Authoritarians with an animus against ethnic minorities are on the march across the Western world.
They control governments in Hungary and Poland, and will soon take power in the United States. And they’re organizing across borders: Austria’s Freedom Party, founded by former Nazis, has signed an agreement with Russia’s ruling party – and met with Donald Trump’s choice for national security adviser.
But what should we call these groups? Many reporters are using the term “populist,” which seems inadequate and misleading. I guess racism can be considered populist in the sense that it represents the views of some non-elite people. But are the other shared features of this movement – addiction to conspiracy theories, indifference to the rule of law, a penchant for punishing critics – really captured by the “populist” label?
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Still, the European members of this emerging alliance – an axis of evil? – have offered some real benefits to workers. Hungary’s Fidesz party has provided mortgage relief and pushed down utility prices. Poland’s Law and Justice party has increased child benefits, raised the minimum wage and reduced the retirement age. France’s National Front is running as a defender of that nation’s extensive welfare state – but only for the right people.
Trumpism is, however, different. The campaign rhetoric may have included promises to keep Medicare and Social Security intact and replace Obamacare with something “terrific.” But the emerging policy agenda is anything but populist.
All indications are that we’re looking at huge windfalls for billionaires combined with savage cuts in programs that serve not just the poor but also the middle class. And the white working class, which provided much of the 46 percent Trump vote share, is shaping up as the biggest loser.
True, we don’t yet have detailed policy proposals. But Trump’s Cabinet choices show which way the wind is blowing.
Both his pick as budget director and his choice to head Health and Human Services want to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and privatize Medicare. His choice as labor secretary is a fast-food tycoon who has been a vociferous opponent of Obamacare and of minimum wage hikes. And House Republicans have submitted plans for drastic cuts in Social Security, including a sharp rise in the retirement age.
What would these policies do? Obamacare led to big declines in the number of the uninsured in regions that voted Trump this year, and repealing it would undo all those gains. The nonpartisan Urban Institute estimates that repeal would cause 30 million Americans – 16 million of them non-Hispanic whites – to lose health coverage.
And no, there won’t be a “terrific” replacement: Republican plans would cover only a fraction as many people as the law they would displace, and they’d be different people – younger, healthier and richer.
Converting Medicare into a voucher system would also amount to a severe benefit cut, partly because it would lead to lower government spending, partly because a significant fraction of spending would be diverted into the overhead and profits of private insurance companies. And raising the retirement age for Social Security would hit especially hard among Americans whose life expectancy has stagnated or declined, or who have disabilities that make it hard for them to continue working – problems that are strongly correlated with Trump votes.
In other words, the movement that’s about to take power here isn’t the same as Europe’s far-right movements. It may share their racism and contempt for democracy; but European populism is at least partly real, while Trumpist populism is turning out to be entirely fake, a scam sold to working-class voters who are in for a rude awakening. Will the new regime pay a political price?
Well, don’t count on it. This epic bait-and-switch, this betrayal of supporters, certainly offers Democrats a political opportunity. But you know that there will be huge efforts to shift the blame. These will include claims that the collapse of health care is really President Barack Obama’s fault; claims that the failure of alternatives is somehow the fault of recalcitrant Democrats; and an endless series of attempts to distract the public.
Expect more Carrier-style stunts that don’t actually help workers but dominate a news cycle. Expect lots of fulmination against minorities. And it’s worth remembering what authoritarian regimes traditionally do to shift attention from failing policies, namely, find some foreigners to confront. Maybe it will be a trade war with China, maybe something worse.
Opponents need to do all they can to defeat such strategies of distraction. Above all, they shouldn’t let themselves be sucked into cooperation that leaves them sharing part of the blame. The perpetrators of this scam should be forced to own it.