The Massive Populist Wave Taking Over America Can Be Explained With One Stat

The rise of populist politics in the U.S. has coincided with a massive shift in the level of wealth held by average Americans compared to the elite.

The level of wealth held by the bottom half of Americans in 2019 totaled $1.5 trillion less in liquid net worth compared to 30 years earlier when factoring in the amount of consumer debt that is being held, while the total wealth of the top 10% has remained largely unchanged, according to calculations done by Oren Cass, executive director of American Compass. The decline in wealth for Americans has coincided with a populist political shift in the U.S., led largely by former President Donald Trump.

Professors from Georgetown University identified in 2021 that long-term trends toward populism are being fueled across the world by globalization, outsourcing domestic jobs and automation, leading to a decline in manufacturing work. The professors agreed that the rise in recent populism has been “quite unprecedented.”

Trump has been the key figure riding the wave of American populism since launching his first presidential campaign in 2015, arguing for policies like trade protectionism, greater American manufacturing and less illegal immigration. The former president retains these populist policies in his current presidential campaign, arguing that they focus on Americans and reject globalist interests, including those of large multinational corporations.

“Populism is always a symptom of the political establishment’s failures, and that’s just as true today as it ever was,” E.J. Antoni, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Grover M. Hermann Center for the Federal Budget, told the Daily Caller News Foundation. “People are angry that those in power have created a financial system, fueled by the Federal Reserve, that benefits those who collaborate with government bureaucrats at the expense of the common man. There is palpable anger today, especially among younger Americans, who feel they have done everything right but can’t succeed in such a system.”

Opponents of Trump and populist economic measures argue that policies that restrict trade, promote a more global view of supply chains with less emphasis on supporting domestic manufacturing and large influxes of immigrants equate to a strong economy with more wealth being created, irrespective of who those benefits are going to.

“I think immigration is a huge piece of the issue,” Cass told the DCNF. “Bringing in lots of low-wage immigrants is great for corporate profits and terrible for the workers already here.”

A huge influx of foreign-born workers, a large portion coming through illegal immigration across the southern border under Biden, has been a key force bolstering top-line economic growth numbers, like gross domestic product, in recent quarters. The result of the influx is that the economy appears to be growing, but to the benefit of foreign-born workers rather than native-born Americans.

“But is the fact of millions of immigrants crossing illegally into our country in search of work, cheered on by the corporate class and the governing party in defiance of the obvious wishes of most citizens, a sign of an especially robust economy or a truly broken polity?” Cass said in a Substack post Friday. “And which economy is more robust, anyway: one that sees higher GDP growth because immigrants are streaming so quickly over the border, or one that sees higher wage growth because labor markets are tight?”


Manufacturing jobs have also declined substantially since 1989 due to an increase in capital, which boosts efficiency, and a shift to a service-based economy where the U.S. is producing less. There were around 18 million people employed in manufacturing throughout 1989, declining drastically starting in 2000 to a low of 11.45 million in March 2010 following the Great Recession, before rebounding and flatlining to just under 13 million starting around 2019, excluding a massive temporary drop seen during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Following the decline in manufacturing, the U.S.’ trade deficit, meaning the balance of how many goods the U.S. exports compared to how many it imports, ballooned. The first available records showed that the U.S. had around a $2 billion trade deficit in January 1992, which grew quickly to over $60 billion a month by 2006 and currently sits at $74.6 billion as of April 2024.

“I’m not surprised to see a divergence between the wealthy and the rest of the nation,” Antoni told the DCNF. “The inflation of the 30 years in question has caused asset prices to rise significantly, which has benefited asset holders but helped impoverish everyone else. This phenomenon is felt acutely today between homeowners and renters. The constant erosion of income and savings has made it almost impossible for many Americans to get ahead.”

Populist policies have also surged in the Democratic Party, being channeled largely through the support of independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who was a top competitor in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary and was at one point the frontrunner in the 2020 primary. Sanders also advocates for greater protectionism in trade policies and makes his distaste for wealth inequality apparent.

Biden has shifted his views on certain protectionist trade policies like tariffs to gain favor with pro-labor groups like unions and capitalize on the shift in popularity of populist politics. Trump has repeatedly attempted to swoon typically Democratic-leaning union workers using his populist trade policies.

“This is just not a sustainable equilibrium,” Cass told the DCNF. “In a democracy, you can’t expect people to support this and allow it to continue, and so either the so-called elite have to be willing to concede that this is not a good model and they need to accept reforms that are going to bring these incentives back into alignment or they have to get prepared to be thrown out.”

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