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:
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.”
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.