Populism of the center (as opposed to Bernie Sanders’s socialist populism) has received a bad media rap — given that it was stained in the past by xenophobic and chauvinistic currents. Who wishes to emulate all the agendas of William Jennings Bryan, Huey Long, or Ross Perot? Yet there were some elements of Trump’s populist agenda — mostly concern for redeveloping the industrial and manufacturing base of the American heartland, and with it creating better-paying jobs for globalism’s losers — that were not only overdue but salutary for the Republican party. His idea that broad-based prosperity could diminish tribalism and racial fault lines sought to erode traditional Democratic support.
Populism is certainly identified with lots of grassroots movements, from far left through the center to far right. The common tie is that ordinary voters feel estranged from an elite class in politics, government, the media, and entertainment — a phenomenon that dates from the Solonian crisis at Athens and the Gracchi of Rome to Ross Perot, the Tea Party, and Donald Trump.
Often prairie-fire outrage manifests in emotional responses to existing affronts rather than carefully crafted policies designed to remedy perceived grievances. (One can remember Al Gore’s 1993 pompous but undeniable evisceration on CNN of a stuttering, ill-informed populist Ross Perot, on the NAFTA treaty.).
All that said, these periodic uprisings in consensual societies are needed to disabuse an insular governing class of its sense of entitlement and privilege.
The spark that ignites populist movements is not so much disparities in wealth and status (they are not always French Revolution or Bolshevik-like class-driven attempts to grab power) as rank hypocrisies: Elites condescendingly prescribe nostrums to hoi polloi, but always on the dual premise that those who are dictating will be immune from the ramifications of their own sometimes burdensome edicts, and those who are dictated to are supposedly too dense to know what is good for them. (Think Steven Chu, the former energy secretary, who either did not commute by car or had a short drive to work, while he hoped that gas prices for the nation’s clueless drivers might climb to European levels of $9–$10 a gallon.)
We’ve already seen Trump’s anti-doctrinaire approach to jobs, trade, and the economy: his notion that the free-market in reality can often became a rhetorical construct, not a two-way street when it comes to trading blocs. Free-market purists might see the outsourcing of jobs and unbridled importation of foreign subsidized products as a way to toughen up the competitiveness of American companies and trim off their fat; but people who take this view are usually the ones who benefit from globalism and who are in little danger of having their own job downsized, eliminated, or shipped overseas. Few of us often ask whether full professors are very productive, whether op-ed writers are industrious and cogent, whether Hollywood actors are worth millions per picture, whether politicians are improving the nation’s lot, or whether journalists are disinterested and competent. Instead, we assume that because they all have well-compensated jobs, they are qualified, essential, and invaluable to the economy.
If Trump avoids ruinous tariffs and subsidies for inefficient companies, then his economic populism, combined with tax and regulation reform, might spark some job creation and undermine the foundations of the Democratic party. But there are lot of applications of populist approach in other areas that need commensurate reform and that would yield political advantage. Take academia. Right now, the campus is plagued by several interrelated pathologies: staggering student debt and costs, administrative bloat (often in conjunction with the vast investment in race/class/gender politics), an increasing absence of free speech and due process, and a shallow and therapeutic curriculum that does not guarantee the indebted students even basic literacy upon graduation.
Trump could announce that he was returning academic emphases away from administrators and professors to the student. That might entail reconfiguring student loans by calibrating them to cost containment on the part of universities (make ineligible for loans any institution whose costs increased beyond the rate of inflation). Truth-in-lending statements would provide students with a breakdown of university income and outlay. Trump could cap tax-free donations to university endowments above $1 billion and provide entering students with estimates of their approximate debt incurred upon graduation, the costs of serving that debt, and the employment prospects of particular majors.
The Department of Education might ensure students due process in all campus investigations as a requirement for reception of federal funds. A national exit test would reassure employers of the value of a bachelor’s degree. (If it’s acceptable for colleges to demand test scores upon entry, why not similarly quantify students’ investments upon graduation?) And the substitution of an academic master’s degree for a teaching credential in K–12 public schools would help shift emphasis from ideology to competency in the classroom. Finally, part-time and graduate-student instruction would conform to labor laws outside of campus, to avoid the present illiberal practices of often paying quite different compensation for identical work and preparation. The Left would mostly oppose all such measures because its current prime interest is the political support of the existing university — mostly its faculty and administration — not in improving the institution to enhance students’ cost-effective education.
Immigration populism is likewise sorely needed. That debate also needs to be turned upon its head. The great loser is the very idea of diversity, when immigration is not ethnically blind, meritocratic and multiethnic and multiracial, but instead focused on political lobbying that inordinately favors Mexico and Latin America. Other losers under open borders are the citizen poor, minorities, entry-level workers, and legal immigrants: They suffer from stagnant wages brought on by the off-the-books employment of illegal aliens; their public schools are more often directly affected by the infusion of non-English speakers, and they receive less-than-stellar treatment from overtaxed social services, from the emergency rooms to the DMVs that are swamped with millions of foreign nationals. The winners are usually elite Democratic and La Raza political activists, corporations in need of inexpensive labor, and the upper middle classes who hire domestic help.
Why does a U.S. citizen face felony indictment for identity theft or falsification of Social Security numbers, while we take such violations as simply a fact of life inherent in illegal immigration?
The legal immigrant ends up ignored if not rendered a fool for in good faith following immigration law and naïvely expecting prompt attention, given his needed skills and prior education. Parity is a populist idea, and we certainly have been treating the lawbreaker with greater deference than the law-abider. Why does a U.S. citizen face felony indictment for identity theft or falsification of Social Security numbers, while we take such violations as simply a fact of life inherent in illegal immigration?
(Note: Trump’s biggest obstacle in deporting illegal aliens who have violated the law will be the Left’s pushback that driving under the influence, assuming fake identities, filing false Social Security numbers, and lying on government affidavits about social-service eligibility are serious crimes only for citizens, but not necessarily for illegal immigrants, or at least not serious enough to warrant their deportation.)
Environmental populism is also long overdue. The old noble idea of conserving our air and water purity and stopping the unsustainable exploitation of natural resources has morphed into something akin to a green version of the antebellum South’s furious opposition to internal improvements. California is the locus classics of boutique environmentalism in which a coastal elite blocks new dams, reservoirs, and aqueducts while counting on existing water-transfer infrastructure for their own unnatural Los Angeles and Bay Area urban sprawls in areas without sufficient water supplies. Favored with balmy year-round coastal weather, West Coast greens embrace energy-pricing policies that fall heavily on others who rely on air-conditioners and heaters in far harsher climates.
Fracking, horizontal drilling, reasonable mining and logging, highway construction, and low-cost affordable housing are often opposed by elite progressives, partly because their own affluence allows them the luxury of stopping the sort of development that provides jobs, income, and a more tolerable existence to distant others. Elites’ opposition also derives from an Old South sense (rising up anew in areas of zero growth and ossified infrastructure) that progress must be stopped and modern lifestyles can be frozen in amber; elites, after all, have the time and money to disengage from the so-called rat race.
We are witnessing a great populist experiment on the part of Trump: Will his unorthodox grassroots approaches to existential challenges finally expose the progressive movement as one mostly fueled by elite concerns, as Republicans hold their noses and piggyback on his electoral inroads?
At this juncture, Trump’s populist fixation on jobs and trade has befuddled his enemies and offered new areas of populist agendas for his allies. But no one knows to what degree Trump’s personal excesses fuel his populist appeal — or whether they eventually will undermine his own agendas.