Populism in the 2020 US Election

26th September 2018

It is common  knowledge that roughly 80,000 votes across the states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan gave Donald Trump the decisive edge to pull off the shocking upset over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. Ultimately, Trump won these states by championing a populist appeal which was largely pillared towards midwesterners unhappy with seeing manufacturing jobs, which had once made their communities prosper, shipped overseas or replaced by technological innovation. Hillary Clinton on the other hand, did not give these states the attention or inspiration that was needed to sway key votes. She paid for it on election night.

Many would rightfully add that racism and misogyny played a decisive role in Trump’s victory. It may be the case that many of Trump’s voters were motivated by the issue of “race”. However, while calling all Trump supporters racist may be emotionally satisfying, it can’t be properly concluded that this was the issue which swung the election.The electoral results indicate that key votes which secured Trump’s victory were influenced by his position on trade and manufacturing. In the end, voters who said that international trade took away American jobs voted for Trump by a margin of 64 percent to 32 percent.  

With 2020 on the horizon, making an appeal in the rust belt will be a necessity to anyone hoping to dethrone Trump. As indicated in 2016, swaying even a portion in this region that could fit into an average sized NFL stadium can make the difference of victory or defeat. 80% of Trump supporters labeled themselves as “angry with the federal government,” whereas 78% of Clinton supporters were “enthusiastic” about the government. There is a portion of Trump supporters indifferent to race and the changing tides in American culture. Many are fed up with the power of Wall Street and the corporate world exacerbating economic inequality while their region of the country continues to blunder without aid from Washington. Hillary Clinton as the establishment Democrat was in no manner the figure to appease this bitterness. Trump’s appeal however, resonated strongly.

It is important to note that in the Democratic primary elections, Clinton lost Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and West Virginia to Bernie Sanders, another politician that fits the “populist” definition. In the book One Nation After Trump, EJ Dionne, Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann identify two different populist agendas, and how it played into the 2016 elections. Right wing populism alienates foreign born people and minorities as enemies who are said to have been given legislative priority over a forgotten native population. Left wing populism calls for dethroning political and financial elites who are claimed to have a stronghold on society and govern without the interest of the common people in mind. Dionne, Ornstein and Mann note that both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders respectively match these definitions. The electoral results indicate that the midwestern vote was given to voices who reflected their discontent with the “establishment”. If this is the case, as the 2020 presidential election approaches, Trump’s populist appeal is not invincible.

While some Trump supporters are motivated by pure racism and misogyny, many care more about the recognition of their economic dissatisfaction by the politicians that represent them. Regardless of political party, whoever runs against Trump in 2020 must acknowledge these concerns, if they are to have a shot at victory. In particular, the 2016 results tell us that addressing the displeasure of the industrial midwest is a key component to victory. Moreover, as Vice’s Trump’s Trade War argues, the President’s actions to restore the country’s manufacturing sector has had adverse effects. As 2020 approaches, there is reason to believe many former supporters may be ready to disembark early from the Trump experiment. While Trump’s initial tariff actions may resonate as a strongman flex, showing that Washington is finally standing up to the forgotten people of the manufacturing sector, Time indicates that “tens of thousands of American workers are likely to lose their jobs—and upwards of two million jobs are at risk—more or less as a direct consequence of the Trump administration’s trade policies, and the retaliatory tariffs that follow.” Whether these long term economic consequences materialize before 2020 will be a key factor in if the US will see a second Trump term.

Ultimately, a Democrat doesn’t have to be as radically progressive as Sanders and a Republican doesn’t have put race into the equation in order to win key midwestern votes. What both need is a milder form of populism, which merely recognizes that these individuals have legitimate cause for discontent, and listens to their concerns. Clinton didn’t emphasize this theme, and in the resulting vacuum, Trump’s nativist agenda flourished. If a more moderate candidate is able to capitalize off Trump and Sanders’ populist appeal in these states, then a more stable and less contentious American democracy may emerge in 2020.