Acton Institute Powerblog

How to Understand the Folk Marxism of Trump Supporters

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trump-handsThe phenomenon that is Donald Trump and his presidential campaign can only truly be understood when you recognize his basic appeal: he’s bringing a brand of folk Marxism to an entirely new audience.

Before we unpack what this means, we must first understand what it does not mean. Folk Marxism is not Classical Marxism, much less communism. Marxism has so many varieties that even Karl Marx once said, “what is certain is that I myself am not a Marxist.” Folk Marxism is no different, and in America it manifest in different forms among divergent political groups.

Folk Marxism differs from academic forms of Marxism in the same way most folk beliefs differ from scholarly beliefs. As economist Arnold Kling explains, “Ordinary people and scholars may treat the same ideas differently. In terms of influence, it is the folk beliefs of ordinary people that matter, not the beliefs of scholars.”

A decade ago, when it was still a belief system found mostly on the political left, Kling outlined the basics of folk Marxism:

Folk Marxism looks at political economy as a struggle pitting the oppressors against the oppressed. Of course, for Marx, the oppressors were the owners of capital and the oppressed were the workers. But folk Marxism is not limited by this economic classification scheme. All sorts of other issues are viewed through the lens of oppressors and oppressed. Folk Marxists see Israelis as oppressors and Palestinians as oppressed. They see white males as oppressors and minorities and females as oppressed. They see corporations as oppressors and individuals as oppressed. They see America as on oppressor and other countries as oppressed.

I believe that folk Marxism helps to explain the pride and joy that many people felt when Maryland passed its anti-Walmart law. They think of Walmart as an oppressor, and they think of other businesses and Walmart workers as the oppressed. The mainstream media share this folk Marxism, as they reported the Maryland law as a “victory for labor.”

This brand of folk Marxism has been popular on the left for more than a century and continues to grow in influence (see: Bernie Sanders). But Donald Trump has tapped into a strain of folk Marxism that has cross-ideological appeal and extends across the political spectrum.

Here are some of the defining characteristics of Trump-style folk Marxism:

Class consciousness matters more than political identity – Class consciousness refers to the beliefs that a person holds regarding their social class or economic rank in society, the structure of their class, and their class interests. Almost all Trump supporters associate themselves with a particular (though largely undefined) oppressed class. They also consider Trump as the best candidate to champion their class interests. For them, these class interest are more important than almost any other affiliation.

This is why criticism that they are RINOs (Republicans in name only) or that they are not “true conservatives” falls on deaf ears. They identify more as a class of the oppressed than they do with any political party or historical ideological movement.

Defeating the oppressor class is the primary goal of the revolution — Talk to any Trump supporter for more than five minutes and you’ll inevitably hear them use the catch-all term they use for their perceived enemy: the Establishment.

Trump supporters don’t use the term merely to mean the Republican Party establishment. If they did they’d prefer Ted Cruz, who is more despised by that “establishment” than almost any other candidate — including Trump. Indeed, Trump is more closely aligned with the political establishment than any other candidate (with the exception of Hillary Clinton).

The Establishment, for Trump supporters, is not a specific entity but rather a term loosely used for any person or group who opposes, disagrees with, or is otherwise on the wrong side of their particular oppressor-oppressed line.

However, even this criterion is malleable. For example, Trump is a wealthy crony capitalist who has previously exploited the lower economic social classes for his own advancement. But because he uses rhetoric (i.e., “he isn’t politically correct”, “he tells it like it is”) that appears to trash the Establishment and their interest, he’s given a pass and considered one of their own. They assume that despite his lifelong connection to the Establishment that Trump is, at least in his heart, a traitor to his own class.

There are few if any true economic laws, only policies controlled by an oppressor class — As the Wikipedia entry on class consciousness explains:

Through dialectical materialism, the proletariat understands that what the individual bourgeois conceived as “laws” akin to the laws of nature, which may be only manipulated, as in Descartes’s dream, but not changed, is in fact the result of a social and historical process, which can be controlled. Furthermore, only dialectical materialism links together all specialized domains, which modern rationalism can only think as separate instead of as forming a totality. Only the proletariat can understand that the so-called “eternal laws of economics” are in fact nothing more than the historical form taken by the social and economical process in a capitalist society. Since these “laws” are the result of the collective actions of individuals, and are thus created by society, Marx and Lukács reasoned that this necessarily meant that they could be changed.

This is a wonky way of saying that the proletariat (working class) believe there are no true laws of economics. When the people in power claim they are simply following the “laws” what they are really doing is just protecting their interest and exploiting the oppressed class.

Trump supporters tend to believe this about issues like free trade. An almost universal belief shared by economists is that free trade tends to benefit all countries involved by making them more efficient and wealthy. But Trump and his supporters think in categories of “winners” and “losers” and assume that for every macroeconomic policy there must be an oppressor — and that they are likely to be the oppressed. What is needed to overcome this “law of economics”, they believe, is to put a strongman in power that will fight for them against the oppressor classes (e.g., China).

The desire for social revolution is more important than the outcome of the revolution— Like almost all other types of Marxists, the Trumpian folk-Marxists crave revolution less for what it will bring and more for what it will tear down. The desire to “burn down” their oppressor class (the Establishment) is much stronger than any eagerness to replace it with something better.

The oppressed that are attracted to Trump falsely believe that they are already as despised, ignored, and oppressed as it is possible to be (at least by American standards). The reality, of course, is that if they got their way they might succeed in bringing down the Establishment a peg while immiserating and impoverishing themselves considerably. Still, the emotion appeal of the Trumpian revolution trumps their reasoned self-interest.

Trumpian folk-Marxists despise other types of folk Marxists — Let me state without equivocation: I do not believe that the average Trump supporter is racist. But it is indisputable that Trump is the favorite candidate of avowed racists. Why is that? Because most white supremacists are folk Marxists engaged in a long-term struggle against other folk Marxists.

One of the favorite terms of white supremacist groups is the term “cultural Marxism.” They believe that there is a concerted effort to overthrow “white culture” through the promotion of such Marxists ideologies as feminism, multiculturalism, etc. They don’t merely oppose these groups as harmful to the flourishing of mankind, though. They view “cultural Marxism” as the work of an oppressor class (the Establishment?) that is intentionally trying to oppress them personally by diluting and destroying their cultural “white identity.”

When he talks about “Mexican rapists” and preventing Muslims from immigrating to the U.S., Trump is speaking their language. They recognize he is a folk Marxist who is on their side and who opposes the wrong kinds of “cultural Marxist.”

Like all brands of Marxism — including that of Bernie Sanders — Trumpism is a perfidious and dangerous political virus that can infect and destroy a body politic. But we can learn to better fight against it when we recognize it for what it is, and stop confusing it for right-wing populism, malformed conservatism, or a particularly vehement strain of anti-establishmentarianism.

Trumpism is real, unique, and not a belief system that is going to fade away on its own. We must therefore act quickly to quell what could be one of the most dangerous form of Marxism every to pose an internal and existential threat to America.

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • Sandy Daze

    Seriously? Oh my.

  • iggyauggietavi

    You people are terrified of us. It’s so fun. I swear, we are going to clean up on the Bernie crowd after Hillary wins. At least 25%. A good chunk is rural white people. They will be converted. The Bernie Bros will join for freedom of speech. Hillary will pick up some RINOs. Wait til we start on the Democrats. The fun hasn’t even started yet.

    • Joe Carter

      ***The Bernie Bros will join for freedom of speech. ***

      You really think the Bernie Bros are going line up behind a candidate who wants to limit free speech?

      Trump on “closing parts of the Internet”: “Somebody will say, ‘Oh freedom of speech, freedom of speech.’ These are foolish people. We have a lot of foolish people.””

      “Trump pledged if elected president to ‘open up our libel laws so when [newspapers] write purposely negative stories … we can sue them and make lots of money’.”

      • disqus_uJdb6Tuzcx

        Slander is not free speech

    • disqus_uJdb6Tuzcx

      Any one occurrence can be the death keel of Marxism. The elimination of street drugs. Improvement in education. Trumps success or a number of other occurrence

  • Joe, I disagree on every point. I think Limbaugh has a more accurate perspective. Trump supporters think free trade agreements such as NAFTA and trade with China is hurting US employment. Trump seems to have a lot of support from unions. They oppose immigration because they think Mexicans are reducing wages, taking jobs, increasing crime, and bankrupting welfare. There is some partial truths in their thinking. But the economics is way off. That reflects poorly on our educational system.

    Cruz is not more hated than Trump. Look what Romney and McCain have said. Romney has said he will not support Trump if he wins the nomination.

    The “establishment” has always been the Romneys and McCains who have always thrown conservatives under the bus and sides with Democrats on just about every issue for the pas 50 years. They promise small government and promote pro-life during campaigns and then do exactly the opposite when elected. Rubio is establishment, which is why he is losing to Trump in Florida.

    I don’t agree with Trump on anything. I think all politicians are disgusting people. But when politicians like Romney announce they will not support the nominee of their party if it is Trump I have a strong desire to campaign for Trump.

    • disqus_uJdb6Tuzcx

      Your establishment republicans are Marxist just as democrats. Their movement has long been known and was well explained in the 50 s thst the us would fail from within and by encroaching Marxism

  • QED

    Reality check:

    1. You just told Joe Carter that Bernie supporters would support Trump because of his support for free speech.

    2. Joe Carter responded by quoting Trump & demonstrating that Trump is no friend to free speech.

    3. You completely ignore the fact that your point just got demolished and reiterate your confidence that Bernie supporters will support Trump.

    This is why the majority of Trump supporters are impossible to dialogue with and this is why so many people are pointing to the phenomena of the cult of personality when it comes to Trump.

    If you want more evidence that Bernie supporters will never vote for Trump, just *listen to Bernie Sanders* in his dialogues/debates with Hillary. For instance, listen to what Bernie Sanders says in his latest debate with Hillary for Univision. He *trashes* Trump and his supporters *cheer* him when he does. WAKE UP.

    • iggyauggietavi

      Want evidence that Bernie people support Trump? Why do you think Bernie polls higher vs Trump than Hillary does? You think Trump people are switching? Math hurts bro

  • Joe Rimbeck

    People are just plain tired of regular politicians coming around every election and prising change. Then the get in and it all runs business as usual. Then there are the ones that say we need to elect him because the otjer guy eill be so much worse. Just look at the campaigns of all the other candidates, that is all we got. Why is it so hard for you people to understand this? You make something so simple, so complicated. It is like you are trying to write some poly-sci paper or something.

  • Melanie Kurdys

    I do not believe Joe Carter has read the average Trump supporter correctly. I agree with Fred. Most of us believe the government has become an oppressor facilitated by politicians in both parties. They increase spending recklessly. Since government makes nothing, the only way they get money is by taxing productive citizens. Politicians believe every problem should be solved by government. They have no faith in We the People. Government folks pass more and more laws and regulations restricting the rights and freedoms of citizens. Our government has become Marxist. A revolution may in fact be needed, but I know exactly what result I want. A restoration of constitutional government. I believe the average Anti-establishment Republican shares this objective.

    The Cruz vs Trump discussion is not one of goal, it is one of means. Assuming Cruz really is committed to returning to constitutional governance, I believe he is inclined to follow the rules to get there. This will be a long, slow haul, unlikely to be achieved in one or even two terms. Assuming Trump really wants to make America great again and that means getting government out of the way, Trump is more likely to use the techniques employed by Obama, like executive orders.

    For example, I would like to see the Federal government get completely out of education. Both Cruz and Trump have spoken to this point. Cruz would likely try to get Congress to pass new laws toward that end. Trump could call the Secretay of Education and say, everyone in your department is fired, the department is closed!

    My question for Joe Carter and Al Kresta is, were our founding fathers folk Marxists when they had a revolution against the British? If you say, yes, then I am an American revolutionary folk Marxist like them!

    • disqus_uJdb6Tuzcx

      Forefathers were individualist the person was above government in all matters but a few in today’s time government schools eould has been supplanted by functional private institutional systems. They aren t today because Marxist know the best way to oppress a people is control their education and media systems and allow only propaganda. Then they own the slaves

    • Beep Boop

      And you have not read Marx

  • Fred

    Here’s a first hand description of a Trump rally, incidentally by an African American. It sounds like he felt unsafe.

  • Mackenzie Brunson

    I view Trump just like Sanders. Trump wants tariffs on Chinese goods which will make me and my family spend 10-15% more on everything we buy so the 12% of the working class that have manufacturing jobs can hold out a little longer before they are automated out of their field in 10 years. Meanwhile Bernie wants to send kids to receive a college education on my dime. What will any of this do for me? Absolutely nothing. I don’t get it. I’m tired of the socialist bs in this country. Redistribute your own wealth. Leave mine alone.

    • disqus_uJdb6Tuzcx

      True imports will cost more but income tax less so it better balance out. It will require juggling. But instead of incessant of the typical politician. Clinton. Trump wants to start the move backwards toward individualism and personal responsibility. We are at a stage in humanity when this is possible and imperative. Manufacturing in the local of use saves energy other wasted in transporting goods. For future generations use. Empowering small personal business elevates self esteem and should have dramatic reduction in crime. Continued socialism will exponential crime as we have already seen and increase poverty which we also have a tract record

    • Cherie

      Why is it all about money? I understand money is power, but power can be overrated.

  • azrael777

    “Folk Marxist” another way of saying the American people are stupid and the elite should run everything. Excellent.

  • I am a supporter of Trump and do not do it for any of these reasons. In fact, none of the Trump supporters I personally know would subscribe to this analysis.

    There is a ‘new-school’ conservatism that the ‘old’ conservatives just aren’t getting. It is less concerned with social issues than with political ones. It is anti-leftist, anti-multinationalist and American nationalistic in substance.

    Trump is the best spokesman for that perspective, and thus the support he gets. Our dislike of Cruz is not for the reasons given in the article, but because he is too ‘old-school’ in his social conservatism and gives too many indications of being tainted by the Christian Dominionism of his father.

    • Cherie

      I am neither a conservative or a Christian but I support Trump.

  • Mackenzie Brunson

    There is a lot of dunning kruger effect in these comments. People don’t comprehend what they don’t comprehend. I think regardless of how this election goes, we will look back at this era with 20/20 hindsight and remember just how good we actually had it. Oh, well.

  • UnreconstructedRebel

    This column proves that leftist sites like Salon, Huffpo, Slate, etc don’t have a monopoly on fatuous, mendacious articles. What is characterized in this article as “folk marxism” is better known in the real world, and the dictionary, as “populism” or “nationalism” or a combination thereof. To describe policies supporting economic nationalism and the social well-being of citizens over aliens as marxist, in any shape, form or fashion, just reveals that the author either is disconnected from reality or has simply become un-hinged by Trump-hate.

    • Actually, you’re advertising your ignorance of history. The West enjoyed free trade and immigration for centuries until Marxism captured Germany in the late 1800s. Mises wrote about it in his “Omnipotent Government.” Marxism destroyed the German economy, but rather than admit the damage caused by socialism, the socialists blamed immigrants and free trade. Socialist Germany was the first modern nation to raise barriers to trade and immigration.

      The US economy is suffering from being socialist and today people blame immigrants and trade instead of the real culprit, socialism.

      • UnreconstructedRebel

        “The West enjoyed free trade and immigration for centuries until Marxism captured Germany in the late 1800s.”

        So, US tariffs (up to 40 – 50%) levied on imported manufactured goods in order to protect domestic industries in the 1800’s constituted free trade? British cabotage laws and mercantilist policies of the late 17th and 18th centuries were about promoting free trade? What about trade restrictions imposed by the Spanish who was allowed to conduct trade with their New World colonies in the 16 and 17th centuries? What about when those Spanish trade monopolies – like the “Asiento”, the slave trade monopoly – were instead awarded to the English Crown in the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713? I’m sure the Byzantines were promoting free trade when they banished Venetian and Genoan vessels from trading in Constatinople and the Black Sea in the 13th century?

        I’m just wondering in which parallel universe your free trade flourished before the rise of marxism? But hey, what do I know, being ignorant of history and all.

        Your comment is more fatuous than the original article, and that’s no mean feat.

        • You’re cherry picking periods, giving exceptions rather than the general rule. You may be under the delusion that a single exception invalidates a principle as it does in physics. But that’s not the way the social sciences work. There are always exceptions. That’s just human nature. But in social sciences exceptions highlight the rule. They don’t invalidate them.

          The fact is that in the 19th century and especially after the Civil War the US and Western Europe enjoyed the freest trade that the world has ever seen. It’s a matter of degrees because nothing is perfect. Tariffs were the only source of funding for the federal government in the US and most other governments. Protection was rare. Compare the volume of international trade in the 1920s to that after the Smoot Hawley tariff. It didn’t recover to that level until the 1990s.

          I wouldn’t call Spain a capitalist nation. It never was.

          Both the US and UK had a lot of anti-trade laws created in the peak of mercantilism that took a century to get rid of. Adama Smith didn’t publish his book until 1776, almost the end of the 18th century. It was a slow process because people naturally oppose what they refuse to understand. Overall, the 19th and 20th centuries were the freest ever! Still, there were always proponents of protection because they were ignorant people.

          None of what you wrote changes the historical fact that after over a century of extremely free trade, socialists were the ones to bring back mercantilism.

        • disqus_uJdb6Tuzcx

          At least some know a little history. Marxist are dependent on ignorance

          • Cherie

            Yes, ignorance is vital in order to learn. The problem with history is just is history, the past, not the present..I think it would be wise to keep that in mind when comparing Trump to Hitler or Marx. Personally I don’t see him as a great ideological thinker..but who knows?

      • disqus_uJdb6Tuzcx

        It’s both. Incompetents in government can t effect a proper infrastructure with even a diminishing population and to burden incompetents with a larger population and with language and custom challenges is so grossly over burdening as to reqipuire kindergarten children to solve advanced calculus problems

  • disqus_uJdb6Tuzcx

    If global warming scam were a reality the most important plank would be the diminishing the population increasing the level of carbon deposits and waste