Reading Group: Historicizing Trump

Jared Asser's picture

Overview: The purpose of this reading group was to interrogate some of the approaches taken by scholars who have attempted to explain Donald Trump’s 2016 electoral victory. Two of the monographs on the reading list were published after the election, while the third was reprinted and recontextualized in light of the election. We reviewed each approach, which existed on a spectrum from History to Political Theory, before attempting to find common threads among them.



Jared Asser, Trent University

Bryce Saulnier, Trent University

Logan Hallard, Trent University




Federico Finchelstein, From Fascism to Populism in History, (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017)

Synopsis: Examining the historical link between fascism and populism, this work argues that populism was a rework of fascism after its defeat during the Second World War. Finchelstein identifies Juan Perón as the first populist, and though he recognizes that earlier political groups had populist tendencies, he categorizes these as pre-populist as they never attained power. While populism retains the authoritarian dimensions of fascism it spurns fascism’s acceptance of violence and uses democratic methods to obtain legitimate political power.


Michael Kazin, The Populist Persuasion: An American History, Revised Edition, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2017)

Synopsis: The Populist Persuasion is a re-prefaced and re-covered (in light of the 2016 election cycle), edition of Kazin’s 1995 book, which tackles an interpretation of the United States’ historical experience with populism. Kazin analyzes three categories of populism across a century of political history beginning with the Populist Party, through to a labour/religion split in the 1920s and a rightward turn with McCarthy, George Wallace, and Reagan. Kazin emphasizes the significance of populism as a linguistic phenomenon wherein producing classes (on the left or right) resolved to find solutions to contemporary conflicts, primarily economic grievances and besieged ethical beliefs of the perceived majority.   


Wendy Brown, In the Ruins of Neoliberalism: The Rise of Antidemocratic Politics in the West, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019)

Synopsis: Through a re-interpretation of the original neoliberal thinkers’ anti-fascist economic and philosophical project, In the Ruins attempts to show that the principles of neoliberalism unintentionally created the kind of society that they were intended to prevent. Focusing in particular on the economic theory of Friedrich Hayek, Brown’s work traces how the application of Neoliberal thought over the course of decades has provided the opportunity for a broad anti-state political coalition, one that seeks to undermine the legitimacy of the democratic process. While Brown’s work makes the fewest direct references to populism, the weight of contemporary Trump populism can be felt on every page.


Summary of Discussion:


Each of these works attempts to articulate a specific understanding of how Trump was able to win the 2016 election and how this event fits into a broader history. During our discussion we touched on themes of state violence, nihilism and belonging, the influence of economic thought and development on American political history, and the merits of situating Trump’s victory in national and global contexts.  


Though it appeared in different forms, each author attempted to place Trump and populist politics in the tradition of a “Third Way.” This approach was most explicitly articulated by Finchelstein, whose work sees populism as an authoritarian—though democratic—reformulation of fascism. For Finchelstein, fascism emerged as an opposition politics, one that presented an alternative to both liberalism and communism. Kazin’s history of populism also sees populist rhetoric as a form of oppositional politics: this oppositional status was adapted by right wing populists in the second half of the twentieth century. Though a smaller part of her explanation, Brown argues that certain thinkers understood neoliberalism, as a morality-guided market, as an economic equivalent to political Third Ways. 


Rather than being able to take advantage of a political situation, Trumpism was a product of the conditions generated through embracing this third way. This part of the discussion took on new life when we began to think about Ross Perot and later the Trump 2000 campaign. The professional similarities between Perot and Trump are striking. By running as an independent in 1992, and later with the Reform Party in 1996, Perot was attempting to capitalize on the power of the Third Way. During Trump’s 2000 campaign he attempted to gain the nomination of Perot’s party. One author argued that while populist leaders can often build large personal followings, they are unable to translate these followings into political movements or attach them to any kind of political apparatus. The difference between the Perot campaigns, the Trump 2000 Primary, and the 2016 election, was Trump’s ability to run as an outsider from within the Republican Party. One participant skillfully argued that the Third Way approach should be considered incomplete as it does not take into account the recent history of the Democratic party. This interpretation of recent politics should include an understanding of why the Democratic party does not, or is not able to, field a candidate of their own who can take an oppositional stance toward the norms of both parties.


As Finchelstein would note, part of the legitimacy of populism as a political style comes from how it effectively mobilizes voters. As a means of democratic campaigning, populists make rhetorical references to a critical bloc of “the People,” whom they ingratiate themselves with, and, via empathetic association with their struggle, become one within a trinity of leader, people, and nation. While both Bernie Sanders and Trump have been able to define who they are and who they are against, neither has been able to clearly articulate who constitutes “the people” beyond vague references to everyday, working Americans. As the United States continues to become more and more diverse, this inability to define a people will continue to present an issue for populist politicians and may represent a new phase in the history of populist rhetoric.


We also noticed a tendency on the part of all three authors to move outside of the academic sphere. A silhouette of Trump and Bernie arguing features on Kazin’s cover, an image that all participants thought was a marketing technique. Brown’s work grew out of a series of lectures and Finchelstein’s work is written in a style that could be appreciated by academics and non-academics alike.


We concluded our discussion by thinking about the influence of Trump as an event. Trump may mark an end to a period of American political exceptionalism, where the ‘Land of the Free’ could never experience fascist, authoritarian, or any leader that challenges democracy. Further, we wondered about the future of Trump and the Republican party, whether or not the ambiguities of Trump’s populist politics will degenerate into fascism and in what direction the Republican party will move if Trump is defeated or drops out in 2020.