The Vulnerability of Trump’s Fake Populism

AP Photo/Chris O'Meara

Campaign signs before a speech by Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump Saturday, November 5, 2016, in Tampa, Florida.

This article originally appeared at The Huffington Post. Subscribe here.

What sort of president will Donald Trump be? We have good reason to be alarmed about his running roughshod over the Constitution and blundering into foreign policy disasters. But let’s put that aside for a moment and look at his supposed populism on economic issues.

After just a week, despite a campaign based on faux-populism, the evidence is that Trump will be a fairly conventional right-wing Republican, one possible exception being trade, another being infrastructure.

A key question is not whether his base will notice the contradictions, but when they will notice. In the short run, he could keep fooling them, for two reasons.

While he sides with financial elites on tax and regulatory and spending issues, he can throw his base the cultural raw meat they craved, in the form of a crackdown on immigrants, embracing universal stop and frisk, doubling down on voter suppression, embracing right-wing positions on social issues generally and appointing far-right judges.

Secondly, Trump could well produce an economic boom in the near term. The stock market certainly seems to think so.

He is very likely to cut a three-part deal with House Speaker Paul Ryan and company: Massive tax cuts. Reductions in social spending, perhaps by block granting food stamps and Medicaid. And increases in infrastructure spending. As guys like me have been writing for a long time, this is precisely the moment to increase outlays for deficit-financed infrastructure because interest rates are low and there is no sign of inflation.

His tax reductions will be advertised as supply-side cuts, but in reality their impact will be Keynesian. Larger deficits will stimulate demand, as will infrastructure spending.

Republican control of the Congressional Budget Office means that the deficit impact of tax cuts can be disguised with an old trick known as dynamic scoring. Supposedly, the cuts will produce so much growth that the revenue loss will be made up.

The deficit hawks will be thrown under the bus, but so what? A year from now, the unemployment rate could well be lower. This is a case of Trump selectively stealing the clothes of progressives on selected economic issues and it could work, at least for a year or two.

Usually, the first midterm election produces setback for a new president. But Trump could still be riding high by 2018 on the strength of a Keynesian boom. Due to the luck of the draw, Democrats are defending five Senate seats in red states. Republican-sponsored gerrymandering, plus voter suppression, make it unlikely that Democrats will make many gains in the House in 2018.

But, assuming that we do have a presidential election in 2020, and without too much rigging, I think by then Trump himself will be vulnerable—very vulnerable.

In 2020, another Wall Street Democrat would not do well against Trump. But a populist Democrat could oust him.

The Wall Street-Clinton wing of the Democratic Party is over. The fact that Chuck Schumer, the ultimate Wall Street Democrat, has joined Elizabeth Warren in endorsing Congressman Keith Ellison, co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus, for Democratic Party chair suggests that even the centrist Schumer knows which way the wind is blowing.

If you want a preview of what a progressive challenge to Trump looks like, recall how much more effective Elizabeth Warren was than the Democratic candidate herself, at making Trump’s contradictions issues in 2016.

But that was about Trump’s past record as a businessman, who evaded taxes, cheated contractors, and duped students at Trump University.

By 2020, Trump will have amassed a record as president.

For the most part, it will be a continuation of the policies that deliver most of the gains to the richest Americans. A strong progressive candidate will be able to make clear the contradictions between what Trump promised and what Trump did—Trump as an ordinary, if intemperate, business conservative who served mainly the rich.

That candidate will be able to ask people if their lives are better. Trump will be the insider. Having enjoyed wall-to-wall control of government for four years, the status quo will be all on him. “It’s gonna be great” will not have the resonance it did in 2016.

Even with an infrastructure program and a relatively short lived fiscal boom in 2017-2018, it’s hard to see Trump doing anything that fundamentally changes the downward slide of the bottom 70 percent. Because of automation as much as trade, it’s hard to see large numbers of high-wage manufacturing jobs coming back. Trump can’t wave a wand or sandbag the EPA and revive coal, because natural gas and solar are already cheaper than coal as a source of electric power.

Strategies that might make a real difference, like higher-paid human service work, debt-free college, a higher minimum wage, a revival of collective bargaining, are precisely the policies Trump opposes.

And by 2020, the symbolic, cultural part of Trump’s populist appeal may well have worn thin. He may deport Mexicans, discriminate against Muslims, he may make civil rights more precarious for African Americans, and even give legitimacy to the haters, making America an uglier place. But nothing Trump can do will bring back the America of the 1950s, when a single factory job paid enough to raise a middle-class family, when blacks and wives knew their place.

The first recent political figure to popularize the word, rigged, was not Trump; it was Elizabeth Warren. In Warren’s use, the system is rigged. You can’t get ahead because good jobs are vanishing, the banking system is stacked, it denies you affordable credit and it puts your mortgage at risk. Your kids can’t get ahead because of the high cost of college, the lousy wages, the unaffordable housing, and the expense of child-care.

Warren’s version describes the frustrations of workaday Americans much better than Trump’s. The election wasn’t rigged in Trump’s sense that voter fraud was pervasive or someone messed with the count. It was rigged only to the extent that Republican operatives used Voter ID to make it harder for minority people and poor people to vote, that a bizarre alliance between Vladimir Putin’s hacking and James Comey’s meddling very likely stole an election that Clinton still won by nearly two million popular votes.

So, in 2020, progressive populism a la Franklin Roosevelt could defeat Trump. The Warren-Sanders wing of the Democratic Party, whoever is the candidate, has every reason to insist that it’s their turn, and they will have the energy. Their appeals were far more convincing as the antidote to Trump in 2016 and will be even more so in 2020.

The optimist in me has to believe that Trump won’t quite turn America into a dictatorship, but the realist in me knows that democracy was already gravely weakened in order for Trump to win in 2016. For the next four years, there will be a two-part struggle—to put forth a real populism and to defend and revive democracy itself. Let’s hope that the two parts energize each other. 

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