If words could bring legal actions, “populism” would sue for aggravated abuse. And President Donald Trump would be a co-defendant.
In a season of dispiriting tidings, few habits have been more infuriating than the ease with which political commentators of all stripes have applied the P-word to Trump. Trump has courted this with old-fashioned union hall rhetoric about his devotion to “hard-working men and women.” He claimed during his campaign that he would end tax breaks that helped the rich, rip up trade treaties, and be vigilant against the flight of jobs to China – pronouncing its name in a menacing way.
But as is the case with everything involving Trump, his words had no connection to thought. They were all about the effect they would have. Trump had warned us about this in best-sellers where he admitted that he uses words primarily to get the deal he wants.
This hasn’t stopped the cruel mistreatment of the concept of populism, invoked again and again to turn Trump into a latter-day William Jennings Bryan (a deeply religious and, on most things, very progressive figure who would likely be appalled by Trump) or Pitchfork Ben Tillman. That Trump spends almost all of his time with very wealthy people and only appears truly happy when he’s at one of his resorts never seems to lower his populist score. The defense is to ask: Why can’t a rich guy speak for the people?
Well, yes, Franklin D. Roosevelt was called “a traitor to his class.” But Trump is nothing of the sort. Just take a look at the net worth of those staffing his administration. We now know that what he said during the campaign to win blue-collar votes in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin was disconnected from any intentions he had – or, alternatively, that he never pondered the meaning of his words until he got elected.
Trumpism means verbiage for the workers (words really are cheap in Trump’s emporium) and policies for his buddies. None of the substantive executive orders he has issued – the ones that aren’t just meaningless calls for studies and commissions – has strengthened the hand of workers or consumers. Instead, they are aimed at getting rid of rules that corporations would prefer not to live by.
Then came Trump’s content-free approach to scuttling Obamacare. He had promised a more generous system. But in his eagerness to sign something, anything, he embraced a bill that would have deprived millions of health coverage, many of them his own supporters. He didn’t care. He just wanted a “win” to tweet about. The various repeal schemes have been so bad that even this Pyrrhic victory has eluded him.
And on trade, he has walked away from his pledges on the North American Free Trade Agreement, though his position changes almost hourly. “Hey, I’m a nationalist and a globalist,” Trump said last week. “I’m both.” This may be the perfect Trump sound bite: oily and utterly meaningless. He has also abandoned his tough-on-China stance wholesale.
Then came his tax proposal – or rather, his single page of talking points. Whatever else is clear about the plan, it is a classic tax giveaway to the wealthy, especially to Trump himself. We can’t know for sure because he won’t show us his tax returns. But his outline is about as “populist” as the membership list at Mar-a-Lago.
To be fair, there is one area where those claiming Trump as a populist could make their case in court. Although he has given up for now on funding The Wall, he keeps making anti-immigrant pronouncements and continues to issue and defend constitutionally dubious executive orders to show how hostile he is toward outsiders.
Trump’s nativism does fit one of the many conflicting definitions scholars offer of populism, this one from Princeton University’s Jan-Werner Muller in his recent book, “What is Populism?”
Muller argues that populists “claim that they, and they alone, represent the people.” They try to define a “single, homogeneous, authentic people,” and “treat their political opponents as ‘enemies of the people' and seek to exclude them altogether.”
This is certainly insightful about leaders of Trump’s stripe, even if other takes on populism put more stress on its authentically democratic side. What it shows is that all that remains of Trump’s populism is the part that focuses on hatred and division. Giving actual help to the people who voted for him is not part of the plan.
May I thus propose a Populism Legal Defense Fund? The word deserves better than it’s getting.
E.J. Dionne can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @EJDionne.