How Billionaires Learned to Love Populism
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.
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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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.