Political commentator Ben Domenech discussed the rise of American populism and how anger toward political elites led to Donald Trump’s success at the George Washington Forum event Tuesday night.
Domenech said the rise of Trumpism is not due to increased conservatism, but rather because of a distinct form of American populism that has several positive qualities.
“The reason for today’s populist revolt, above all, is a lack of respect,” Domenech said. “There is nothing more important than respect.”
He pointed out the most successful candidates in modern elections — Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama — ran their campaigns on being political “outsiders” who would change Washington. This, he said, is the key to understanding the Donald Trump phenomenon.
“He is not a disease, nor is he a symptom,” Domenech said. “He is instead for many Americans the beta test of a cure. They are trying to fix this problem.”
Domenech identified a “new class” of voters that have engaged in the 2016 election. These people do not normally vote for a Republican nominee, he said, and the question to ask is why they are finally prominent.
“Donald Trump has the appeal to these people of a traitor to his class,” Domenech said. “He is dispensing entirely of the likeness and the rules put upon politicians by a group of politically correct elites, telling it like it is.”
Party elites have a “crippling inability” to adapt to America’s current issues and concerns, he said. Instead of addressing what the public wants them to, they still operate on the same system as always.
“This class’ failure is its belief that ordinary Americans are a lesser intellectual and social breed,” Domenech said. “Our American politics is broken today because of a bipartisan alliance formed over decades between large institutions. An alliance which socializes risk, prevents competition and rigs the playing field in ways that hurt family pocketbooks, crush innovation and encroach on the people’s liberties.”
According to Domenech, Trump also conjures up a wistfulness for the 1950s and ’60s when America was “great,” which resonates with the Baby Boomers who are still in control of most of the electorate.
The belief that the U.S. was great in the past despite its many social issues is because, according to Domenech, there was a unified vision of the American dream at that time. During that period, popular culture was controlled by a few powerful players.
“We are driven by nostalgia for a time when the world made sense,” Domenech said. “A time when America’s culture was driven overwhelmingly by underlying identity politics. The vast majority of the country was Christian, at least in name, employment was more stable and predictable than it is today.”
He said the disintegration of traditional family and faith values has led to a divide between generations. There is an increased disengagement from civil society with the rise of individualism, which caused the death of the shared vision of the American dream that existed in the past.
“The rise of individualism and excessive centralization of government go hand-in-hand,” Domenech said. As individuals become detached from those around them, detached from the sources of social order and meaning in their lives, they also become more desperate for strong, centralized leadership to make up for perceived failures.”
He said, however, this is likely the last election of Baby Boomers and a shift in generational leadership is likely to occur soon.
“(The Republican Party’s) approach needs to be updated for the post-Cold War reality, and it’s incumbent upon a new generation of leaders within the party and elsewhere to do so,” Domenech said. “Our current elites have failed to understand us. They failed to connect with the American people. They failed every test of competency and they failed to live up to their promises.”
In his opinion, this election cycle has failed to excite young people, and he predicts a lower voter turnout among millennials than is expected.
“When I talk to young people, I don’t hear excitement,” Domenech said. “When I talk to people today usually the first thing they mention is that they’re voting for this person to block the other, and I think that is a sentiment that is only going to lead to less turnout.”