The 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: