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Populism and Trump’s Rhetoric of Distrust for Multinationals

Updated: Jan 4, 2022

This article was originally published to On Global Leadership. Check out James Ron’s other writings there!

President Trump has always been a fair-weather friend of multinational corporations, at one moment embracing them for political advantage and at the next shooting Twitter missives that trigger precipitous crashes in stock value. It’s a bittersweet friendship that lacks all the important elements: trust, respect and loyalty.

One reason for the president’s infidelity is his long-held belief that working-class Americans dislike global corporations and, in particular, globalization. In many corners of the American electorate, corporations are viewed as the cause of all the U.S. industrial policies that have resulted in more automation, fewer jobs and reductions in wages over the last 40 years.

At first blush, the presidential war of words does not appear to provide Trump with much of an electoral advantage. Indeed, dating back to President Reagan, the embrace of corporations, globalization and trickle-down economic theory – advocated by the neoclassical economist Milton Friedman – have long been a centerpiece of Republican politics.

According to a nationally representative survey of 2,000 adults we conducted with the help of YouGov in late 2018, Republican respondents were indeed more trusting of multinationals than either Democrats or Independents. In our survey, we found that self-identified Republicans were a statistically significant 6% more likely to trust multinationals than Democrats and 15% more trusting than Independents.

We found similar results when we compared early Trump supporters – defined as those who voted for him in the 2016 Republican primaries – to those who did not. Thus, although none of America’s political tribes has great love for these international corporate behemoths, Republicans hold them in higher esteem than others.

Despite this fact, Trump has made attacks on multinational corporations a rhetorical centerpiece of his administration. He knows that every demand for a boycott of an Apple, a Boeing or a Goodyear is possible because of the acquiescence of Wall Street and country club Republicans. These counter intuitive skirmishes work because GOP business leaders are willing to play Trump’s bogeyman to advantage their own corporate interests.

When we delved deeper into the data, we were able to examine the nuance and inner logic of Trump’s winning rhetorical strategy. By attacking companies with overseas assets and an ability to shift operations and tax burdens from one country to another, Trump is catering to an important component of his electoral base, the populist hard core. It may not be news that Trump caters to a populist core of his base, but the precise numbers that emerged from our analysis are striking.

Trump’s rhetoric, as distinct from his policies, regularly engages with the ideology of right-wing American populists. The people, in this view, are wise, just and deserving, and are entitled to be politically sovereign in their own land. Their problems come from globalizing economic, cultural and political elites who have risen to prominence, perverting the American system to serve their own interests.

To determine just how supportive American populists are of Trump, we ran a series of statistical analyses, discovering that respondents scoring highest on the populism scale were a whopping 82% more trusting of the president than those scoring the lowest (controlling for age, race, gender, education, religion, financial worry, racial views, interest in the news, and respondents’ general propensity to trust).

To be sure, populism is not a purely Trumpian or even a right-wing phenomenon. In our sample, 16% of self-identified Democrats, 17% of Independents, and 33% of Republicans all scored highly on the populism scale. U.S. Sen. and former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, after all, is also a populist, even though his style is radically different from Trump’s. But controlling for other variables, populists trust Trump much more than the rest of the population does.

Our data also indicate that it is largely populists on the political right who display the greatest levels of mistrust towards multinationals. Thus, another statistical analysis we performed shows that strong populists on the political right were 30% less trusting of multinationals than non-populist right-wingers. (Once again, we controlled for age, gender, education, race, religion, and the like.)

By waging a war of words on multinationals and globalization, Trump is currying favor with the populist kernel of his electoral base. This strategy may not work on all his supporters, but it isn’t designed to. Instead, it is explicitly built to mobilize, energize and activate roughly one-third of his likely supporters, the 33% of Republicans who also express strongly populist views.

It is these people Trump is thinking of when he talks about the “forgotten men and women of this country,” and it is these voters who are most likely to warm to his anti-globalization, anti-corporate rhetoric. Of course, the president has also deftly played both sides of the divide. Despite the multinational-bashing rhetoric, which energizes his populist base, the tax cuts of 2017 and the administration’s aggressive deregulatory positions have all been very favorable to corporations and economic elites.

Come Election Day, we will see if this balancing act has continued to work.


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