Trump’s Perverse Populism

Robert Borosage

Donald Trump’s inaugural address stunned Washington elites.  The New York Times, Washington Post and others commented on its unbridled populism, its accusatory tone.  The Post’s antiquated conservative, George Will, scorned it as “the most dreadful inaugural address in history.” Although Trump carefully read it off teleprompters, it was barely a step above his stump speech. Yet it deserves attention for it reveals how Trump’s right-wing populism distorts America’s populist tradition. The differences are clear in each element of Trump’s story.

Who Done It?

Trump begins with an indictment of the “Washington establishment:”

For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished — but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered — but the jobs left, and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs…

Later, he returns to indict “politicians who are all talk and no action — constantly complaining but never doing anything about it.”

For Trump, the enemies of the people aren’t Bernie Sanders’ “millionaires and billionaires” that have corrupted our politics and rigged the economy to benefit themselves.  The enemy is “Washington” and its “politicians” who “prospered” while “the jobs left.”  

What Was the Crime?

Trump paints a dystopian vision of America —  “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; and “crime and gangs and drugs – and promises that “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.”  

But what was the crime?  The crime, according to Trump, was that Washington chose to enrich the world, but not America:

For many decades, we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry; …We’ve defended other nation’s borders while refusing to defend our own; and spent trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay.

We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength, and confidence of our country has disappeared over the horizon….The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed across the entire world.

Missing, of course, is the reality that big money and entrenched interests rigged the system to benefit the few in the United States. The top 1% cleaned up, corporate profits are at record heights, while most Americans struggled simply to stay afloat. The system wasn’t fixed by China or Mexico. It was rigged by American elites to benefit themselves.

What is the Remedy?

Trump talks about returning government to the people, but his focus isn’t on empowering workers. He’s not for redistributing the wealth that has been captured by the very few. He’s not for strengthening unions, lifting the minimum wage, curbing CEO abuses, taxing financial speculation, ending perverse executive compensation schemes that reward executives for plundering their own companies. He isn’t talking about strengthening public education and making college tuition free. And he’s surely isn’t pushing to strengthen the democracy, curb money in politics, end voter suppression or gerrymandered districts.

No, the remedy is nationalism. From now on, “America First,” as if all Americans – from Wall-Mart’s billionaire owners to Wall-Mart’s minimum wage clerks – have the same economic interest.

America First will build a wall against undocumented immigrants (but expand programs for guest workers and for importing the skilled workers tech companies want). America First will impose tariffs on goods shipped from abroad, but entice companies to stay by cutting their taxes, and reducing regulations – on clean air, clean water, occupational health, and consumer protection. America First will increase the military budget, and stand by “law and order” policing.  

Trump makes two striking promises. First, to rebuild America with American labor: “We will build new roads, and highways, and bridges, and airports, and tunnels, and railways all across our wonderful nation.”  But of course, the Republican Congress isn’t about to spend big money on infrastructure, so the Trump program is based upon tax breaks for private investors. The result surely will be a predator’s ball, a corporate feeding frenzy on the public trough.  

The second is a pledge to follow “two simple rules:  Buy America and Hire America.” But Trump hasn’t done that in his own businesses, and there is little to suggest that Republicans will enforce such limits on our globalized supply chains.  

The Con

America’s original populist movement grew up among small farmers and working people who were being skewered by the banks and the railroads. They argued that the people had to take over government to make it their instrument, not the instrument of the pirates. They sent lecturers across the Midwest to educate farmers and workers on how they were getting screwed, on an alternative monetary policy, on cooperatives and other means of gaining greater leverage, and on reforming our democracy to put more power into the hands of the people. A majoritarian people’s movement would take over government, clean it up, and use its powers to take on the private interests that had corrupted it.

Trump’s right wing populism makes government and politicians the enemy, nationalism the answer, and turns anger to the other – immigrants, Moslems, foreigners, China, reprobate allies, feckless internationalists. The con may work for a while, but by ignoring the power of the few, it will do little to solve the plight of the many.

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