Donald Trump’s campaign has been constantly referred to as a populist insurgency within the Republican Party, consisting as it does of an anti-Washington message designed to stoke working-class anxieties. But does Trump deserve the label of populist? And where does he fit in the history of American populism?
To discuss these questions, I called Michael Kazin, the co-editor of Dissent and the author of several books, including The Populist Persuasion and A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan. We discussed Trump’s similarities to Henry Ford, how populists use language, and why their movements tend to die out. The conversation has been edited and condensed.
Isaac Chotiner: Do you see Trump as a populist?
Michael Kazin: Trump expresses one aspect of populism, which is anger at the establishment and various elites. He believes Americans have been betrayed by those elites. But the other side of populism is a sense of a moral people, people who’ve been betrayed for some reason and have a distinct identity, whether they are workers, farmers, or taxpayers. Whereas with Trump, I don’t really get much of a sense of who the people are. Of course journalists say he’s talking mostly to white working-class people, but he doesn’t say that. And that’s, in some ways, what’s missing in Bernie Sanders’ populism, too. He took up calls about the 99 percent and so forth, but you expect a socialist to talk about working people, and he doesn’t do that very much. That’s a very interesting absence from both left and right populism today.