Is Trump a Populist?


It’s been scarcely six weeks, and Donald Trump’s professions of populist dissent 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,” much like his secret plan to destroy ISIS, he has delegated responsibility for devising a replacement to others;

• In a meeting with bankers, Trump asserted that the best advice 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 is something new every day. It is really time to retire the description of Donald Trump as populist, if the word is to retain any meaning at all. 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. Trump’s populist cred is evaporating before our eyes.

The deeper reality is that populism and Republicans really don’t mix. Populism is about replacing the power of elites with democratic governance in the interests of the 99%. 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.

People relate right-wing populism to the excoriation of immigrants, demonization of the poor, and railing about high finance. The criticism of high finance never amounts to anything, witness Trump’s post-election embrace of Goldman Sachs honchos. What’s left is simply xenophobia and bigotry, which can be found in all sectors of the population, including the working class. In other words, “right-wing populism” is really nothing but the prevalence 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 would 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.

Some wealthy people do rest on their laurels, but none of the go-getters that Trump has called to public service are living quiet private lives, playing 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, 80 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 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 own 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.

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 Peoples 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 was positioned 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 sensitivity. 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. But they anticipated many of the concerns and proposals of future progressive movements. It’s interesting to note that the forward edge of radical economic thinking in nineteenth century America was upheld by some of the most culturally conservative Americans.

What can be recovered from the populist tradition today, and how can it be deployed to stop Trump and sway the Democratic Party into more progressive directions? That will be one interest of this website. A necessary task will be to disabuse the public of any connection between Trump and populism. There is no right populism, only intolerance. The terminology of “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.

Max B. Sawicky is an economist and writer in Washington, D.C. He received a doctorate in economics from the University of Maryland, worked for 17 years at the Economic Policy Institute and is a co-founder of blog. See the linked version.

From The Progressive Populist, April 1, 2017

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