The Need To Separate Trump From Populism

Bill Scher

At The New Republic, I make the case that the populist left needs to train its fire on Donald Trump for its own sake. Hillary Clinton post-primary centrist positioning may rankle progressive populists, but “if Trump is more associated with populism than Clinton, and then loses decisively in November, populism could be tainted by Trumpism, weakening the left’s leverage over Clinton.”

It’s sorely tempting to highlight Trump’s opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership and broadsides against cronyism as evidence of populism’s broad reach, as Thomas Frank does in his recent column for The Guardian. But it’s also important to keep in the mind that the Sanders campaign struggled to build a racially diverse coalition by primarily emphasizing economic issues. To broaden that base, economic populism needs to be fully separated from Trump’s bigotry. Instead of crediting Trump with appealing to the white working class, progressive populists should be challenging Trump as a phony populist, driving “a wedge through the white working class, leaving behind the incorrigibly racist with a shrunken Republican Party.”

The imminent risk for progressive populists is that a Trump defeat gives proponents of TPP a fresh opportunity to ratify the agreement in the lame-duck, on the grounds that Trump prioritized the issue far more than Clinton and still lost. Progressives should be working overtime so Trump’s defeat is seen as a loss for bigotry, not economic populism.

But the long-term challenge is building a truly diverse progressive populist movement. Trump is likely going to prove once and for all that an all-white party can’t win a presidential election in modern America, just like the Sanders campaign proved that a Democratic presidential candidate can’t win the party’s nomination without strong support from African-Americans. There is no doubt that Sanders-style economic populism has political potency, but fully untangling it from Trump’s racism is essential for the movement to grow beyond its current base.

You can read the entire essay here.

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