The American Crisis – What is rightwing populism?

It is difficult to fully define anything – there are always exceptions to the rule – and I am not a fan of dictionary explanations of certain things (there are many Whites for example who refuse to recognise structural racism, insisting instead only on a narrow dictionary definition of racism, restricting it solely to overt racial discrimination, for example).

However, it is important to get at least a general outline of what rightwing populism is, and more specifically how it manifests in the USA. This is what I attempt to do here.

I am going to follow the lead of Margaret Canovan where she argues that all forms of populism “involve some kind of exaltation and appeal to ‘the people’, and all are in one sense or another anti-elitist.” And I also agree with the sentiments of Berlet & Lyons (2000) in their excellent book (which informs much of this series on this matter) where they develop a working definition of populism as:

  1. Involves a celebration of ‘the people’; and
  2. Some form of anti-elitism.

They go on to distinguish a populist movement from populist appeals with the qualification that a populist movement uses populist themes to mobilise a mass constituency as a sustained political or social force.

There are of course both rightwing and leftwing forms of populist movements (and I suppose there may also be centrist populist movements). Additionally, they may be authoritarian or egalitarian in nature, and based on a charismatic cult of a central leader or a decentralised movement based around a motivating idea. They may be advocates of a new future system, or conservatives that romanticise a fabled past ‘golden age’ that they seek to reassert. Further, what falls under the concept of ‘the people’ can be inclusive or it can be ethnic or other identity based. Some may be based on an actual critique of real existing social structures (such as class or structural racism), or they may be based on absurd conspiracy theories (i.e. lizard people or Protocols of the Elders of Zion).

Additionally, populist movements may be repressive in nature or emancipatory. A repressive populist movement is one that mixes anti-elite rhetoric (and scapegoating) with efforts to create, maintain or intensify systems of social privilege and power. Such as race or sex. Often they involve channeling popular discontent away from emancipatory, positive social change and towards oppressing marginalised or vulnerable groups (ethnic or other minorities, immigrants – so, for example, against Filipino workers but away from the bosses who exploit them to depress the general wage of labour…).

Sara Diamond offers what I think is a succinct definition for determining a rightwing from a leftwing movement: “To be rightwing means to support the State in its capacity as an enforcer of order and to oppose the State as a distributor of wealth and power downward and more equitably in society.”

I also agree with Berlett & Lyon’s argument that a rightwing populist movement “is a repressive populist movement motivated or defined centrally by a backlash against liberation movements, social reform, or revolution. This does not mean that rightwing populism’s goals are only defensive or reactive, but rather that its growth is fueled in a central way by fears of the Left and its political gains.”

It is not hard to see much of the rightwing populist movement, throughout the USA’s history, as fitting the above. One need only look at the KKK as a reaction to Black empowerment during the reconstruction era, and since, especially during the civil rights era. Or the Tea Party (and Trumpism) as a reaction to the election of a Black President and gains made by the Democrats in the 2008 (such as the Affordable Care Act).

What do you think – is the above a good working introduction to what rightwing populism is?

For those interested, I strongly recommend Berlet and Lyon (2000) Right-Wing Populism in America – Too Close For Comfort (The Guilford Press). I picked it up early on in the Trump regime and have found it very informative; much of the early part of this series The American Crisis is indebted to the insights of this book.

Also cited above are:

Canovan, M. (1981) Populism. Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich.

Diamond, S. (1995) Roads to Dominion: Right-Wing Movements & Political Power in the United States. The Guilford Press.

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