Jonathan Chait wrote a great article recently, Donald Trump Is Getting Serious About Populism. I don’t want to get into his whole argument about Trump; go read the article. But I was thrilled to see what he had to say on the issue of populism. Because this has been the argument that I’ve been making for a very long time. “One of the important underlying facts of American politics is that rich people tend to have more socially liberal and economically conservative beliefs than the country as a whole.” This is exactly the opposite of populism.
So Trump is getting more populist by attacking what Teddy Roosevelt might have called “the interests”: big banks, defense contractors, big oil. And Byron York, maven of conservative thinking, wrote, As Vote Nears, a More Radical Trump Emerges. As Chait noted, “The new version of Trump is less radical, not more.” The problem is that we’ve gotten so used to a government by, for, and of the rich that it seems “radical” when a politician tries to appeal to the people.
Note that when Trump was just talking about Mexican rapists, the issue that conservatives had was not on substance, but on style. In their own ways, they wanted to “build a wall.” The Republican Party has had a “secure the boarder” mantra ever since Obama got into office, despite the fact of record deportations, and, More Mexicans Leaving Than Coming to the US. So Trump wasn’t a radical on that issue — just coarse and low. It’s only when he starts attacking the rich that he gets the label of “radical.”
And note: the conservative movement can’t get enough of attacks on the poor. And there is a whole industry of conservative pundits like Robert Samuelson who spend most of their time attacking middle class retired people. But that’s not radical because “radical” is defined relative to what the rich as a group think.
Populism Is Popular
I’m very sympathetic to populism. There are problems with it, of course. I greatly value diversity — for its own sake, but also because it is good biologically and sociologically. In general, it is also good economically. Immigrants enrich us — or they would so long as there is a fair economic system where the fruits of the nation are shared. (And they would be with populist economic policy.) And I’m not a social conservative. Most important of all, I consider reproductive rights, in addition to other things, an economic issue. But overall, I respect populism, and would give up a fair amount in order to get its economic policies.
But what really defines populism is that it is popular. If I had no knowledge of modern American politics, I would have thought that our country would have two parties that are on either side of populism. There would be one party that was a little more economically liberal and socially conservative, and there would be another that was a little more economically conservative and socially liberal. But we don’t have that at all. We have two parties that are distinctly to the right on economic issues. And on social issues, they are all over the map.
There are many reasons for why this is. Certainly, I think a big part of it is segregation and racism. But my interest here is not in explaining the why of the matter. The fact of the matter is that we clearly don’t live in a democracy, except in a nominal sense. This is bad for us and has been so for a long time. But you can depend upon not just conservatives but the mainstream media itself claiming that any move towards a more fair economic system is “radical.”