Last week, while I was cleaning auditoriums at the AMC Theatres on the west side of Bloomington, my coworker, who is in his late 60s, brought up the topic of inflation.
This coworker admitted to me he had voted for Donald Trump and he wasn’t fond of Joe Biden — though he conceded that Trump is “probably a crook,” he still found the alleged crimes of Joe and Hunter Biden to be of more importance.
So, in a lot of ways, his views mirrored that of most modern-day conservatives: they may not like Trump’s image, but they sure as hell like the things he does and believes in.
Interestingly, as the conversation went on, the topic shifted to that of the upper class — drifting from the traditionally conservative view of trickle-down economics, my coworker asked me whether I had had a raise since the cost-of-living went up.
“I think you can guess the answer to that,” I said.
“I guarantee you the CEO of AMC has, though,” he responded. “They should be the ones paying their fair share in taxes, and right now, they’re not.”
It was an interesting take from someone who voted for a man whose most successful domestic policy initiative was cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthy.
I can’t say I was exactly shocked at this almost-progressive take from this legally-retired Republican voter, though: I’m from small-town Indiana — Rosedale, if we’re being precise — so I can attest to the fact that most self-proclaimed conservatives are more leftist than they’re willing to admit.
So, why do working class people turn to conservative candidates when, clearly, more progressive ideas would better suit them?
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Before we answer this question, let’s get one thing out of the way: I’m not doubting that many conservatives are socially right-leaning. I would be willing to bet that most who vote for the Republican Party are vehemently anti-abortion and pro-guns. And I’m not trying to invalidate the very real and very scary effect homophobic politicians like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis have had on the public’s treatment of that group.
Maybe this is enough to sway voters toward the GOP — perhaps the party’s bigotry, disguised as “conservative values,” is the point. But, when the GOP controls 152 of the 237 House of Representatives districts that earn less than $65,000 per year on average, and 110 of the 185 districts where more than 9% of residents lack health insurance, it paints a picture that most voters have more pressing day-to-day worries.
This is where populism comes in. Now, populism itself isn’t inherently a bad thing — the literal definition of the ideology is to champion the working class against the upper-class elite. In that way, it’s a very left-wing ideology, one you’d expect from American politicians like Senator Bernie Sanders or Representative Ilhan Omar. However, it’s when you marry populism and right-wing extremism together that you get a perverted, bastardized version of what it truly is.
Trump is a right-wing populist, however oxymoronic that sounds. Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp,” his opposition to trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and his desire to increase the popularity of goods made in America all appealed to a white, working-class population.
However, beneath all of these seemingly populist, progressive economic viewpoints is a layer of xenophobia that, in a lot of ways, also appeals to the same population. Trump put much of the blame of working class ills on immigrants coming to take good Americans’ jobs. He framed his opposition to the TPP not around the perils of U.S. workers but on his assertion it was too advantageous toward China.
Trump is nowhere near the first demagogue to take advantage of the discontent among the white working class. He follows a long American tradition that was once highlighted by the Jacksonian Democrats of the 19th century. It’s a specific sort of populism that appeals to the feelings of alienation among this group — even Sanders, who has designed his entire platform on appealing to the working class, has a coalition based more on age than anything else.
With this conservative strategy in mind, it becomes a lot easier to understand why a poor man in his 60s, earning Social Security but still working as a janitor at AMC Theatres, would be drawn to a politician telling him that, really, the fault is on immigrants and those on welfare. In that way, the politician becomes a sort of puppet master of working class infighting.
It’s important to note that there does exist an intersectionality of oppression: not all bigoted views are entirely informed by economic woes. Capitalism remains but one oppressor — there are problems that will only be addressed by dismantling white supremacy, the patriarchy and western hegemony.
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I’m not here to argue that revolting against capitalism will bring everyone together and end social oppression entirely. But a bit of left-wing populism, and increasing progressivism among younger voters, could help bring an end to the sort of social conditions that become breeding grounds for politicians to stoke the fires of intolerance.
Joey Sills (he/him) is a junior studying journalism, political science and film production.