Signaling that it’s going to work hard to elevate Donald Trump during the upcoming presidential campaign, The New York Times recently suggested that Trump and Elizabeth Warren are politically similar because both offer up a version of “populism.” They just do it from different perspectives, the article posited. Specifically, the Times dissected speeches that each gave on the same day last week. “The two back-to-back addresses laid out the competing versions of populism that could come to define the presidential campaign,” the newspaper noted.
This is wildly misguided. It’s also a continuation of the media’s Both Sides Olympics, and represents a depressing preview of 2020 coverage, where journalists scramble to make sure Trump and whoever the Democratic nominee is appear to be somewhat similar, or at least of similar stature. (The Times is not alone on this: “Trump v Warren rallies preview possible 2020 populist duel,” read a BBC headline last week.)
The truth is, “populist” serves as a crutch. And when it’s used today, the identifier represents a lazy shorthand used to describe Trump’s grab bag of often-contradictory political positions. Words matter, which is why journalists should be reaching for “nativist,” “white nationalist,” and “authoritarian”—not “populist”—when identifying Trump.
Yet “populist” persists. And in the unfolding campaign scenario, that means elevating Trump, a congenital liar, a racist, and someone with questionable mental stability, to the same status as Elizabeth Warren, a U.S. senator and a Harvard Law School professor. It’s a concerted effort to pretend that Trump is a serious person like Warren, and has given lots of thought to his political philosophy in terms of a populist agenda. In other words, it’s a complete fantasy. But it’s one the press is very comfortable promoting. In fact, it’s one the press must promote during the upcoming 2020 campaign in order to continue its long-running pattern of trying to normalize Trump’s behavior. (The seemingly impossible alternative is to aggressively call out Trump’s radical and unsettling behavior.)
Reminder: Populism represents a political struggle on behalf of regular people against elite economic forces. It’s an ideology that pits ordinary people against a self-serving elite, appealing to a sense that the political establishment has grown corrupt and unresponsive to the needs of everyday people. Today, Trump’s brand of pro-corporate, anti-worker politics represents the exact opposite.
Indeed, “populist” and “economic anxiety” were two of the media’s biggest Trump cons of the 2016 campaign. Trump’s alleged “populism” enticed the press and provided journalists with an acceptable, nonthreatening way to address his primary and general election successes. It was a way to downplay white nationalism, race-baiting, and sexism as the driving forces of his campaign.
Once in office, Trump’s only signature piece of signed legislation was a gift basket of tax cuts for corporate America and the very wealthy. Meanwhile, Trump spent most of 2017 trying to kill Obamacare, which would have meant the elimination of healthcare coverage for millions of working-class Americans. He also tried to block overtime pay for workers making less than $47,000 a year, and abolish the government block grant program that helps fund Meals on Wheels for the elderly. His administration has been a sea of open corruption. Trump’s trade war has decimated markets for Midwestern farmers, while his Cabinet members and top advisers have been a rotating door of lobbyists, businessmen, and billionaires. Basically, since taking office, Trump has relentlessly favored the wealthy over members of the working class.
Contrast that with Warren’s aggressively populist plans to curb the power of the big banks, big pharma, big oil, and the increasingly monopolistic tech companies. Indeed, she’s running on one of the most aggressively populist agendas in recent American presidential history. Looking at Trump and Warren side-by-side, it’s comical to even pretend that Trump falls under the “populist” umbrella the way Warren does. But I guarantee you, Trump’s “populism” will be a driving force of the media’s campaign narrative over the next 14 months.
Note that during the past two years, many commentators have pontificated about how Trump is clearly not a populist. And that includes lots of writers appearing in The New York Times. “Message to those in the news media who keep calling Donald Trump a “populist”: I do not think that word means what you think it means,” warned Times columnist Paul Krugman last year. “When you describe Trump using that word, you are in effect complicit in his lie — especially when you do it in the context of supposedly objective reporting.”
So yes, there seemed to be something of a widespread agreement within the press that Trump has not governed as a populist (obviously). But now with the campaign season looming, there seems to be a pull to bring back that misleading describer, especially if Trump faces off against an actual populist Democrat next year. That, despite the fact that the man-of-the-people adjective so obviously does not apply to a president who has gone golfing more than 200 times since being sworn into office. (It’s an indulgence that has cost taxpayers more than $100 million to date.)
The Times piece last week essentially conceded that Trump has not governed as a populist, but stressed, “Mr. Trump has still positioned himself for re-election as an anti-establishment brawler.” Oh, so Trump has positioned himself as a populist. How, in part, does he do that? He does that by having news outlets such as The New York Times publish long articles about how he’s supposedly a populist, of course.