Populist fever: Anger at the democratic deficit

The presidential campaign has stirred up primal emotions. Violent rhetoric has provoked violent physical confrontations. We hear much talk of “populist” fury.

Populist fury is no stranger to American politics and mass culture. Travis Bickle, the psychopathic protagonist and thwarted assassin in director Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), played by Robert De Niro, would be 66 this year. One can well imagine him as John McGraw, the elderly man who threw a vicious elbow at the head of a black protester at a Donald Trump rally in North Carolina in March. McGraw later remarked that should his victim appear again, “we might have to kill him.”

Bickle—a lonely, angry, racist, white working-class young man—is the sort of American, we are told, who is most likely to be found today in Trump’s camp, and Trump is also said by many to be a populist. But so too is Bernie Sanders, whom Trump has blamed for the protests to which McGraw took vicious exception. And one should not in the current climate discount the possibility that the Trump candidacy might incite to violence a now ostensibly mild-mannered “populist” who “feels the Bern.” So who is the genuine populist, Trump or Sanders? And who is the pretender?

These are not, I’m afraid, very helpful questions. Those most eager to ask and answer them are historians of the only brand of American populism to earn a capital P, the agrarian revolt of the late 1880s and early 1890s that spawned the short-lived People’s Party. For such historians, eager to protect their left-wing subjects from unseemly associations with right-wing firebrands such as George Wallace, Pat Buchanan, and Trump, conservative populism is an oxymoron, one they have struggled to remove from the American political lexicon.