In 1963, the young historian Walter Nugent plunged into what was already a roiling debate about the putative xenophobia of the Populists of the late nineteenth century. His book, The Tolerant Populists: Kansas Populism and Nativism, opened the first chapter by asking the reader to recall the Raphael painting Saint George and the Dragon, which has been on display in the National Gallery of Art since the 1930s.
One of its [the painting’s] happiest qualities is its utter lack of ambiguity: good and evil are unmistakable; moral judgment is simple. For almost half a century, the Populist was one of the St. Georges of American historical writing. Yet suddenly in the 1950s it appeared that he was not that at all but in fact a dragon and a fierce one. The awful truth emerged that in fixing good and evil upon their canvases, historians had got the combatants reversed.
Nugent’s book was a spirited rebuttal of this new demonology, in which the Populists of the 1890s became the grandfathers of the McCarthyites of the 1950s—paranoid, nativist, anti-intellectual, and deeply hostile to change. Nugent didn’t stop there, however: he also sought to demonstrate the immense benevolence and virtuousness of the People’s Party: the Populists were St. George after all.
This fifty-plus year-old historiographic quarrel may have been on your mind as well recently—Yoni Appelbaum had a tweetstorm along these lines last month which concluded with “Five years from now, we’ll reap a bumper crop of dissertations on the Populist Party, informed by this election. Can’t wait to read them.”
But what Appelbaum, I think, sees as linking Populism to Trumpism is not so much the internal dynamics of the two movements (“Populism isn’t the same as Trumpism. But there are echoes,” he writes) but rather the similar difficulties that one faces in trying to characterize them, to plumb their motives—or even to decide whether it’s worth trying to plumb their motives. Looking ahead to the interpretive challenges which future historians will face, Appelbaum writes, “It’s easier, at a century’s remove, to pick out policy proposals that seem prescient or attractive, deemphasizing hateful rhetoric. / Conversely, it’s easy to dismiss the ‘paranoid style’ of people who’re long dead, overlooking the real concerns that animate it.” Perhaps 2083 will see a slim monograph titled The Tolerant Trumpists.
Nugent, I think, was wrong in using Saint George and the Dragon as a metaphor for the historiographic quarrel about the Populists. While it nicely captures the monochromatic nature of the debate, the chivalric narrative is the incorrect frame. The issue at the heart of any disagreement over a populist group or movement—whether we’re talking about the People’s Party or Trump’s followers—is not whether we should recognize them as heroes or not but whether we should recognize them as victims. What was so profoundly shattering about the historiographical upheaval caused by Richard Hofstadter’s charge that the Populists were anti-Semites was not that it made them less valiant in their political quest but that it placed them outside the reach of empathy. That is why “Tolerant” is in Nugent’s title: what had to be restored was not the validity of the Populists’ political program or the accuracy of their diagnosis of what was wrong with the new corporate order but their membership in the community of basically decent people. It is why, I think, J. D. Vance is so concerned early on in Hillbilly Elegy (which I’ve been reading a few pages at a time over the past week) to reassure us,
Nearly every person you will read about [in this book] is deeply flawed. Some have tried to murder other people, and a few were successful. Some have abused their children, physically or emotionally. Many abused (and still abuse) drugs. But I love these people, even those to whom I avoid speaking for my own sanity. And if I leave you with the impression that there are bad people in my life, then I am sorry, both to you and to the people so portrayed. For there are no villains in this story. There’s just a ragtag band of hillbillies struggling to find their way—both for their sake and, by the grace of God, for mine.
When I first read over this passage, I nearly skipped over it as an almost routine act of empathetic exculpation: something more like a shrug of humility, or at best a “cast the first stone” acknowledgment of human frailty. But its quasi-banality actually masks a more dispositive certainty. Vance is not saying that he (or we) cannot judge because we are all “deeply flawed.” He is instead saying that judgment has already been rendered and it is in their favor: they are acquitted, not simply released because of a hung jury.
The line between empathy and exoneration is a fine one, and it accounts, I think, for some of the gritted teeth and stony frustration that one can feel in reading any of the exchanges in a current debate—mostly among liberals and leftists—over the way “economic anxiety” has become both a keyword for a class-first strategy of envisioned outreach to the white working class from the left and a sort of punchline for journalists pointing out the virulent racism and anti-Semitism that goes on at Trump rallies and in digital spaces like Twitter. There seems to be very real differences in the way one might parse the data that has been collected so far about Trump supporters—differences enough to support either one of two starkly opposed viewpoints: yes, the “economic anxiety” among Trump supporters (or a big enough swath of them) is real and it should be addressed by the left and/or by Democrats; no, “economic anxiety” is a screen for an open sewer of racism, misogyny, and xenophobia which no progressive should go anywhere near.
This debate over “economic anxiety” appears to be a question of political tactics: is there a chance for a coalition rooted in class? But just as the historiographical debate about Populism smeared together the acts of empathy and exoneration (“they suffered… they were good people”) so, I believe, those who—like Jamelle Bouie or Matt Yglesias—simply reject any outreach to Trump’s supporters because they intuit a future redemption of the Trump movement as less morally noxious than they believe it is. In order to maintain a focus on the racial and gendered elements of the Trump movement, Yglesias et al. have to hold the line on class: even if, they are saying, there is validity to the economic anxiety argument, that argument is not worth making. Something can be both true and yet a distraction from a larger truth, and this is a larger truth. Empathy is a bed too soft to lie in, they feel: the danger is that you won’t get up.
Populism is not best represented, I believe, by a classically straightforward painting like Raphael’s Saint George. It is better illustrated, rather, in the mode of Francis Bacon, whose figures confront us with a discomfiting ambiguity: are the contortions, the howls, the effects of agony or anger? Do we empathize or recoil?
Which will it be, then: pity or terror?
Some of the contributions to the “economic anxiety” debate:
Matthew Yglesias, “Why I don’t think it makes sense to attribute Trump’s support to economic anxiety,” Vox, 8/15/2016
Brian Beutler, “I Started the ‘Economic Anxiety’ Joke about Trump—and It’s Gone Too Far Now,” The New Republic, 8/16/2016
Derek Thompson, “Donald Trump and ‘Economic Anxiety,’” The Atlantic, 8/18/2016
Jamelle Bouie, “Do Half of Trump’s Supporters Really Belong in a ‘Basket of Deplorables?’” Slate, 9/11/2016
Dylan Matthews, “Taking Trump voters’ concerns seriously means listening to what they’re actually saying,” Vox, 10/15/2016
E. J. Dionne, “Even if Trump loses big, the anger will remain,” Washington Post
James Kwak, “Economic Anxiety and the Limits of Data Journalism,” The Baseline Scenario, 10/17/2016
Mike Konczal, “Would Progressive Economics Win over Trump’s White Working Class Voters?” Medium, 10/18/2016 (in my opinion, the best article about this topic)
Seth Ackerman, “Sympathy for the Devil,” Jacobin, 10/20/2016
Connor Kilpatrick, “Fool Me Once,” Jacobin, 10/27/2016
 This painting was one of those bought by Andrew Mellon from the Soviet Union’s 1931 sell-off of part of the Hermitage’s collection. Along with about twenty other paintings, Mellon donated the Raphael as part of the inaugural set for the new National Gallery of Art.