Donald Trump and America’s Broken Populist PromisePhoto courtesy of Getty Politics Features Populism
“Honey, you gotta learn to quit expectin’ help.”
My grandma told me that on Jan. 23, 1996. I was 14 years old and watching President Bill Clinton’s infamous “The Era of Big Government is Over” State of the Union. As a candidate, Clinton had been heralded by my family as the reincarnation of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, a man my grandparents believed would’ve ended poverty if he hadn’t been assassinated, but all that hope engendered by JFK’s heir apparent was long gone by then.
The signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993 was when the bloom came off that rose. My family of dirt-poor factory workers saw NAFTA’s adoption as the death knell of American manufacturing and viewed Clinton’s signature as tantamount to treason. So Grandma wasn’t surprised when his reelection chances led to a right turn, but I was still young enough to be disappointed. I always thought somebody, anybody, would step in and help my family.
By the time Donald Trump descended the escalator at Trump Tower, I’d learned to quit expecting. Watching your hometown get decimated and your family suffer endlessly will do that. And when pundits and commentators began referring to Trump’s rhetoric and platform as “populist,” I had no doubt it was just another iteration of Republicans courting the working-class without any intention to follow through.
Surprisingly though, the populist label stuck with Trump despite his billions of dollars, private jumbo-jet, and gold-gilded penthouse. Mainstream outlets began referring to him in kind, whether it was The New York Times, The Washington Post, Bloomberg, or Politico, which ran a piece by Michael Lind declaring Trump “The Perfect Populist.”
The coverage of candidate Trump was a maddening affair. The networks turned their cameras to him, hit record, and broadcast to millions of people his uninterrupted rants where, in the same breath, he bragged about his wealth and his ability to help “real Americans.” And yet, despite the transparency of his message, they continued referring to him and his twisted lie of a campaign as populist, which was more than enough to win the support of my family, who had long since forgotten our grandma’s warning.
At the heart of Trump’s “populist” appeal was his constant criticism of the country’s trade deals and a promise to return to prevalence the manufacturing and coal jobs that had kept my family afloat for generations. Under a Trump administration, the Republican nominee promised, they’d get “tired of winning” as all those jobs of the past would come streaming back.
The first test of that promise came in November of 2016 when President-Elect Trump and Vice-President-Elect Mike Pence negotiated a deal with Carrier to preserve jobs in my home state of Indiana. The deal was a public-relations boon as Trump toured the facilities and remarked that he’d saved 1,100 jobs that would’ve been shipped to Mexico. In all actuality, the number was closer to 800, and, despite the $7 million worth of tax incentives Trump and Pence pitched the company’s way, more than half of the jobs originally lost still ended up streaming south of the border.
As president, Trump continued the deceit by filling his administration with billionaires and Wall Street heavyweights. There was Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, former CIO of Goldman Sachs with an estimated net worth of $300 million; former CEO of ExxonMobil and 245 Million Dollar Man-turned-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson; Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, who made his billions with leveraged buyouts of failing industries; and billionaire Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.
Terrible optics aside, it’s been the cabinet’s actions that should cause the most concern as the administration has been doggedly focused on disabling the social safety net, lowering taxes for the wealthy, and, under Secretary DeVos’s incompetent eye, dismantling public education.
In terms of activity, the Trump Administration has shown its priorities by concentrating on moves that would rob tens of millions of Americans of their healthcare, slash Medicaid, strip-mine the budget of helpful programs, dispense regulations of Wall Street passed in the wake of the Economic Collapse of 2008, and deregulate several key laws designed to protect the American people, including their wages, their safety, the air they breathe, and the environment in which they live.
And yet, with all evidence to the contrary, the president is still referred to as a populist.
The term arguably lost its objective meaning at the turn of the 21st Century when George W. Bush was sworn in as the 43rd President of the United States of America. A man of contradictions, Bush was the wealthy son of a former president who portrayed himself as an everyday Joe. A teetotaler who’d left behind his boozing days, Bush was the politician people most wanted to have a beer with. Born in Connecticut and educated at Yale and Harvard, Bush spent his free time playing cowboy and clearing brush for the cameras on his ranch in Crawford, Texas.
The slogan that put Bush in position to steal the Election of 2000 was “Compassionate Conservatism,” a nifty little piece of advertising that misled the American public in every possible way. The policies of the Bush Administration were anything but compassionate as they favored big banks and the wealthy, and anything but conservative as the deficit skyrocketed.
The results didn’t matter, of course, only the branding.
That system of double-talk has effectively rendered language meaningless: the Republican Party has claimed an understanding of “Real America” while passing one law after another that hurts the working-class and furthers the income gap between the haves and have-nots. Now, when media outlets refer to “populists,” they’re not speaking of politicians who are interested in helping the poor. They mean politicians who make even a cursory gesture toward helping the poor and carry themselves with working-class affectations.
In search of easily digestible and compelling storylines, the media has been much too complicit in allowing politicians to determine their public persona.
A multibillionaire, Trump earned the label populist by making those gestures and by communicating in what was effectively a lower-class manner. His vulgarity, controversial statements, and lack of a politically correct filter, were all reminiscent of how my working-class family behaves, but that doesn’t mean their priorities align. The media has done an unbelievably poor job of explaining the difference between cultural and economic populism, the former being a state of mind and the latter a stark reality.
George W. Bush might have spoken with a Texas drawl, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t the son of dynastic privilege.
Trump might have cursed and eaten fast food, but that didn’t mean his worldview wasn’t dependent on unrestrained wealth.
Bill Clinton might have had a down-home folksy manner to his retail politics, but his agenda effectively forgot the base that put him in office.
It’s these labels and personas that the media is more than willing to traffic in, to continually lend legitimacy and weight to, that continually lead working-class voters like my family to vote against their economic interests. Very rarely was it explained to them that the factory and coal mining jobs Trump promised were never coming back. The ins and outs of his tax plans, which would reward the rich and leave the poor behind, were effectively ignored in favor of chronicling his brutish behavior.
Still, after generations, my family makes the fatal mistake my grandma warned about 20 years ago. In face of the harsh conditions of their lives, their stagnant pay, their rising premiums, their stalled financial progress and their crushed dreams, they’re lied to every four years by a system that continues to sell the same broken promise.
They’re still expecting help.