There's a fake populist in the White House — and real populism is the only force that can defeat him

Donald Trump is already massively unpopular — Democrats must seize the moment with an authentic left populism

Published February 4, 2017 11:00AM (EST)

 (AP/Richard Shiro/Salon)
(AP/Richard Shiro/Salon)

Donald Trump likes to think of himself as a record-setting kind of guy, and before his inauguration, he confidently predicted that there would be "unbelievable, perhaps record-setting turnout." When turnout ended up being mediocre at best — around a third the size of Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration — the new president predictably threw a hissy fit, demanding that his press secretary tell the American people that it was the biggest crowd in the history of inaugurations. The president has similarly spewed self-aggrandizing falsehoods about his election, claiming that he won a “massive landslide in the Electoral College” when his victory actually ranked near the bottom of such measures, and parroting a debunked conspiracy theory that only massive voter fraud cost him the popular vote.

It is not surprising, then, that the Trump administration, so detached from reality, is now wildly overestimating the president’s popularity and public support. In this respect, Trump actually has broken some records — but not in the way he had hoped. According to Gallup polls, Trump already has a negative approval rating after two weeks in office, which took years for any of his predecessors — going back to Ronald Reagan — to achieve. The president has also prompted massive, relentless protests and demonstrations since he entered office, unlike any other president (including Nixon).

In other words, Trump is already the most unpopular and divisive president in modern history (which is truly something, considering George W. Bush was president not too long ago). Yet he and his team are currently acting as if they have a massive popular mandate. The White House has become a giant safe space for delusional right-wingers, where only “alternative facts” that the president reads on Infowars and Breitbart are permitted.

This has led to some incredible displays of hubris, clearly shown by Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon last week, when he told the New York Times that the “media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut,” and that “they don’t understand this country.”

The former head of Breitbart News seems to be under the impression that Trump won the popular vote by a landslide, and that he won it because the American people liked him and supported his agenda. This is absolute nonsense, of course. Trump only won the election because his opponent, Hillary Clinton, was by far the worst candidate that the Democrats could have nominated in this populist era -- and she still managed to get nearly 3 million more votes than Trump did.

The 2016 election was a repudiation of neoliberalism and the political establishment, not an endorsement of Trump or the Republican Party’s far-right agenda. Indeed, on economics in particular, Americans overwhelmingly reject the GOP’s reactionary platform and tend to agree with Sen. Bernie Sanders’ social democratic policies. Luckily for Trump, no one symbolized neoliberalism and establishment politics more than Clinton -- and he won because just enough voters reluctantly gave him their vote.

This reality is evinced by exit polls, which reveal that 20 percent of those who voted for Trump did not think he had the “temperament to serve effectively as president,” and a whopping 51 percent only voted for him because they “disliked the other candidate.” In addition, 83 percent of Trump voters thought that the most important quality in a candidate was the ability to “bring needed change."

These numbers clearly indicate that Trump won the election because his opponent was the perfect foil for his populist message, not because he is well liked or his platform is widely supported. Voters detested the establishment slightly more than they detested Trump himself.

As many have pointed out, Trump’s victory was part of a wider “populist explosion” currently emerging around the Western world on both sides of the political spectrum. In Europe, some populist movements currently picking up steam, like Italy’s Five Star movement, incorporate both left- and right-wing ideas, and reject ideological labels. Others are firmly on the left or right, yet embrace some policies that are associated with the other side.

France’s National Front, for example, is clearly right-wing, but has put forth an economic platform that is, in many respects, further left than that of the governing Socialist Party, which has become increasingly neoliberal under the leadership of President François Hollande. Even Spain’s populist, anti-establishment Podemos party, although not right-wing or nationalistic, has been reluctant to identify itself with the left, and the party’s leader, Pablo Iglesias, has identified its ideology as “post-neoliberalism” rather than socialism.

In America, there are clear left and right populist movements, and though there are some issues where they may find agreement (i.e., the Trans-Pacific Partnership), their broader visions couldn’t be further apart. On the left, Sen. Bernie Sanders has become the de facto leader of the progressive movement, promoting egalitarian ideals and inclusivity, and advocating structural reforms that address systemic corruption and massive economic disparities. Trump’s right-wing populism, on the other hand, is a reactionary backlash against globalization and multiculturalism, promoting intolerance, nativism and anti-intellectualism. While the populist left identifies the economic elite as the class pulling the strings in Washington, the populist right tends to focus on cultural and intellectual elites, embracing conspiracy-theory thinking that singles out the so-called “globalists” as the sinister elite behind all of our ills.

Though the populist right is now in control of Washington, polls make it clear that a majority of Americans reject President Trump and his overall agenda. By contrast, Americans broadly support Sanders’ progressive platform, and the Vermont senator has been consistently ranked as the most popular politician in America. It seems obvious, then, that the way to defeat Trump and his reactionary movement is for the Democratic Party to embrace its populist wing and reject the “third way” centrism that it came to represent during the Clinton era.

It is not at all clear that the Democratic establishment, addicted to corporate cash, is prepared to accept this reality. Around the time of Trump’s inauguration last month, for example, the neoliberal think tank Third Way announced that it would launch a “$20 million campaign to study how the party lost its way and offer a new economic agenda for moving forward,” while Clinton hatchet man David Brock was throwing a retreat for billionaire donors in Miami, attended by various top Democrats. Brock, who slanderously attacked Sanders during the Democratic primaries, claiming that “black lives don’t matter to Bernie Sanders,” is now attempting to position himself as the leader of the so-called Trump resistance.

This would be a political and moral disaster. Individuals like Brock should be shunned by Democrats, and organizations like Third Way should have no role in shaping the party’s economic agenda. Trump may already be the most unpopular president in modern history, but the poisonous politics of David Brock would go a long way toward helping to re-elect him in 2020 (if he isn’t impeached or deposed before then).

The populist explosion isn’t going away. What is needed now more than ever is a popular movement on the left to combat the destructive populism of Trump, as well as the destructive force of neoliberalism. Only time will tell whether the Democratic Party is ready to face this reality head on. 

By Conor Lynch

Conor Lynch is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work has appeared on Salon, AlterNet, Counterpunch and openDemocracy. Follow him on Twitter: @dilgentbureauct.

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