White Middle Americans express heavy mistrust of every institution in American society: not only government, but corporations, unions, even the political party they typically vote for—the Republican Party of Romney, Ryan, and McConnell, which they despise as a sad crew of weaklings and sellouts. They are pissed off. And when Donald Trump came along, they were the people who told the pollsters, “That’s my guy.”
They aren’t necessarily superconservative. They often don’t think in ideological terms at all. But they do strongly feel that life in this country used to be better for people like them—and they want that older country back.
You hear from people like them in many other democratic countries too. Across Europe, populist parties are delivering a message that combines defense of the welfare state with skepticism about immigration; that denounces the corruption of parliamentary democracy and also the risks of global capitalism. Some of these parties have a leftish flavor, like Italy’s Five Star Movement. Some are rooted to the right of center, like the U.K. Independence Party. Some descend from neofascists, like France’s National Front. Others trace their DNA to Communist parties, like Slovakia’s governing Direction–Social Democracy.
These populists seek to defend what the French call “acquired rights”—health care, pensions, and other programs that benefit older people—against bankers and technocrats who endlessly demand austerity; against migrants who make new claims and challenge accustomed ways; against a globalized market that depresses wages and benefits. In the United States, they lean Republican because they fear the Democrats want to take from them and redistribute to Americans who are newer, poorer, and in their view less deserving—to “spread the wealth around,” in candidate Barack Obama’s words to “Joe the Plumber” back in 2008. Yet they have come to fear more and more strongly that their party does not have their best interests at heart.