Trump’s Peculiar Populism

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A headline in today’s Washington Post says, “Trump will take office as least popular president in at least four decades.” And yet Trump is widely characterized as the leader of a new “populist” movement. How unpopular can someone be before we have to question his populist credentials? I guess the answer depends on what we think a populist is.

Two brands of populism

In our democratic system, we select presidents by popular election, so every winning candidate is supposed to represent “the people,” broadly defined. Beyond that, a populist leader is one who supposedly represents “ordinary people” in their struggle against some sort of “elite”.

Bernie Sanders is a leader of a populist movement directed against the economic elite, the wealthiest 1% who have received most of the increases in national income since the Great Recession. He calls for higher taxes on the wealthy and government measures to create middle class opportunity, such as free college tuition. I would call this “progressive populism.” It is in the tradition of Franklin Roosevelt, who had a similar dim view of economic elites:

Concentration of wealth and power has been built upon other people’s money, other people’s business, other people’s labor. Under this concentration, independent business…has been a menace to…American society.

…and a similar concern for creating economic opportunity:

These unhappy times call for the building of plans that build from the bottom up and not from the top down, that put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.

Donald Trump has attacked Wall Street from time to time, but judging from his cabinet selections, he is very comfortable with giving power to Wall Street bankers and millionaires. Wall Street seems to like him in return. Stocks are up since the election, as investors salivate at the prospect of corporate tax cuts and financial deregulation. So what “ordinary people” does Trump serve, and what “elite” does he attack?

Trump proposes to save people from an elite defined mainly as Washington insiders, the political establishment, and especially Big Government liberals. They are people who derive power and sometimes wealth from government positions. The Clintons fit the bill perfectly, since they have been Washington insiders for so long, and have also made a lot of money giving speeches since leaving office. (Conservatives like Ronald Reagan did too, but their anti-government philosophy seems to protect them from being tarred with the same brush.) In this view, the elites include government bureaucrats, regulators and the Washington press corps, as well as liberal intellectuals and policy wonks who give them their ideas.

“The people” Trump represents have to be defined more narrowly than the great majority of Americans who are not wealthy. The Trump constituency does not really include the people who welcome progressive government initiatives like Obamacare to level the economic playing field. Instead, it includes many people who blame government for their economic problems. The ones who get the most attention are those who attribute job losses to government polices: immigration policies, bad trade deals, excessive taxation and environmental regulations. I would call this “reactionary populism.”  There is some overlap between the two brands of populism on trade policy, since Sanders also opposes trade deals that hurt workers. But in general, progressive populism emphasizes what government can do for ordinary people, while reactionary populism emphasizes what government should stop doing to people.

Reactionary populism raises an interesting question in a democratic society: How much can you claim to love the people, if you hate the democratic government that is supposed to represent them?

Not the underprivileged

While Trump does represent some struggling working-class families, and may owe his margin in a few key states to their support, he is not in general the leader of the underprivileged. The most disadvantaged groups tend to be more progressive. According to the exit polls, voters with incomes under $30,000 went for Clinton, 53% to 40%. On the average, Trump’s supporters were somewhat better off than Clinton’s currently, although more of them said they were worse off than they had been four years ago. A large part of Trump’s support came from political conservatives who are doing okay themselves, but oppose using tax dollars to help people who are worse off than they are.

The reactionary nature of Trump’s populism goes a long way to explain the racial divide in the voting. I do not charge his supporters with racism, at least not in any obvious sense of the term. But the country remains seriously divided between people who want government to help the racially and economically disadvantaged, and people who are more complacent about the situation. The latter are more likely to deny that racial discrimination is still a problem, and less likely to see the racial implications of voter ID laws or stop-and-frisk policies.

Even if we give Trump the benefit of the doubt about his own actions, such as his attempt to cast doubt on Barack Obama’s American citizenship, his reactionary populism leaves him unlikely to confront racism. By default, he becomes the candidate who will protect white privilege, if not by racist actions, then by his indifference to the need for any action at all. His pick for Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, is well suited to implement this policy of racial indifference.

The Russian connection

Progressive populists despise the Putin regime and the economic oligarchy it supports. Trump’s approval of Putin indicates that he has little problem with either authoritarian rule or monopolization of wealth by the well-connected rich. His wrath is directed almost exclusively at liberal leaders. His ability to portray Hillary Clinton as a corrupt elite while overlooking Putin’s far more obvious corruption and elitism is astounding and deeply disturbing for the leader of a democracy. If the Trump campaign did collaborate with the Putin regime to destroy its opponent by illegal or unethical means, that does cast doubt on the legitimacy of his presidency.

In the end, the American people will have to determine if Trump’s brand of populism makes sense to them at all. Is he a true man of the people, or an enemy of too many of the people?

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