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Is Trump a Populist?

On the ambitions of the right and of the left

It’s been scarcely three weeks, and Donald Trump’s professions that he is a populist dissenting from Republican orthodoxy have already blown up. (Here I focus on domestic affairs, but a parallel story can be told about foreign policy, as Trump follows in George Bush’s footsteps, moving from non-interventionism to neocon posturing.)

• After promising to make a great deal with pharmaceutical companies to reduce the prices of prescription drugs paid for by Medicare, he has done a 180 degree turn, committing his administration to deregulation of the industry;

• After promising to tax the wealthy, he has indicated support for a plan that would abolish the taxation of corporate income, one of the more progressive components of the federal tax system;

• After promising to defend Medicare, he has nominated a politician for Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, a man who has been dedicated to abolishing Medicare;

• After claiming to have a plan to replace Obamacare with “something terrific,” he has delegated responsibility for devising a replacement to others. (Watch what happens to his equally secret plan to destroy ISIS);

• In a meeting with bankers, Trump asserted that the best advice he would take on repealing and replacing the Dodd-Frank laws regulating financial institutions, aimed at preventing a replay of the crash of 2008, would be forthcoming from Jamie Dimon, the head of J.P. Morgan Chase, a major beneficiary of George Bush’s government bailout.

It’s impossible to keep up; there’s something new every day. What’s certain is that it is time to retire the description of Donald Trump as populist, if the word is to retain any meaning at all. Trump’s populist cred has evaporated before our eyes. The reality is that most of Trump’s votes and elite support come from the same old Republicans with the same old reactionary hostility toward the major public benefit programs upon which most Americans depend, benefits that we have earned.

The deeper reality is that populism and Republicans don’t mix. Populism is about replacing the power of elites with democratic governance in the interests of the 99 percent. By contrast, Trump’s cronies and cabinet selections are nothing but elites—billionaires, generals, career politicians, and bigfoot lobbyists. After railing about Ted Cruz’s wife and Hillary’s ties to Goldman Sachs, Trump stacks his own administration with, you guessed it, people from Goldman Sachs.

Right-wingers cannot be populist. Rich people cannot be populist.

People relate “right-wing populism” to the excoriation of immigrants, demonization of the poor, and railing about high finance on the campaign trail. That criticism never amounts to any actual policies when the candidate is in office. What’s left is simply xenophobia and bigotry, which can be drawn out in all sectors of the population, including the working class. In other words, “right-wing populism” is really nothing but the stoking of popular intolerance. There is no meaningful populist content in the way Trump is trying to govern. Equating demagogy with populism is just a back-handed attack on populism’s critique of unregulated capitalism. Right-wingers cannot be populist.

A common delusion has it that rich people govern without regard for their own financial interest because their allegiance is to the masses. They have so much money, they don’t feel the need to steal any. But rich people always want more money. If you have a billion dollars, more than enough for you and a couple of ensuing generations, why would you keep working? Why not just buy a mountain of triple-A rated bonds and retire? Because you want more. It’s like crack. Rich people cannot be populist.

None of the go-getters that Trump has called to public service were living quiet private lives, playing the violin and writing poetry at their country estates. No, they’re still in the game, on the make. Take Trump’s buddy Carl Icahn: net worth, $17 billion, eighty years old. How much more money does he need? He leaves the election night party to speculate in the stock market, to the tune of $1 billion. If he had bought S&P futures, he could have made $50 million before the sun came up. Crack.

But how do we know they’re in it for the thieving? The best indication, from the president and his family on down, is their refusal to surrender financial information, including tax returns, that would make it possible for objective third parties to confirm the honest performance of public duties. Instead, we have no transparency, repeated instances of perjured testimony, and blatant violations of the Stock Act, right out of the gate.

Equating demagogy with populism is just a back-handed attack on populism’s critique of unregulated capitalism.

What ought to be understood as genuine populism began in nineteenth century America as a movement of poor farmers and workers against Big Money—the railroads, the banks, the robber barons. The People’s Party advocated what economists call an elastic currency—in this case, currency backed by silver rather than gold, because silver was more plentiful and would expand the money supply and stimulate the economy. The Pops upheld trade unionism and progressive taxation of income and wealth, radical notions in their day.

Populism was beset by powerful enemies and bad press, since it positioned itself against the real financial and political powers in society. It has been stigmatized by elite historians as backward, racist, and prone to money crankery. (Regarding the Pops advocacy of an elastic currency, by the way, the conservative economist Milton Friedman said they were correct.)

The old populists certainly did not measure up to contemporary standards of multicultural solidarity. Their ranks were devoutly Christian. They were anti-immigrant. Their outreach to destitute African American farmers and sharecroppers was fragile and could not be sustained. Indeed the forward edge of radical economic thinking in nineteenth century America was upheld by some of the most culturally conservative Americans. Yet they anticipated many of the concerns and proposals of future progressive movements.

What should be recovered from that populist tradition today, and how can it be deployed to stop Trump and sway the Democratic Party into more progressive directions? A necessary task will be to disabuse the public as a whole of any connection between Trump and populism. There is no right populism, only intolerance. The term “left populism” is often necessary for clarification, but in actuality it is redundant. Populism is the heart of ambitious left reformism, and it should be the future.