Jeffrey Friedman has published a series of posts, on the Niskanen Center’s blog, on Donald Trump and “populism”. Friedman’s work (consider for example his excellent book on the financial crisis, co-written with Wladimir Kraus) is always thoughtful. In this series of posts, he goes beyond the mere expression of moral outrage at Trump (which is kind of a sport for all those who don’t like him), in an attempt to understand where he–or, better, his voters–really comes from.
He so sums up his posts:

He [Trump] didn’t come from Mars, and his success isn’t inexplicable. To the extent that the explanation isn’t that his supporters are crazy or evil, then we have to recognize that something else is at work: that he seems, to many people, to be a politician who finally does what politicians are supposed to do.

Friedman speaks of “socio tropic nationalism” to describe Trumpism. In another post, he pointed out that:

sociotropic voting originally meant economic voting that’s guided by perceptions of the state of the economy as a whole, not by voters’ own financial situation. As opposed to “pocketbook voters”–who vote their economic self-interest–sociotropic citizens vote for what they think will serve the economic interests of everyone, or the majority, or those who most need help, in their society.

The sociotropic understanding of voting flies in the face of academic orthodoxy in economics, but this orthodoxy is a mere dogma. There’s no reason to think that people are everywhere and always self-interested. The assumption of self-interest does make sense as a starting point in analyzing economic behavior, because in modern societies, people are taught that self-interest is acceptable in their employment, business, consumer, and financial affairs. But they’re taught the opposite when it comes to government affairs. The standard, culturally accepted view is that public policy should advance the common good. So it’s not surprising that when non-economists talk about politics, the common good is what they talk about.

I find this straightforward. Self-interest is sometimes part of a voter’s motivation. But, given the negligible impact of each single vote, sometimes the most truly self-interested strategy is simply to stay home and don’t waste time casting a ballot. At least a part of the voting motive is “expressive”: fans do not cheer at a football game with the aim of helping their team to win. In politics, you tend to cheer for the team that you also think better understands and will better protect your own interests: fair enough. A few groups have a very clear understanding of their own self-interest and may lobby, or indeed vote, accordingly and relentlessly: say, taxi drivers who want _not_ to be driven out of the market by Uber. But a good chunk of voters rely on a–sometimes delusional–view which conflates their alleged interest (always measured on a very short time-horizon, of course) with what they genuinely believe to be a collective interest: though the collective they think they belong to does not necessarily coincide with _all_ citizens living in a certain polity.

In a way, Friedman’s claim is, ultimately, that there is little truly “unconventional” about Trump. He thinks that his discourse, this “sociotropic nationalism”, fits “the usual pattern of politics in modern nation-states, in which public policy is designed to ameliorate the social and economic problems of one’s conationals”. His rhetoric is focused on “getting the job done”, which is nothing new as an electoral problem. We may argue if Trump’s profile makes him more or less likely to actually “get things done”, but his opposition to the “status quo” was by and large built on the reputation for lack of resolve that “traditional” politicians have.

Friedman argues that

Sociotropic nationalism explains, too, which particular rats Trump wanted to kill. Trump promised to fight against free trade and immigration on the grounds that they were hurting Americans’ interests by causing economic and social problems “here at home.” Trump had ingeniously come up with a domestic policy almost entirely shaped by the fundamental sociotropic-nationalist binary, us versus them: protectionism to bring back American jobs from abroad; border control to prop up wages at home and keep out terrorists and criminals. If there’s one thing that everyone understands, one heuristic that the poorly informed can use to judge a politician, it’s the politician’s sheer commitment to helping the domestic “us.” What better metric for this commitment than a politician’s obsession with policing the geographical border between us and them?

Friedman is not trying to “justify” Trump, though he rejects the idea that all of Trump’s supporters can be classified as xenophobic alt-rightists. But I think he has done a very important job in pointing out how much of Trump’s political rhetoric is actually nothing new under the sun.

Shocked by his personality and his profile, many analysts have considered Trump an absolute, and horrifying, novelty in American politics. Perhaps this is true insofar as character is concerned. Perhaps it is indeed novel that the US President doesn’t have a memorable biography to showcase for voters (compare Trump to Reagan or Obama). But when it comes to its “contents”, Trump has presented voters with a blend of nationalism which is not alien to politics, let alone the American story. This may be a dangerous and delusional approach, particularly if you not only find Trump “unfit” but his policies reproachable. Protectionism and nationalism are hardly only “Trumpism” or “extreme rightist”. They are part of a wider electoral vocabulary, which seems to be extremely well established in democracy. Look at the moon, not the finger.

Note: Readers may also be interested in this week’s EconTalk episode on the rise of populism with Philip Auerswald.