From populist revolt to plutocratic triumph

No political observer of American politics would dare dispute that Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was a unique phenomenon. One of the most distinguishing characteristics of his atypical candidacy was its unabashed bigotry, racism and xenophobia. Any narrative of the election that does not take into account Trump’s consistent appeals to the worst angels of human nature is inadequate. Also conspicuous and momentous was Trump’s abandonment of the traditional fiscal conservatism of the Republican Party. He professed his desire to transform the GOP into a “workers’ party,” vowed not to cut Social Security, and proposed a one trillion dollar infrastructure program. During the Republican primary, Trump vowed that he would “not let people die on the streets for lack of health care” and portrayed his opponents as the venal puppets of their donors.

Trump continued to cast himself as a tribune of the aggrieved (white) working class during the general election, castigating Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton for her ties to the financial industry and her past support of trade deals. It is true, of course, that his stated policy positions were invariably vague, frequently nonsensical and occasionally contradictory. Standard anti-populist, right-wing policies such as massive tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, as well as deregulation of the financial industry, were always a part of his platform. Nonetheless, Trump deviated from right-wing orthodoxy by affirming the role of government in the market and voicing limited support for social welfare programs. In the absence of a strong critique of Trump’s economic agenda from the left, a crucial voting bloc took his populist rhetoric at face value.

Trump’s message, tainted as it was by virulent prejudice, allowed the Republican nominee to split the Democratic coalition that twice propelled Barack Obama to victory. This coalition was comprised in part by white, non-college educated voters in communities across the Midwest buffeted by globalization and the neoliberal policies embraced by both parties. Trump’s promises of good jobs and his criticism of free trade and corporate and financial elites resonated with these voters, helping him to win Iowa, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, all of which Obama won in 2008 and 2012. While some center-left commentators have suggested that Trump’s open bigotry swayed these voters, no proof has been produced in favor of this proposition.

Indeed, the available evidence suggests that the Midwestern voters were not irredeemable “deplorables,” to quote Hillary Clinton’s infamous gaffe. As Nate Cohn of The New York Times notes, exit polling and voter file data “strongly suggests that [Trump] won over large numbers of white, working-class voters who supported [Obama] four years earlier.” The notion that people who supported Barack Obama were too prejudiced to vote for Hillary Clinton is preposterous. Furthermore, Clinton drastically underperformed among African-American voters and her performance was lackluster among Hispanics, both key elements of the “Obama coalition.” Democratic vote decline across various demographics suggests the problem lay with Clinton, and involved a factor other than bigotry.

While economic discontent alone cannot explain why people chose Trump, the available evidence indicates that it was a crucial factor in the decision-making of a significant number of people who voted for Trump, voted for third-party candidates, or did not vote at all. At a time when many Americans felt disenfranchised politically and economically, Trump crafted a compelling narrative of decline caused by elite betrayal, and promised to rectify the situation by bringing back jobs and taking on special interests. Hillary Clinton, by contrast, failed to articulate an overarching critique of the U.S. economy and political system, choosing instead to defend the status quo and incrementalism.

Since Trump’s election, it has become clear that his supposed economic populism was a sham. To an extent, this has always been evident to perceptive observers of the Trump campaign. As an individual, Donald Trump has never shown interest in the welfare of anyone but himself, and, as mentioned before, he always supported massive tax breaks for the wealthy and the deregulation of industry. Nevertheless, Trump’s near-total embrace of a vicious brand of trickle-down economics is cause for astonishment. Rather than choosing cabinet members who will put the interests of the 99 percent first, Trump has assembled a government of the wealthy, for the wealthy and by the wealthy. This administration appears destined to serve the same elites responsible for the financial hardship and insecurity that motivated so many working-class voters to reject Clinton, thus electing Trump. In a cruel and farcical turn of events, a populist revolt has resulted in plutocratic triumph.

Political appointments are the first governing decisions made by a president, and are therefore both consequential events in their own rights as well as predictive of the future. Thus far, Trump’s appointees have consisted of far-right charlatans, cranks and fanatics, most of whom are either billionaires or retired generals. To say that this does not bode well for good governance and liberal democracy would be a massive understatement. What has received far less attention than it deserves, however, is the radical economic agenda of the nascent Trump administration, which is at odds with the populist tone Trump himself struck during his campaign. The new president’s cabinet picks, such as Steven Mnuchin and Andrew Puzder, will inflict grievous suffering upon working-class people across racial, ethnic and gender divides.

Mnuchin, Trump’s nominee for Treasury Secretary, is a hedge fund investor who worked for a decade at Goldman Sachs, the Wall Street giant Trump inveighed against on the campaign trail. He was also the lead investor and chairman of OneWest Bank, which aggressively foreclosed upon elderly homeowners with reverse mortgages, often violating federal rules. Mnuchin’s chief policy goals include tax cuts for multinational corporations and the deregulation of Wall Street, actions which will only serve to further enrich the one percent and do nothing to help low and middle-income Americans. Andrew Puzder, Trump’s choice to head the Department of Labor, has a record as an ardent proponent of trickle-down economics and a ferocious adversary of labor rights in his capacity as CEO of CKE Restaurants. He opposes the very concept of a minimum wage, favors cutting government assistance programs like food stamps and Medicaid, and advocates the automation of fast-food workers’ jobs. The appointments of Mnuchin and Puzder suggest that the populist rhetoric Trump adopted as a candidate was born of political expediency and masked a far-right corporatist policy agenda.

Although the legislative agenda of Trump and Congressional Republicans will become much more clear in the coming weeks, it is already apparent that what is left of the social welfare state will come under attack. Republicans have committed themselves to repealing Obama’s signature piece of legislation, the Affordable Care Act (ACA), which would have devastating effects. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projects that 18 million people would immediately lose their health insurance, a number that would double by 2026, and insurance companies could once again discriminate against those with preexisting conditions. According to some health policy experts, ACA repeal would cause death rates to rise by tens of thousands.

Many Republicans, including some within the White House, are eager to change Medicaid into a block grant program, which would have grievous effects upon the poor and disabled. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and other enthusiasts of austerity have even suggested cutting Medicare and Social Security, casting doubt on Trump’s promises not to lay a finger upon these programs. Furthermore, the GOP under Trump remains united in its dedication to giving tax breaks to corporations and the top one percent. These tax breaks will further concentrate wealth in the hands of a few and necessitate cuts to programs that assist the most vulnerable. This legislative agenda, like Trump’s political appointees, portends a harsh turn to the right on economic and social policy issues that will harm, rather than help, the vast majority of Americans.

If there is any silver lining to the far-right economic agenda Trump and his administration are embracing, it is that this set of policies is despised by the majority of Americans. About 60 percent of Americans favor replacing the ACA with a federally funded healthcare system, while only about 20 percent want it repealed without replacement. About 70 percent are opposed to means-testing Social Security or raising the retirement age. Half want Medicare and Medicaid spending to remain the same and four in ten want it increased. Six in ten believe that those with higher incomes pay too little in taxes. On the vast majority of issues related to the economy and social programs, a majority of Americans oppose the positions held by Trump, his political appointees and congressional Republicans.

What this means is that Trump and the Republican Party can without a doubt be defeated, albeit with an important caveat. Far-right populism will never be vanquished by a Democratic Party that remains wedded to technocratic centrism. The US economy and political system are indeed “rigged” against ordinary Americans, and revolutionary change is needed. The neoliberalism espoused by the Democratic Party during the presidencies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama provides no vision for such change — in fact, it has exacerbated poverty and inequality.

To channel resentment of Trump’s policies, Democrats should champion left-wing populism, which would repudiate Trump’s despicable bigotry and return economic and political power to the demos. The discontent generated by globalization and neoliberalism is all too real, and the left must respond to it with a compelling alternative if Trump’s toxic brand of pseudo-populism is to be defeated.