For a while, it looked like one of the great gaffes in a disastrous political year. You probably know the photo: Steven Mnuchin, the ultra-wealthy secretary of the Treasury, smugly holding up a sheet of freshly printed $1 bills with his signature. His wife, the Scottish actress Louise Linton, staring straight into the camera with pursed lips, pinching the corner of the money in her elbow-length black leather gloves.
In a populist political moment, the image had everything wrong with it. Mnuchin is a former Goldman Sachs banker, son of another Goldman banker, with a house in the Hamptons and a second career as a Hollywood producer. Linton literally grew up in a castle. “Only way this could be worse would be if Linton and Mnuchin were lighting cigars with flaming dollar bills,” quipped a writer on Twitter. And if this gaffe was embarrassing for the secretary himself, it threatened a messaging nightmare for the Republicans’ first signature policy initiative, a tax plan that carried big breaks for wealthy investors like Mnuchin, but needed the support of the party’s heartland voter base.
Two months later, what was the blowback? The answer was: nothing. Politically speaking, the moment wasn’t even a speed bump. Trump’s blue-collar Republican base didn’t care, he signed the tax bill the next month, and his approval rating today is higher than it has been in almost a year.
What’s going on? Donald Trump is America’s first populist president since Andrew Jackson. He swept into office on the strength of crowded rallies in Rust Belt states and lofty promises to look out for the “forgotten man.” The icon of his campaign, a plain ball cap bearing the message, “Make America Great Again,” became the symbol of a movement to take the nation back from Washington elites.
Once Trump took office, he went full billionaire, and it seemed at first that his entire populist pose was revealed as a sham. He appointed the wealthiest Cabinet in modern history; his agencies are studded with high-level corporate executives. Speaking to a crowd of cheering supporters in Iowa in June 2017, Trump said, “I love all people, rich or poor. But in these particular positions, I just don’t want a poor person.”
U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin (C-L) and his wife Louise Linton are greeted upon arrival on the platform of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC, on January 20, 2017 | Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images
Political observers have been waiting for the whole coalition to fracture. In raw dollar terms, there’s little doubt who benefits most from Trump’s policies: He has slashed corporate taxes and opened U.S. waters to offshore drilling; he signed a tax law that overwhelmingly favors the extremely high end of American earners. Trump himself spends huge amounts of time at his luxury golf clubs and held a $100,000-per-couple fundraiser, catered with caviar. How long could his voters believe the “forgotten man” message while he surrounds himself with billionaires and lines their pockets?
But the coalition didn’t fracture. You don’t have to listen to many interviews with heartland voters to realize Trump’s message still has real traction, and that his supporters genuinely expect a real estate developer with Louis XIV living-room furniture and a private jet to fight for their interests against some other kind of “elite.”
There are a number of familiar explanations for how Trump gets away with all of this. One is that it’s all a con. Trump is an incredible salesman, the thinking goes, and he’s duping the white working class on behalf of a new set of overlords who put on their MAGA hats and sell false hope and snake-oil policies. Another explanation is that it’s all racism. Some of his white supporters from lower-income households are fine with the wealthy making off like bandits, as long as they can comfortably look down on immigrants and others of racial minority groups.
Trump has brought together two powerful strains in the U.S., forging a connection between the traditional, deeply rooted American dream and the glitziest, celebrity-obsessed aspects of modern culture.
These characterizations may describe some in Trump’s base. But they also reflect the same condescension that helped get Trump elected in the first place. More fundamentally, they miss what’s truly powerful about his style of politics — call it “billionaire populism” — and just how profoundly it’s connected to the nation’s history.
In a sense, Trump has brought together two powerful strains in the U.S., forging a connection between the traditional, deeply rooted American dream and the glitziest, celebrity-obsessed aspects of modern culture, totally excluding professionals and tastemakers. A year into the experiment, there’s no question it’s working. If we want to make sense of this American moment, we need to understand what drives the strange alliance between flamboyant billionaires and blue-collar voters, what makes it so profoundly American, and where it might go next.
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For more than a decade, pundits have puzzled over the “What’s the matter with Kansas?” problem — the mystery of why so many middle Americans seem to vote against their economic self-interest, supporting Republican politicians who openly champion policies that favor Big Business over workers.
Seen another way, though, it’s really a “What’s the matter with elites?” problem. American intellectuals routinely miss the deeper currents of group identity underlying American politics. For 20 years, I’ve been studying political tribalism. All over the world, tribal dynamics do much more to shape politics and roil democracy than most of the ideas and grand principles to which we pay lip service.
“Tribal” can refer to a literal tribe — like the Ghilzai Pashtun tribes in Afghanistan — or to an ethnic affiliation, or to a kind of modern identity-driven tribe. As studies have repeatedly demonstrated, once we decide we belong to a tribal group, our identities can become tightly bound with it. We see in-group members as better in every way. It works on our brains like a drug: We receive neurological satisfaction when we see group members succeed, even if we do not individually benefit. We take pleasure in the failure or suffering of rival groups. Even in the face of contradictory facts, we’ll believe and insist our team is in the right — and in doing so, we experience ourselves as loyal, not stupid.
American policymaking elites have been stunningly blind to the potency of political tribalism. Overseas, this has led to some of the greatest foreign policy disasters in our history. The most vivid example is Iraq, where we drastically underestimated the depth of the Sunni-Shia divide. Another is Afghanistan, where we tended to see the Taliban strictly as a religious extremist movement, overlooking the power of its Pashtun nationalism.
America today is fully in the grip of political tribalism, and people who think that Trump’s billionaire populism is just a con are missing something fundamental. As Yale professor Dan Kahan has found, Americans’ political positions today, both liberal and conservative, are driven much less by individual self-interest than by “loyalty to important affinity groups.” What voters often care most about is having their team — their political tribe — win. And for millions of lower-income Americans, Trump has done a remarkable job presenting himself as being on their team, creating a tribal bond between a celebrity billionaire and blue-collar voters, while excluding the “elites” in the middle.
U.S. President Donald Trump | Win McNamee/Getty Images
Of course, there’s a racial dimension to this. Trump has made numerous statements that either explicitly or in coded fashion appeal to some white voters’ racial tribalism. But that’s not the whole picture. In terms of taste, sensibilities and values, Trump actually does click more neatly with the working class than with most college-educated professionals. The tribal instinct is all about identification, and Trump’s base identifies with him at a gut level: with the way he talks (locker room), dresses, shoots from the hip, gets caught making mistakes (and possibly in bed with porn stars) and is attacked over and over by the liberal media for not being politically correct, for not being feminist enough, for not reading enough books and for gorging on McDonald’s. Plenty of his voters consider him a blowhard, but when he pummels CNN in the WWE ring or hands out Fake News Awards, he’s their blowhard — their champion, not just politically, but culturally, aesthetically and tribally. His enemies, they feel, are their enemies.
For the billionaire populist, being rich isn’t a handicap. It can even be an asset. Research shows that in America, white working-class resentment against elites is often directed much more against professionals — lawyers, doctors, professors, establishment politicians, even journalists — than against the mega wealthy. One of the key insights of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is that educated, well-spoken, professional elites strike many working-class Americans as “alien” and condescending. Wealth itself is not their boogeyman. For many Americans of lower incomes, being anti-establishment is not the same as being anti-rich. This is the key to the new billionaire populism, and its roots lie deep in American history.
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Two centuries ago, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of Americans’ peculiar “longing to rise.” In contrast to the Old World, where the poor knew their place, in America “all are constantly bent on gaining property, reputation, and power.” In no other country has the rags-to-riches narrative been so celebrated or the belief in upward mobility so robust. A 2015 Pew study showed that 73 percent of Americans believe that “hard work pays off,” compared with 49 percent in Germany, 38 percent in India, and a global median of 44 percent.
But for tens of millions of working-class Americans today, the “system” in this country doesn’t work for them at all. The traditional path to wealth and success has been cut off. Over the past half-century, Stanford economist Raj Chetty has shown, an American child’s chances of out-earning his parents have fallen from roughly 90 percent to 50 percent. A recent Pew study found that “43 percent of Americans raised at the bottom of the income ladder remain stuck there as adults, and 70 percent never make it to the middle.” To an extent that American professionals may not realize, their status has become hereditary. The economics writer Richard Reeves finds that “those at the top of the income ladder are becoming more effective at passing on their status to their children, reducing overall social mobility.” More than ever, the path to wealth in America runs through elite education and intellectual capital, and most from lower-income households can’t compete in this game.
When people long to rise, but can’t, what then? For many on the left, the response is to denounce inequality and to expose the American dream as a sham. The wealth of the super-rich is “obscene,” says Bernie Sanders, along with many other liberals; what’s needed is sweeping redistribution, regulation and institutional reform. For some voters, this is inspiring — Bernie, too, cuts through the niceties of elite tastemaking — but for a lot of Americans, it’s an alien way of thinking about the nation they grew up in. Americans have an overwhelmingly positive view of free enterprise and a far more negative view of the federal government and socialism. Americans also famously overestimate the degree of upward mobility in this country — the poor more so than the wealthy.
For many, Trump the billionaire channels the energy and hope of the American dream far more effectively than the left’s critics of capitalism and structural oppression
At the same time, a new and unapologetic obsession with wealth has increasingly pervaded popular culture. From “The O.C.” to “Gossip Girl,” the escapades of the super-rich have made for some of the most-watched television of the past 15 years. Reality series like “The Real Housewives” franchise, “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” which at its height attracted some 10.5 million viewers, and “Duck Dynasty” (11.8 million) have capitalized on people’s endless fascination with the lives of the ultra wealthy — who often turn out to be refreshingly dysfunctional and relatable people.
If your immediate reaction is to dismiss these shows as materialistic and superficial, there’s a good chance you’re seeing it through your own tribal prism, and you’re a member of the coastal elite that Trump ran against. The endlessly popular make-your-fortune shows like “American Idol,” “The Voice,” “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” “Shark Tank” and, of course, “The Apprentice” are modern reboots of the American dream, about ordinary people who have triumphed against the odds, hit it big and aren’t afraid to enjoy the fruits of their success.
Trump is the candidate for this rebooted, pop culture version of the American dream. He doesn’t couch his achievements in terms of “making a difference” and “giving back,” the classic mantras of the cosmopolitan coastal elite. Trump spends his money ostentatiously, the way you’d spend it if you won the lottery. His critics see him as almost a parasite on the American system, a second-tier developer who shamelessly manipulated the media to stay in the headlines and cash in. For people who don’t see that system as on their side, his story is much more exciting: He beat the system by outsmarting it. During the first presidential debate, when Hillary Clinton accused him of not paying any federal income taxes, he retorted, “That makes me smart.” He brags about how he “brilliantly” used America’s bankruptcy laws. And of course, as he spent his first year in office reminding people, he outsmarted everyone in 2016, when all the “experts” had predicted that he had no path to victory.
Donald Trump plays a stroke in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, on July 10, 2012 | Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images
For many, Trump the billionaire channels the energy and hope of the American dream far more effectively than the left’s critics of capitalism and structural oppression. Trump not only models a way of getting rich that feels accessible to the non-Harvard crowd; he incarnates a way of being rich that captivates viewers. If you were Treasury secretary, of course you’d have a glamorous wife and touch the money. Trump uses his status to sit ringside at the WWE, not front-row at the opera. That’s populism in 2018.
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Historically speaking, this new billionaire populism is a rarity. Most past populist movements in Europe and Latin America have been left wing, targeting the rich. A vivid example is Venezuela’s late president Hugo Chávez, with whom Trump is sometimes compared. Like Trump, Chávez was a master at communicating directly to the populace, winning over millions of have-nots with unscripted rhetoric that struck elites as vulgar, outrageous, absurd and often plainly false: He once suggested that capitalism might have killed life on Mars. But whereas Trump was born to a fortune, Chávez was the son of a village schoolteacher. And whereas Trump said when considering a 2012 presidential run, “Part of the beauty of me is I’m very rich,” Chávez swept to power in 1998, railing against capitalism, attacking his country’s “greedy” business elite and promising to expropriate their wealth.
In recent years, however, a number of other billionaire populist leaders have risen in developed countries. The most prominent is Silvio Berlusconi, the jet-setting media mogul who served as Italy’s prime minister for nine years. Berlusconi was infamous for his “bunga bunga” parties with prostitutes, and like Trump, he made crude jokes, publicly mocked women and was accused by his enemies of shady business dealings. He also sparked a global outcry in 2001 when he declared that Western civilization was superior to Islamic culture. (At 81, Berlusconi has now reinvented himself as a moderate.) More recently, Andrej Babiš, a billionaire and his country’s second-richest man, was elected president of the Czech Republic, campaigning on an anti-immigrant, anti-EU platform.
These examples, including our own, all display a disturbing nativist, jingoist, possibly racist underside. It’s hard to know whether this element is somehow distinctive to billionaire populism or is simply a corollary of populism itself. Either way, it’s dangerous. America’s last wealthy populist president, Andrew Jackson, was an ardent proponent of Indian removal, rounding up and evicting the Cherokee nation from its lands in the fatal forced march now known as the Trail of Tears.
For many lower-income Americans, being anti-establishment is not the same as being anti-rich. This is the key to the new billionaire populism, and its roots lie deep in American history.
Equally worrisome, at least in the United States, is a cheapening of the American dream that drives this strain of politics. The American dream has always had both a material and an aspirational side. Some on the political left may be so allergic to the material side that they can’t articulate ideas that resonate with millions of ordinary Americans who still hope to rise on their own terms. But at the other extreme, billionaire populism ignores the aspirational side of the dream. The American dream was never only about money. At its best, it’s also been about a set of values, about belonging to a moral nation — a free, just and inclusive country that can serve as a beacon for the rest of the world. By contrast, billionaire populism glorifies the huckster side of the rags-to-riches story, de-emphasizing education, not to mention hard work, moderation and impulse control. It decouples success from virtue, and perhaps even from decency.
What it is unlikely to do, in the long run, is deliver on its promises to restore lost prosperity to the “forgotten man.” Even assuming that Trump manages to secure some concrete short-term gains for the working class, his billionaire advisers and donors actually benefit from the fundamental economic imbalances that have left so many Americans behind. They really don’t have answers to job loss from technology or global cheap labor; astonishingly, Mnuchin himself last year said automation is “not even on our radar screen.”
It’s possible to imagine a reckoning prompted by voters coming to believe Trump is a fraud, and that the whole glitzy vision of success has been a bill of goods. But it’s increasingly unlikely, precisely because people’s identification with Trump has become so tribal. A more likely outcome is that the tribalism that brought Trump to power will only harden, and America’s rift will deepen. That is not to suggest that the opposition to Trump has an answer to the problems of the working class, or that they are any less tribal. On the contrary, the Resistance is as tribalistic as you can get, and in their frequently derogatory remarks about entire swaths of Middle America, people on the left sometimes seem to be handing billionaire populists the precise fuel they need to keep the anger of their supporters stoked. One thing is clear. The cost of a deepening rift will be high, and it is unlikely that billionaires will foot the bill.
Amy Chua is a professor at Yale Law School. Adapted from Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations, published in February by Penguin Press.