Q & A: The rise of dark populism and Donald Trump

A conversation with Dale Maharidge, who has covered American poverty since the early 1980s. In “Someplace like America,” he predicted that anger over growing income inequality in working class towns would lead to a reactionary brand of populism.

Photo courtesy: Dale Maharidge
Photo courtesy: Dale Maharidge

Dale Maharidge on a Californian train in 1982. (Courtesy of Dale Maharidge)

Updated Dec 13, 2016
Mehboob Jeelani Mehboob Jeelani is a features editor at TRT World. @JeelaniReports

Five years before Donald Trump won the 2016 US presidential election, Dale Maharidge, a journalism professor at Columbia University in New York, predicted what he called the rise of “dark populism” – the kind of nationalist surge that makes some hate Trump and others love him.

In his 2013 book Someplace like America: Tales from the New Great Depression, Maharidge wrote that anger generated by growing income inequality is “profound and dangerous, and it will be captured by someone politically.” With Donald Trump’s electoral victory, Maharidge says his dire prediction has come to pass. Trump had won over the marginalised working class towns that Maharidge had focused on, stricken by unemployment after jobs became automated or moved overseas, thanks to the free trade policies both Republicans and Democrats had championed for decades.

TRT World spoke to Maharidge, who lives in New York City and has studied and written about poverty in the US for more than 40 years. His work inspired American rocker Bruce Springsteen, himself a native son of a New Jersey working class town, to write The Ghost of Tom Joad and other songs about poverty and social injustice.

Maharidge said that during his reporting trip he didn’t only hear anger and hatred – he also saw glimpses of hope.

How did you predict what you call the rise of “dark populism” back in 2011?

DALE MAHARIDGE: What happened was in 1982, I started covering the recession that was then going on. It was a very severe recession, and I found out that there were these new hobos, people riding free trains, looking for work in California. So I rode the trains with them and realised a lot of them were factory workers who were losing their jobs, not temporarily, but permanently.

A few years later, I met a professor in Youngstown, Ohio. His name was John Russo. He was really concerned. He said the anger that he saw building in Youngstown was dangerous. And he warned it would lead to the rise of fascism. Anger leads to fascism, he said. He was very grim. He did not expect things to get better for these workers because the government was doing nothing for them. So that put the anger on my radar. And I heard it when I was there [in Youngstown, Ohio].

In 2011, when I went to Detroit, I realised that this anger had become extremely bitter. Anger is one thing, but when it goes to the bitter range it gets dangerous. And that’s what I wrote in my book Someplace like America, that dark populism is on its way and we may witness it in the 2012 or 2016 elections.
 
Do you think Trump will address income disparity, which fuels this anger?
 
DM: Especially now, we are not going to see any answers from the government. And [from] industry, we are not going to see any answers either. Those two avenues are dead.
 
But you talk about hope in your recent magazine article?
 
DM: When I was in Detroit in 2012, I realised there were all these incredible ground-up, grassroots initiatives for people trying to cope with the bad economy. It kind of got on my radar. And then about a year and a half ago, I heard about Cleveland, and the Cleveland Model. And I went to investigate in 2015. I interviewed one of the founders of the initiative and was totally blown away.
 
[On a recent trip for Smithsonian magazine, he encountered the Cleveland, Ohio-based Evergreen Cooperatives, a group of worker-owned businesses that he said is patterned on "a hybrid capitalist-socialist corporation in Spain" and which employ over 80,000 workers. The first Evergreen company opened in 2009 and since then local governments are studying and emulating what has now become known as the "Cleveland Model".] 
 

The Cleveland Model makes employees shareholders in the companies for which they work, instead of outside investors. Why is this a source for optimism?

DM: The energy in America now is coming from the bottom up. Ted Howard, one of the founders of the Cleveland Model, said this is not the early 1930s in America. The states were called laboratories of democracy. Wisconsin and Minnesota did the first form of unemployment insurance. Then the federal government copied it when Franklin Roosevelt came into office. The federal government is going to copy what I am seeing going on in Cleveland. More and more, it’s local governments in America who are funding these initiatives with socially-minded entrepreneurs creating companies with [a] social mission. It’s unprecedented in America. And it’s the only hope I see happening right now. Without these initiatives, the future is pretty bleak.

What if the federal government doesn’t follow suit on these initiatives?

DM: If nothing is done, nobody tries to do anything, this, what I call the fascist wave, I am [labelling] it what I really believe it is, it will only deepen. It is a scary time. The world is in [a] 1938 moment [when Americans were struggling to overcome the Great Depression]. I don’t think I’m overstating [this fact]. With the exception of Austria, look what is happening in Italy, look what is happening in Philippines, look at other European countries. It of course will have repercussions all over the world. This is not good for people in the Middle East or parts of Asia.

So where is democracy as an idea heading?

DM: Right now, people feel alienated. And they are disconnected from each other. A lot of the initiatives I am writing about, a lot of them are building communities. Through that, people can meet each other, know each other, give money to each other. That’s what any nation is about, it’s about community. And Americans, a lot of the people over the years are going to see a part of it. When you reinstall a sense of community, you also create a political stability, and you get democracy. When people feel disconnected and powerless you get authoritarian regimes.

Can this anger be addressed to build a united rather than a divided America?

DM: Let’s focus on Democrats. Republicans never cared about the working class. And the Democrats ignored them. The Republicans were malicious and the Democrats were stupid. I think there is a new Democratic wing, with Elizabeth Warren as the head of it, where they are actually speaking to those people and trying to do something. I think you have to show through actions and not through empty words. And that is what voters heard from Hillary Clinton, they heard: blah blah blah. From Warren they are hearing “we have got a problem and we have got to fix it.” And here is how Bernie Sanders tapped into that. A lot of disaffected people were behind Bernie because he spoke to them.

What is likely to happen is the Democrats wake up and finally shut off trying to be the Republican right and actually do something for working people. That’s my hope. That’s the best bet.

But when the job market is becoming more and more brutal in terms of wage deficits and automation, won’t working-class anger continue or even increase?

DM: That’s why the Cleveland Model is so important. We are losing jobs. This is a worldwide phenomenon. Labour is cheap, machines are even cheaper. We have a world without jobs [and] when we have a world without jobs, you get angry people. Then you get fascist regimes.

The Cleveland Model is very simple. We are not going to create a million jobs, maybe we are going to create a hundred thousand decent jobs and have local control over those jobs, rather than having a corporation taking the money for profiteering. For instance, here in America you heard about the gig economy, people working for Uber and TaskRabbit and other start-ups. Those companies take 20 percent of the worker’s pay. I am writing about a startup in California that is worker-owned. It is a collaborative cooperative and workers will keep 99 percent of their money. No money goes to Wall Street. So when you cut out the profiteers and have workers controlling their own jobs, they will do better. We have these interim things that can happen, but long term we have to change how we live, and what we value as a society. Certain jobs will never be mechanised. The person who fixes your car when it breaks, the plumber who comes and fixes your pipes, the person who teaches your children. We have seen that virtual learning doesn’t work. We don’t value those jobs now in America, we pay teachers very poorly and those are the jobs that are the most important in the future.

We have to transfer the value of jobs and we also have to think in terms of cutting out the profiteers - the one percent who are buying their yachts. When you have a worker-owned company, no one buys a yacht but everyone has more money. So there are these incremental things we can give as a society, not just in the US but other parts of the world. And that’s how we can take care of working people and not have their anger.
 
How would you co-opt some of these ideas to defeat figures like Donald Trump in the US or Narendra Modi in India? Would you fight them through street protests or wait for the next elections?
 
DM: I certainly believe the world movements start from the ground up. I think the Occupy Wall Street movement was fantastic. I am so sorry that it fizzled out. I was really hopeful that it would agitate and make the Democrats realise their faults. We saw Occupy Wall Street was in support of Bernie Sanders. A lot of mainstream people blasted off Sanders and said, ah, he can’t win. And my friends who were very adamant that he couldn’t have won, I asked them after the elections – could it have been any worse if he had been nominated? They said no. I think he would have won. He spoke about things that matter to disaffected people.  You don’t just have politicians suddenly pop up and start speaking to people. You have people agitating and then politicians responding and then further advancing improvement. 
The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.