifestation of an old American phenomenon, which historians and sociologists often characterize as Middle American Radicalism. As John Judis notes in a National Journal article about Trump supporters, the sociologist Donald Warren articulated this idea in 1976 when analyzing voters who constituted the New Right of the 1970s. Although the idea of a “radical middle” had been around in different forms for decades, Warren developed a concise sociological picture of who these people were in late-20th century America.
As Judis notes, voters who fell under the category of Middle-American Radicals (MARS) “were not college educated; their income fell somewhere in the middle or lower-middle range; and they primarily held skilled and semi-skilled blue-collar jobs or sales and clerical white-collar jobs.” In the 1970s, Judis writes, MARS constituted roughly a quarter of the American electorate, and their ideology made them stand out: “it was neither conventionally liberal nor conventionally conservative, but instead revolved around an intense conviction that the middle class was under siege from above and below.”
MARS voters supported welfare programs as long as they benefitted middle-American white voters, but they were also distrustful of a government which they believed favored undeserving minorities, and they lived in constant fear that said minorities would take away everything that hard-working whites had rightfully earned. If this isn’t an apt description of Trump supporters today, than nothing is.
In a perceptive piece for The Atlantic, former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum (he of “Axis of Evil” fame) also identifies Middle-American Radicalism as key to Trump’s success in the GOP primaries. Trump’s supporters come from the white lower and upper-middle classes. They’re drawn to the pugnacious plutocrat because they believe that he’ll restore their rightful and secure place as beneficiaries of welfare-state capitalism and white privilege, hence their support for Social Security, Medicare, and pensions for everyone BUT minorities and liberals. “White Middle Americans express heavy mistrust of every institution in American society: not only government, but corporations, unions, even the political party they typically vote for—the Republican Party,” Frum writes, “they aren’t necessarily superconservative…but they do strongly feel that life in this country used to be better for people like them—and they want that older country back.”
Like Judis, Frum identifies the notion of benefits being taken away as crucial to Trump’s support among Middle-American Radicals. In this respect, Trump’s supporters are a predictable byproduct of the dynamic — and increasingly cutthroat — nature of American capitalism.
Back in 1942, the Austrian-born economist Joseph Schumpeter came up with the theory of Creative Destruction, which he called “the essential fact about capitalism.” As summarized by the New York Times at the start of the aughts, Creative Destruction is “a process in which new technologies, new kinds of products, new methods of production and new means of distribution make old ones obsolete, forcing existing companies to quickly adapt to a new environment or fail.” In more human terms, Creative Destruction entails that those people who work with new technologies and innovation will benefit from capitalism’s dynamic nature, but those people who work with the technology and production that Creative Destruction renders obsolete will be left without jobs and without hope. Understandably, the latter group of people will be angry; they experienced the real material and social benefits of capitalism only to have those benefits taken away.
Capitalism doth giveth, but for most people, it doth take away. Indeed, capitalism’s “losers,” rather than its “winners” more often than not signify the nature of the system itself. Historically, it has been the middle class that have benefitted the most from capitalism’s dynamic nature, but that very same dynamism has also rendered tenuous middle-class Americans’ “middle” status.
In U.S. politics, the erosion of middle-class benefits — whether real or perceived — has often birthed right-wing movements. As sociologist Rory McVeigh writes in his study of the Second Ku Klux Klan, a right-wing movement is “a social movement that acts on behalf of relatively advantaged groups with the goal of preserving, restoring, and expanding the rights and privileges of its members and constituents. These movements also attempt to deny similar rights and privileges to other groups in society.”* McVeigh constructs his examination of right-wing movements around “power-devaluation theory,” the idea that groups with power and privilege most vociferously mobilize to defend their power and privilege when they feel threatened; when their power appears to be devalued. McVeigh writes that, “when right-wing mobilization occurs, it is likely in response to a threat to established power relationships that is generating incentives to act outside of established institutions and within a social movement.”*
In other words, when they feel threatened, traditionally privileged groups will act outside of traditional political and social confines, claiming themselves to be “outsiders” seeking to preserve their insider status. Hence, Donald Trump presents himself as a political “outsider,” and his supporters, who feel they’ve been sold down the river by the Republican Party to which they usually lend their support, embrace The Donald explicitly because of his outsider status. This puts Trump supporters strictly in the mainstream of historical Middle-American Radical movements.
Consider the radical southern secessionist movement of 1860-61. Following the 1860 election of Republican Abraham Lincoln, who ran on an explicitly anti-slavery expansion platform, radical pro-slavery southerners mobilized to secede from the Union and form the Confederate States of America to protect slavery in perpetuity. In the past, historians assumed that rabid southern secessionists must have been the wealthiest planters: as the holders of the most slaves, they theoretically had the most to gain from forming a nation that guaranteed the rights to their human property.
And while it’s true that many planters did support secession, recent scholarship shows that the most rabid secessionists were actually members of the southern middle class, a group of on-the-make men who might not have owned many slaves, but desired to enter the slaveholding class. Owning slaves was the ultimate economic status symbol in the antebellum (pre-Civil War) South, and those hoping to take advantage of the potential economic boom brought about by slavery’s western expansion embraced the radical secessionist movement to make their economic dreams a reality.
For example, in his study of the Mississippi secession convention, historian Timothy Smith reveals that the majority of the delegates who voted for Mississippi (the state with the highest number of slaves in 186o) to secede from the Union were primarily local lawyers, small farmers and laborers, those who owned a limited number of slaves, and those with small estates. Mississippi’s secessionist radicals were therefore “a fairly common set of men studded by a few elite.” They were middle-class southerners, men whom Smith notes “were still working to become elite, large-scale slave-owning lords,” men who were “comfortable,” but not millionaires.*
Heck, many of Mississippi’s actual slaveholding millionaires railed against the secessionists’ Middle-American Radicalism. For example, as he watched secessionists bloviate in 1861, Natchez Planter George Sargent complained that there was “no hope for moderation,” and that “politicians have aroused the worst passions of the human beast…the people naturally are slow of comprehension, and the leaders are taking care not to give them time for reflection.” Old-line slaveholding planters like Sargent feared secession because they had everything to lose; middle-class secessionist radicals, by contrast, thought they had everything to gain, and they refused to stand idly by and watch Abraham Lincoln take those gains away.
Much of the same Middle-American Radical dynamic was at play during the rise of the Second Ku Klux Klan movement of the 1920s. The Second Klan was primarily a Midwestern movement led by white, middle-class, Anglo-Saxon Protestants who protested a new influx of Catholic immigrants from Eastern Europe as well as the arrival of millions of African-Americans from the South who migrated north in search of work. Yet, as much as old-fashioned bigotry fueled the Second Klan’s rise, Rory McVeigh points out that the hooded ones’ resurgence also coincided with real shifts in the American economy that resulted in new threats to the white middle class.
The Klan attracted the support of skilled white laborers and middle-class white-collar workers because it railed against the mass industrialization and new technology that rendered old jobs obsolete. The Klan also protested the corporate power that wielded enormous influence in the American political system prior to the Great Depression. Non-white, non-Protestant “others” supplied the cheap labor that fueled the increasing rise of industry and corporate power. Thus, in the eyes of the Ku Klux Klan, the former groups symbolized everything that was wrong with a capitalist society that threatened to leave the white middle class — the traditional beneficiaries of American privilege — on the losing end of Creative Destruction. As historian of the Second Ku Klux Klan Nancy MacClean writes, the appeal of the Klan’s reactionary politics was rooted “in the legions of middle-class white men who felt trapped between capital and labor and in the political culture they inherited from their forebearers.”*
Like the southern secessionists before them, the middle-class members of the Second Klan felt the pinch of capitalism’s relentless dynamism, and they lashed out in a reactionary fear that undeserving minorities were taking away the middle-class life that, at the time, was primarily the provenance of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. They justified their Middle-American Radicalism by locating it within the traditions of the American founding; that they were merely continuing the work of the Founding Fathers so that they could “Make America Great Again” be restoring it to a time before the march of capitalism destroyed whole occupations and before masses of minorities and other ne’er-do-wells started demanding equal rights at the perceived expense of whites.
If it seems weirdly appropriate to place the Middle-American Radicals who support Donald Trump within a historical tradition that includes pro-slavery southern secessionists and hood-donning, cross-burning Klansmen, that’s because it IS appropriate. America’s insiders have always adopted the outsider’s mantle whenever their cherished capitalist system threatens to leave them in the dust. Rather than blame the architects of market dynamism for their loss of economic status, Middle-American Radicals have instead focused their ire on those at the lowest end of the social order, the blacks and immigrants who have the nerve to want some of that single piece of economic pie that the plutocrats feel obligated to toss to the 99 percent. With this history in mind, it makes perfect sense that status-conscious Middle-American Radicals would embrace a blustery billionaire as their savior. It makes perfect, and tragic, sense.
* See Rory McVeigh, The Rise of the Ku Klux Klan: Right-Wing Movements and National Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 32, 40
* See Timothy B. Smith, The Mississippi Secession Convention (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2014), 37-38.
* See Nancy K. Maclean, Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), xiii.