Most populist movements throughout history are treated with skepticism, because they often do two things. First, they tend to seek the expansion of government to protect the general welfare. Second, they make appeals to nativism, looking to use government to enforce policies that range from regulating immigration to "keeping minorities in their place." And some choose to make their appeals to the public using demagoguery to whip up support for this plan to straddle traditional conservatives and liberals, making themselves the new political force.
Trump is besting his fellow Republicans because he's the only candidate who is not calling for gutting the social safety net. While Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, Ben Carson, Marco Rubio and former candidates Scott Walker and Rick Perry almost tripped over themselves to trumpet what programs they would cut or abolish, Trump doesn't take that tactic.
Trump doesn't call for an end to Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid, or a vast reduction in these policies. His supporters need those to get by. They aren't wealthy business people, or (in many cases) even middle class. Calls for the elimination of the capital gains tax and estate tax, or breaks for the top 1 percent don't mean much to people who like Trump.
Going further than his GOP rivals, Trump has actually run to the left of Senator Bernie Sanders on several issues. He admires Canada's health care system, which involves a lot more government control than Obamacare. He supports the Buffett Plan, which won't make secretaries pay more in taxes than their CEO bosses. He doesn't even think the rich should get Social Security. What's not to like if you're a lower income Republican, Independent or Democrat?
At the same time, Trump has sought to play on the economic and political fears of the lower class with some demagoguery on immigrants "taking jobs" and "committing crimes." Recognizing how scared some are about another Paris attack here, he has taken some pretty extreme stands on Islam. Now he wants to shut down the Internet to combat ISIS. Both are designed to get him votes, as Trump will say what other GOP candidates, and Democratic candidates, know what won't pass Constitutional muster.
America has seen men like this before. We can think about the Know Nothing anti-immigrant faction of the 1840s and 1850s, the Grange Movement and William Jennings Bryan. You can even hear echoes of this from George Wallace, Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan.
But we're not the only one. Trump fits the Peronist model of Argentina, would be on the same page with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, the Le Pens of France, and even Italian mogul and politician Silvio Berlusconi.
Yet an amateur historian can tell you that none of these candidates or movements seemed to last very long at least in America (though it is different in other countries). Fitting on the statist section (it used to be authoritarian) of the diamond (with liberal, libertarian and conservative occupying the other positions), eventually people realize how antithetical such views are to what America is about, even if they have an initially seductive sound. Perhaps that's why after all of his Islam bashing, Trump finds himself falling into second place in Iowa, behind Ted Cruz.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga. He can be reached at email@example.com.