This ad, from Donald Trump, is making the rounds, and I have to admit that it makes a powerful populist statement:
It presents the great and good American people at the mercy of forces outside of their control, wrecking their lives and destroying their futures. They have only this moment and this time to seize control, and transform the nation. It’s textbook populism, and it’s fundamentally false on at least two counts.
First, Donald Trump doesn’t believe any of this. Trump is not a man of the people. He’s a man of the person — himself — and he will do or say what he needs to do or say to attain power. While he surely has certain political impulses or sympathies, he would discard any of them for the sake of personal advantage. At base, there is no true “Trumpism.” There is only Trump, and it’s a mistake to attach too much ideological meaning to one man’s quest for control.
Second, your average American simply isn’t at the mercy of larger forces. It’s not true. The most important factors in the success or failure of any American family’s economic prospects are their own choices. If an American finishes school, gets married, and stay married, the future is bright — even in an age of global competition, relatively free trade, and increased automation.
The problem is that global competition, free trade, and increased automation also decrease the margin for error at the very moment when American culture is degraded to the point where our errors multiply. But I’m not sure there will ever be a time where the bounty is so great (over the long term, discounting short booms) that libertine or irresponsible personal choices won’t — in the aggregate — create serious economic blowback.
To be sure, there are the individual counter-examples — the married family that struggles or the single mom who makes it big — but in the context of overall cultural reality, no politician can help you nearly as much as you can help yourself. Not even Donald Trump. Any other political message ultimately does more harm than good.