The populist wave in politics on both sides of the Atlantic is a defensive reaction against the technocratic neoliberal revolution from above that has been carried out in the last half century by national managerial elites. Over the last half century, the weakening or destruction by neoliberal policy makers of the intermediary institutions of mid-twentieth century democratic pluralism, particularly labor unions, has deprived much of the working class of effective voice or agency in government, the economy, and culture. Populist demagogues can channel the legitimate grievances of many working-class voters, but they cannot create a stable, institutionalized alternative to overclass-dominated neoliberalism. Only a new democratic pluralism that compels managerial elites to share power with the multiracial, religiously pluralistic working class in the economy, politics, and the culture can end the cycle of oscillation between oppressive technocracy and destructive populism.
That is the thesis of this article. It is a minority viewpoint within overclass circles in the US and Europe. A far more common view among transatlantic elites interprets the success of populist and nationalist candidates in today’s Western democracies not as a predictable and disruptive backlash against oligarchic misrule, but as a revival of Nazi or Soviet-style totalitarianism. One narrative holds that Russian president Vladimir Putin’s regime, by cleverly manipulating public opinion in the West through selective leaks to the media or Internet advertisements and memes, is responsible for Brexit, the election of Trump in 2016, and perhaps other major political events. A rival narrative sees no need to invoke Russian machinations; in this view, without aid from abroad, demagogues can trigger the latent “authoritarian personalities” of voters, particularly white working-class native voters, many of whom, it is claimed, will turn overnight into a fascist army if properly mobilized. These two elite narratives, promulgated by antipopulist politicians, journalists, and academics, can be called the Russia Scare and the Brown Scare (after earlier “brown scares” in Western democracies, with the color referring to Hitler’s Brownshirts).
The reductio ad absurdum of this kind of mythological thinking is the adoption of the term “Resistance” by domestic opponents of President Donald Trump, which implies an equation between Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans and the heroic anti-Nazis of the French Resistance. The anti-fascist theme also provides the name for the Antifa movement which, like the earlier “black bloc” anarchist movement, is made up chiefly of the privileged children of the white overclass who abuse leftist ideology as an excuse to dress up as movie-style ninjas, vandalize property, and harass people.
It is no doubt emotionally satisfying for members of the embattled managerial overclass to identify antiestablishment populism with pro-Russian treason, fascism, or both. But this kind of paranoid demonological thinking has the potential to be a greater danger to liberal democracy in the West than any particular populist movements.
To begin with, both the Russia Scare and the Brown Scare betray a profound contempt on the part of members of technocratic neoliberal national establishments for voters who support populist causes or candidates. These voters are assumed to be gullible dimwits who are easily manipulated by foreign propaganda or domestic demagogues. Even worse, attributing populism to the irrational impulses of maladjusted voters prevents embattled establishments on both sides of the Atlantic from treating specific grievances of those voters as legitimate.
Worst of all, the myth that Russia swung the 2016 US presidential election from Clinton to Trump, and endlessly repeated comparisons of current events to the rise of the Nazis in Germany’s Weimar Republic, provide the managerial overclasses in Atlantic democracies with excuses to increase their near-monopoly of political, economic, and media power by freezing out political challengers and censoring dissident media. If most opponents of neoliberalism are Russian pawns or potential Nazis, then mere disagreement with neoliberal policies on trade, immigration, taxation, or other subjects can be equated with rejection of liberalism or democracy, if not outright treason. Confronted with peaceful challenges via the voting booth to neoliberal orthodoxy from outsiders on both the populist right and the socialist left, the instinctive reflex of many in the besieged establishment is to call for censorship and repression.
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In the 1950s, McCarthyism on the right took the form of conservatives accusing establishment liberals of being pawns of Soviet Russia. Today, a new McCarthyism of the center takes the form of establishment neoliberals accusing populists of being pawns of post-Soviet Russia.
If the Russia Scare version of the establishment’s anti- populist story line is to be believed, the government of Russian president Vladimir Putin successfully used Western social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to hypnotize substantial numbers of citizens of North America and Europe into voting against their natural inclinations for Brexit or Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders in 2016. Even the French yellow vest protests and the gains made by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in the British general election of 2017 have been attributed to Russian machinations online.
The “Russiagate” scandal began before Trump’s election as the Clinton campaign, some anti-Trump Republicans, elements in the Obama administration, and various members of the US law enforcement and national security establishments spread rumors of alleged links between Russia and the Trump campaign to the media, including the false story that Trump was being blackmailed by Moscow with a videotape of him consorting with Russian prostitutes. When Trump won, his political enemies in the Democratic and Republican parties claimed that Russia had swung the election against Clinton. Putin had installed his puppet in the White House, it was widely asserted, by one of two methods (or both). One was Russian assistance to the website WikiLeaks, which leaked material damaging to Clinton and her allies. The other method of Russian interference in the 2016 election took the form of propaganda on Facebook, YouTube, and other social media platforms to suppress black voters and encourage some white voters who had voted for Obama in 2012 to vote for Trump in 2016.
In Spring 2019, after a two-year investigation, Special Counsel Robert Mueller found no evidence that the Trump campaign conspired with Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election, leaving many Americans who had believed that the president would be exposed as a traitor disoriented and depressed. However, Mueller and his team, in addition to indicting some Trump campaign officials on unrelated charges, did charge a number of Russians with criminal interference in the 2016 election, allowing Trump’s opponents to salvage the thesis that Clinton would have become president of the United States but for Putin’s interference.
Like any detective thriller movie or novel, this narrative seeks to achieve realism by weaving facts into a formulaic conspiracy-based plot. It is a fact that Putin, like many Russians, resents the treatment of Russia by the West after the Cold War, symbolized by the incorporation of former Russian satellites into the European Union and the expansion of NATO. Russian nationalists and many populists in Europe and the US share a common hostility to the transnational European Union as well as contemporary transatlantic social liberalism. In addition, Western intelligence authorities claim that Russian intelligence operatives have engaged in trying to promote conflict in the US and other countries by helping whistle-blowers like WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden leak stolen or classified information and by bombarding carefully targeted audiences with Internet memes and ads.
Let us stipulate that this is all true. It was also true in the 1950s that there really were a small number of communists in the US, including a few high-ranking government officials, who spied for the Soviet Union, as well as many more Soviet sympathizers. There were also genuine Soviet disinformation campaigns in the Cold War West. But only the lunatic fringe of the anticommunist right during the Cold War drew the conclusion that the president was a Soviet agent or that main- stream politicians were secret communists. In contrast, influential members of today’s American establishment, not only marginal conspiracy theorists, in order to absolve Hillary Clinton of blame for losing the 2016 election, have promoted the claim that the forty-fifth US president was installed by a foreign government and does its bidding. A Gallup poll in August 2018 showed that 78 percent of Democrats believed not only that Russia interfered in the election but also that it changed the outcome, denying Hillary Clinton the presidency.
It is not enough to demonstrate that Putin hoped that Hillary Clinton would be defeated. Great numbers of Americans hoped that she would be defeated as well. It is necessary therefore to demonstrate that the Internet activity of Russian trolls, rather than purely domestic opposition to her candidacy, was the decisive factor in the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.
In the context of election-year advertising, the quantity of Russian memes was negligible. According to Facebook, only 1 in 23,000 pieces of content on its platform could be traced to Russian sources. Facebook ads linked to Russia cost $46,000, or 0.05 percent of the $81 million that the Clinton and Trump campaigns themselves spent on Facebook ads.
Is it possible that the Russian memes, although mere drops in the ocean of advertising by the Clinton and Trump campaigns, were disproportionately effective in influencing American voters because of their unique sophistication? One anti-Clinton ad on Facebook attributed to Russian trolls showed a photo of Bernie Sanders with the words: “Bernie Sanders: The Clinton Foundation is a ‘Problem.'” A pro-Trump meme, presumably targeting religious conservatives, showed Satan wrestling with Jesus. Satan: “If I win Clinton wins!” Jesus: “Not if I can help it!”
To believe the Russia Scare theory of the 2016 US presidential election, we must believe that the staff of Russia’s government-linked Internet Research Agency and other Russian saboteurs understood how to influence the psychology of black American voters and white working-class voters in the Midwest far better than did the Clinton and Trump presidential campaigns. The Russians knew which memes or leaked memos would cause black Democrats to vote in lower numbers for Clinton in 2016 than they had voted for Obama for president in 2008 and 2012 and also knew exactly what material would motivate a significant minority of white working-class Obama voters to vote for Trump. In addition to being very flattering to the intelligence of Russian Internet trolls, this is very condescending to those two groups of voters, to say the least.
As it happens, the US election results can be explained with no need to posit the ability of the Russian government to alter the outcomes of US elections by brainwashing American voters, even if it sought to do so. In December 2015, the progressive documentary filmmaker Michael Moore told Business Insider: “Donald Trump is absolutely going to be the Republican candidate for president of the United States.” In July 2016, after Trump won the nomination to become the presidential candidate of the Republican Party, Moore wrote an essay on his website, “5 Reasons Why Trump Will Win.”
Russian meme warfare on the Internet was not one of Moore’s five reasons. According to Moore, who had achieved fame by documenting the industrial decline of the Midwest, the most important reason why Trump would defeat Clinton was the regional economy:
Midwest Math, or Welcome to Our Rust Belt Brexit. I believe Trump is going to focus much of his attention on the four blue states in the rustbelt of the upper Great Lakes—Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Four traditionally Democratic states— but each of them have elected a Republican governor since 2010 (only Pennsylvania has now finally elected a Democrat). . . . Trump is going to hammer Clinton on this and her support of TPP and other trade policies that have royally screwed the people of these four states. . . . From Green Bay to Pittsburgh, this, my friends, is the middle of England—broken, depressed, struggling, the smokestacks strewn across the country- side with the carcass of what we use to call the Middle Class. . . . What happened in the UK with Brexit is going to happen here. . . . And this is where the math comes in. In 2012, Mitt Romney lost by 64 electoral votes. Add up the electoral votes cast by Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. It’s 64. All Trump needs to do to win is to carry, as he’s expected to do, the swath of traditional red states from Idaho to Georgia (states that’ll never vote for Hillary Clinton), and then he just needs these four rust belt states. He doesn’t need Florida. He doesn’t need Colorado or Virginia. Just Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. And that will put him over the top. This is how it will happen in November.
Moore was not the only observer who pointed out that Trump had a possible path to victory in the electoral college. In February 2016, the progressive political analyst Ruy Teixeira told MSNBC that even if Trump alienated black and Latino voters, he might win by sweeping the upper Midwest: “You could see a situation where someone like Trump could carry Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin, maybe Pennsylvania.” In the event, Trump got a higher share of the black vote and the Latino vote than Romney in 2012.
For what it is worth, on May 24, 2016, at a forum in Los Angeles on “Populism Past and Present” hosted by Ian Masters that featured me and the historian Michael Kazin, I was asked if I thought Trump could win. I replied, “I think it’s possible. I wouldn’t bet on it.” I noted that sometimes “a big chunk of the former electoral college presidential majority migrates to the other party.” I said that I doubted there would be a “big enough chunk of people who formerly voted Democratic moving over to put Trump in the White House” but I hedged my bets by saying, “I may look foolish in November.”
The political scientist Alan I. Abramowitz has observed that Trump actually performed less well than might have been expected in 2016 in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, given shifts already under way from the Democrats to the Republicans in those states: “There is no evidence here that Russian interference, to the extent that it occurred, did anything to help Trump in these three states.”
In 2018, Hillary Clinton told Britain’s Channel Four News: “The real question is how did the Russians know how to target their messages so precisely to undecided voters in Wisconsin or Michigan or Pennsylvania–that is really the nub of the question.” No, the real question is why so much of the US and European establishment accepted and promulgated Clinton’s alibi for her failure to follow her husband into the office of president of the United States. A Clinton or a Bush was president, vice president, or secretary of state in every year between 1981 and 2013, an era in which working-class incomes stagnated, offshoring devastated US and European manufacturing, the world suffered the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the US plunged into multiple disastrous wars in the Middle East and Central Asia. Trump became president by running against a Bush in the Republican primaries and a Clinton in the general election. The desire of many American voters to disrupt the quarter-century cycle of nearly identical versions of technocratic neoliberalism under alternating Bushes and Clintons is quite sufficient to explain the presidential election of 2016.
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Adapted from “The New Class War: Saving Democracy from the Managerial Elite” (Portfolio; January 21, 2020) by Michael Lind. © 2020 Portfolio Books.