In his first 70 days in office, President Donald Trump is shedding his most popular populist economic promises with the ease of a confidence man.
The “chaos candidate,” as Jeb Bush dubbed him, presented himself as a populist champion who would clean out Washington. As Stan Greenberg affirmed in his focus groups, many of his voters doubted Trump had the experience or the temperament to be president, but wanted to shake things up.
Even those put off by his racism and sexism were attracted by his promises on jobs and trade, his scorn for Wall Street and corrupt politicians, his pledge to “clean the swamp.” As president, he’s promised repeatedly an administration that would put the “forgotten working men and women” first.
That was then. Now, after all his bold talk about trade, Trump’s commerce secretary suggests the administration’s promised renegotiation of NAFTA will be based on concessions Canada and Mexico already made to Obama in the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement.
On health care, Trump discarded his promise of “health insurance for everybody,” with lower costs and much better care. Instead, he embraced Speaker Paul Ryan’s bill that featured tax cuts for the wealthy paid for by depriving millions of coverage.
Trump promised to clean the swamp, but turned his economic policy over to Goldman Sachs alums and stacked his White House staff with lobbyists and cronies stained by corruptions and conflicts of interest.
His budget slashes domestic programs vital to his own voters to lard more money onto the military. Trump’s popular criticism of regime change and endless wars in the Middle East has given way to continued escalation that will push the United States deeper into that region’s chaos.
New York Times columnist Paul Krugman recently skewered Donald Trump for “wimping out” on trade, and suggested it’s because Trump “had no idea what he was talking about,” and that he’s discovering that the “deals aren’t all that unfair” and trade is “deeply embedded in our economy.” But this argument is wanting — it lets Trump off the hook to say he’s simply incompetent. And it is utterly misleading to suggest that the current policies are working well.
As trade and health care demonstrate, Trump has no intention of framing the policies and forging the political coalition that could begin to fulfill his populist promises. Progressives need to expose repeatedly these betrayals, not simply the gross stupidity and incompetence.
But exposing Trump’s failed promises should not lead to the defense of all things Obama. Trump clearly is intent on undoing as much of Obama’s legacy as possible, and he’s already making runs at health care, climate, abortion and family planning, internet privacy, the Keystone and Dakota pipelines, the TPP, and Dodd-Frank and other financial reforms.
Democrats, however, shouldn’t pretend Obama’s presidency was the gold standard. Central to Trump’s victory was the legitimate anger of working people at the way the rules have been rigged by the political establishment of both parties. Inequality has reached obscene extremes, and workers wages have essentially been stagnant for four decades.
After helping to plunge the economy into the great recession, bankers were bailed out, while homeowners were abandoned. Our corporate-led globalization strategy has racked up ruinous trade deficits, with no strategy to deal with the loss of good jobs that devastated large regions of the country. Our endless wars without victory have squandered trillions of dollars and thousands of lives.
The health care system, even with Obama’s reforms, still prices millions out of adequate care, while costing more with worse results than in other industrial nations. Our tax system is an open scandal, with billionaires still paying lower taxes than their secretaries. Big money and special interest lobbies corrupt our politics. Obama wasn’t the cause of all of these, but he wasn’t the solution either.
Workers of all races and genders have every reason to want to shake things up. Democrats will have difficulty consolidating a majority movement for change unless they understand this fundamental reality.
Resistance can’t be about restoration. It must be about fundamental reform. There are a lot of sophisticated, experienced Clinton and Obama people wedded to defending the old order. And too many Democratic politicians and political operatives are comfortable with the big money politics that corrupts our politics.
That’s why progressive movements and leaders must take the lead—both in exposing Trump’s betrayals and showcasing fundamental reforms that would make a difference. Bernie Sanders gets it right when he counters Trump’s failed and flawed heath care bill with a renewed demand for Medicare for All.
The Fight for $15 and the Movement for Black Lives are right to take to the streets together on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination in “Fight Racism; Raise Pay” actions to demand a $15 minimum wage and a union.
Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, should be opposed not because Republicans stole the seat from Obama, but because he is an extreme, right-wing judicial activist who consistently favors corporations over the rights of workers, women, consumers and people of color.
The Congressional Progressive Caucus is right to counter Trump’s retreats on trade not with the argument that deficits are inevitable or NAFTA is working well, but with a bold plan to move to balanced trade.
Our Revolution, People’s Action, Moveon, Democrats for America, Credo and others are right to build an independent capacity, fueled by small donations, to recruit, train and run progressives who can challenge our corrupted politics and its compromised politicians. A peace and justice movement will be needed to challenge the endless wars and global policing embraced by the national security elite of both parties.
Trump’s betrayals come less because he is ignorant than because he is cynical. He promises are written in the wind of his rhetoric. He is and always was a con man. His faux, right-wing populism can’t be answered with politics as usual. It must be answered with people’s movements and political leaders exposing the con and putting forth clear, bold reforms to make this economy work for working people.
Cross-posted from The Nation