Mobilizing Resentment: Trump’s Path to Power

Chip Berlet Nov 14, 2016

The Trump campaign was a study in populist insurgency. Specifically, a right-wing populist insurgency that focused on mobilizing white nationalism, anti-feminist misogyny, xenophobia, Christian nationalism, and conspiracy theories about the threat of treacherous liberals and totalitarian “big government.”

Trump supporters make up the classic right-wing populist constituency, the same kind of people who populated the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and who voted for Hitler in the late Weimar period in 1930s Germany. Many of the Trump voters are objectively downwardly mobile, or fear they will soon be pushed down the economic ladder. White people — especially white men — also fear the loss of their power, status and prestige in political, social and cultural sectors. They feel displaced by unworthy others.

Trump supporters inhabit information silos, trusting only information from sources they deem reliable, such as Fox News, Breitbart News Network and bloggers like Michelle Malkin. Armed with the supposed truth, they then begin publicly articulating their grievances — first to family and friends and then on AM radio call-in talk shows or social media. In such settings, they can be mobilized to air their grievances through attending a rally or meeting, where movement organizers draw them into participating in rightwing social and political movement activities on a regular basis.

Right-wing populist movements rarely succeed, and even when they do, they rarely lead to fascist state power. But once a right-wing populist movement gets going, there are victims. Some of Trump’s supporters will feel the need to repress, suppress and oppress the bad people; defined as women, people of color, immigrants, religious minorities. The danger is not only individual acts of violence — although those will undoubtedly come — but also a longterm political mobilization. It is a trajectory that social scientists have written about for decades. The late Jean Hardisty, a political scientist, termed this process “mobilizing resentment.”

The John Birch Society, founded in Massachusetts, started spreading right-wing conspiracy theories in 1959. Subsequent studies revealed that Birchers— often dismissed as crazy or stupid by Democratic Party strategists — had, on average, a higher income level and educational attainment than most Americans. By 1964, the Birchers had joined with Christian Right activists and anti-communists to promote Republican Senator Barry Goldwater, Jr. for President. Goldwater lost big time, but the Right’s Republican strategists learned they needed to energize a mass base of voters to capture the White House.

The Republican Party harnessed right-wing social movement activism to the GOP bandwagon, targeting movements fighting integration, abortion, big government, and creeping communism among liberal elites. The result was a “New Right” coalition of Christian evangelicals, economic libertarians, and militarists who put Ronald Reagan in the White House in the 1980 election.

As Republicans were successfully hitching themselves to right-wing social movements in the 1970s, the Democratic Party was doing the reverse, shunning the social movements of the left. Democratic Party elites were horrified by the 1972 presidential campaign of Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.), who brought as delegates to the Miami convention a significant number of grassroots activists from the civil rights, antiwar, student rights, women’s rights, environmentalist and gay rights movements.

An elite faction of the Democratic Party intentionally sank the McGovern campaign. They then rewrote party rules to favor bigwigs and Inside-the-Beltway-types who they called, with no sense of shame or irony, “superdelegates.” The Democratic Party quickly accommodated the demands of the corporate elites for austerity and government cutbacks — joining the Republicans as champions of neoliberal capital.

All of which leads us to 2016. Clinton sought to cloak herself in a progressive mantle that she and husband Bill betrayed decades ago. Meanwhile, candidate Trump built a neo-fascist mass base. He was celebrated by former and current neonazis, Klansmen, White Supremacists, anti-Semites, and Islamophobes for moving their agenda to center stage.

White members of the downwardly mobile working-class are susceptible to Trumpism: the scapegoating of people of color and immigrants and the belief that liberals are treacherous and subversive.

It’s for the hearts and minds of all blue-collar workers that progressives must fight if they wish to combat Trumpism in the wake of Trump’s victory. Unlike the complaints of relatively privileged core Trump supporters, working-class economic woes are real, and can be addressed with real solutions. Since many Trump sympathizers live in the alternate Foxy post-fact universe, however, the only way to get them to consider alternative political, social and economic solutions is through face-to-face organizing. This is what the AFL-CIO did in the last three weeks of the election, recruiting activists to “knock on one million doors in key battleground states.”

Human rights activist Scot Nakagawa, in his blog Race Files, warns that whether or not the left can build a movement “in time to get ahead” of the organized Right, “will be the difference between winning the day as the demography of the U.S. changes, or losing out to an increasingly reactionary” white plurality. But he urges progressives to see this moment as an opportunity:

We ought not be pessimistic about what lies ahead. We have struggled long and hard to arrive at a moment when old norms can fall to new ones. This moment may not be what we’ve imagined, and the fight before us will likely not be waged entirely on our terms, but the opportunity to act and make a meaningful, definitive positive difference is nonetheless before us.

Movement-building should have a second aim: pulling the Democratic Party left. This is what Trumpism and its predecessors can teach the left, just as the left once taught it to the right. Many religious right leaders openly admit that they learned their tactics and strategies from the labor and civil rights movements. It’s a fact: strong and vibrant social movements pull political parties in their direction.

Some progressives will opt to try to take over the Democratic Party. Others will decide to become active in social, economic and political mass movements outside the Democratic Party. We need both strategies. Deploying an inside/outside strategy is exactly how right-wing social movements pulled the Republican Party to the far right.

As we move beyond the horrifying 2016 election, let us join local, diverse, and collaborative campaigns to defend the rights of women, people of color, immigrants, Muslims, union members, water rights activists and public schools defenders — any and all people upon whose backs Trump, with his false claims and conspiracist rants, has painted a target. It’s time that we organize to take power.

Chip Berlet is the co-author with Matthew N. Lyons of Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort (Guilford Press, 2000). He is currently building a progressive resources website at

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