The Triumph of Populism in American Politics, Civic Culture, and Religion

President Trump’s campaigning style is often described as “populist.” What is populism, and how does it affect America? How does populism impact the church? To answer that question, consider the story of All the King’s Men.

All the King’s Men portrays the dramatic rise of Willie Stark, a cynical political leader in the American South during the 1930s. The novel, the play, and the 1949 and 2006 films are mostly-truthful portrayals of the life and career of Louisiana governor Huey P. Long.

As Willie’s story unfolds, he “undergoes a radical transformation from an idealistic lawyer and weak gubernatorial candidate into a charismatic and extraordinarily powerful governor.” In the process, he becomes corrupt, and “builds an enormous political machine based on patronage, intimidation, and demagoguery;”  yet he remains “popular among his constituents, [and they] respond to his fiery [message] with enthusiasm” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_the_King%27s_Men).

In a pivotal early scene, Jack Burden, Willie’s right-hand-man, tells him to change the way he addresses crowds at his rallies. “Rather than assailing audiences with a thicket of facts [about] his tax plan,” Willie’s speeches should excite the crowds emotionally (Dwight Garner, “‘All the King’s Men,’ Now 70, Has a Touch of 2017,” New York Times, April 11, 2016):

“’They don’t give a damn about [your facts].  Hell, make ‘em cry, make ‘em laugh…Or make ‘em mad.  Even mad at you.  Just stir ‘em up, and they’ll love you and come back for more….’”

So, Willie stopped making intellectual appeals;  instead, he “grabb[ed his audiences] by the gut;”  he “pinch[ed] ‘em in the soft places:”

“My friends, I have a speech here. It’s a speech about what this state needs. But you [already] know what you need. You over there, look at your pants.  Have they got holes in the knees?  Listen to your stomach. D[o] you hear it rumble for hunger?  And you, what about your crops?  Did they ever rot in the field because the road was so bad you couldn’t get ’em to market?  And you, what about your kids? Are they growin’ up ignorant as dirt, ’cause there’s no school for ’em?  Naw, I’m not gonna read you any speech.  But I am gonna tell ya a story.  You are a hick and nobody ever helped the hick but the hick himself.  Listen to me, ‘cause I’m not gonna lie to ya….” 

Willie’s “primary path of action for his constituency of hicks?  ‘Nail up anybody who stands in your way.’”

For the rest of his political career, “Willie never addresse[d] crowds like a politician at a podium.”  Instead, “he addresse[d] them like [he was] one of them and underst[ood] them” (John Lusk Babbott, “Trump, Truth, and All the King’s Men,” The Alignist, November 7, 2016).

Willie’s story has a curious resonance today.  Many Americans do not resent President Trump’s ostentatious wealth, his collection of beautiful women, or his “gaudy braggadocio”—perhaps because these are things that they themselves aspire to.  “Trump acts out a fantasy of what [they] might do if [given] millions of dollars” (Babbott).

The social and economic conditions that enabled Huey P. Long—and Willie Stark—to rise were tumultuous. The United States “had just emerged [victoriously from] a bloody World War, and the Wall Street crash and Great Depression” were right around the corner. In the rural South, “farmers were struggling [in] a heavily industrialized economy; small businesses were [getting crushed by] big corporat[e] monopolies;  government corruption was rampant;  and a resurgent Ku Klux Klan [was] terrorizing black neighborhoods”  (Thomas Ricard, “Movies that Predicted Trump:  All the King’s Men (1949),” The Agony Booth, January 10, 2017).

Similarly, Trump’s rise to power—and his 2016 election—occurred during a time of voter “disempowerment, victimization, and fear—the fear of being left behind by a rapidly changing world where your lifestyle, beliefs, and traditions are unwelcome.”  When we read of Willie’s “fir[ing] up his crowds with chants of ‘Nail ’em up!’ we can’t help but hear the shouts of “Lock her up!” at Trump rallies generations later. Both men whip[ped] throngs into frenzies;”  “there was no belt [that they were] unwilling to hit below. There was an ozone stink of violence at [their] rallies;  hecklers were dealt with severely”(Garner, and Ryan Prior, “All the King’s Men and Donald Trump,” Medium.com, July 25, 2017).

The rise of Trumpian populism is closely related to a sequence of reformation and realignment that has occurred within both political parties, but especially in the G.O.P., over the past fifteen to twenty years. “The biggest driver” of this realignment has been “the diversification of the electorate: America [has] becom[e] younger, better educated, more diverse, more urban, more secular, and more globalized econom[ically].  These trends show no sign of reversal” (Tim Alberta, American Carnage:  On the Front Lines of the Republican Civil War and the Rise of President Trump [New York:  Harper, 2019], p. 260).

If the G.O.P. has transitioned from an Eastern Establishment country-club party, populated by such names as Bush, McCain, and Romney, into what Tim Alberta, the chief political correspondent for Politico Magazine, calls a “rural/exurban” party of small population density, “less diversity, lower incomes, and lower education rates” (Alberta, p. 405), it is a shift that will likely endure; one cannot imagine the Republican Party quickly changing back after Trump leaves office.

Indeed, seventy years ago, American cold-war diplomat-scholar George F. Kennan observed that all political leaders are, to some extent, captives of their constituents. Even authoritarian oligarchs and dictators have to champion the interests and welfare of their populace. To do otherwise—to mistreat or ignore their people—would cast doubt on the legitimacy of their rule, and possibly invite a coup d’etat or a popular uprising against them. So too, if more and more conservative voters today come from rural working-class backgrounds, then-Republican officials who want their vote will have no choice but to advocate for their interests and welfare—by supporting Social Security, Medicare, guaranteed health care, retraining and community revitalization programs, subsidies for farmers, food stamps, and other “social-safety-net” programs which in the past were promoted by the Democratic Party.

An example of this fundamental realignment was George W. Bush’s 2004 plan to dismantle Social Security, and have Americans “create personalized retirement accounts.”  The proposal “was a nonstarter with the party’s base [of] blue-collar workers, middle-class earners, and the elderly” (Alberta p. 16).

Similarly, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell all but ignored the Trump Administration’s anti-Obamacare drive during the first six months of 2017, because “he saw the benefits of [Obamacare] back home in Kentucky. The uninsured rate there had plummeted, thanks to the law’s Medicaid expansion provision” (Tim Alberta, p. 450).

(Over a century ago, Charles Sheldon, the author of the classic Christian novel, In His Steps, asked the fateful question, “What would Jesus do?”  Since then, people of faith—millions of them—have responded that what Jesus would do would be to help people, especially those suffering from discrimination, poverty, and exclusion. “Blessed are the poor,” Jesus said.  So wouldn’t it be something if realigned Republicans did what Jesus would do, and became prime defenders of the poor and the marginalized?)

Today, populism is getting a bad rap;  the term is used synonymously with demagoguery, to characterize politicians’ highly-emotional and incendiary appeals to voters. Thus, if a populist leader knows that her or his constituents harbor nativist and/or xenophobic attitudes, she or he may employ such appeals in order to win their vote.  This can happen in churches too.  Pastors keen on remaining popular or keeping their jobs may tailor their sermons to fit their congregations’ political and social biases.

Even so, a strong case can be made for a benevolent sort of populism. After all, asking voters what they want—and then endeavoring to give it to them—is a better way of campaigning and governing than telling voters what they should want, or trying to sell them a pre-packaged set of political and economic theories.

The same is true in the church. Affirming people—saying yes to them, and serving them—is a better way to do church than defending some historically-orthodox set of “immutable” doctrines. In the United Church of Christ, we recognize testimonies of faith rather than tests of faith. We attest to a God who is StillSpeaking—not only to church leaders, but to all people of faith, and even to those who say they lack faith.

Once upon a time, we religious experts thought we knew what our congregants needed: Jesus. Salvation. Evangelism. Hellfire-and-brimstone preaching. Tough love. Boring theological sermons. Homophobia. Racial exclusion.

But in recent years, a religious realignment has taken place. Congregants are speaking out, telling their ministers and denominational officials what they want.  And when they don’t get what they want, they are walking out.  Millennials and Gen-X’ers, in particular, have left the church—and they aren’t coming back.

Church leaders should respect the expressed “wants” and needs of everyone they come in contact with—dedicated church members and “outsiders” alike—because they are all God’s children.  As Jesus asked, “What parent among you, if their child asks for a fish, will instead give a serpent;  or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion?  If you then, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will God give the Holy Spirit to those who ask for it” (Luke 11:11-13)?

Chris Xenakis

Rev. Chris Xenakis is a UCC pastor currently serving Groton Community Church (UCC) in Central New York. In addition, he is an adjunct lecturer at SUNY-Cortland, teaching courses this year on world politics, democracy, U.S. foreign policy and multiculturalism. Chris has written numerous books and articles, which can be found on his blog.

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