Donald Trump the Populist ?

In the face of seemingly endless blunders and national embarrassments it can be easy to lose sight of just how Donald Trump was able to win the White House. More importantly how the Democratic party and Hilary Clinton with their collective 1.4 billion dollars’ worth of fund raising were unable to address Trump’s populist rhetoric because of  their addiction to corporate funding and lost to a bombastic reality TV star.

Donald Trump’s State of the Union address put into focus the fear of American workers which handed Trump the same rust belt that had voted for the president Obama only 4 years earlier. Throughout the first year of his presidency Donald Trump abandoned his persona of the populist saviour of the common man in favour of the more comfortable role of the establishment Republican.

The man who had once railed against the influence Goldman Sachs, now fills his cabinet with their alumni.

The same man who had once preached against the wasteful neoconservative escapades in the Middle East has now escalated American military involvement in Syria and seven other nations to heights not even the Obama administration could reach.

With hypocrisy like this many could almost be fooled into thinking Ted Cruz or Jeb Bush had actually won the presidency if it weren’t for the consistent early morning twitter tirades. Despite this, the populist Trump was briefly resurrected for his State of Union address in order to remind both his supports and his detractors why so many Americans had fallen for him.

Throughout the hour-long speech three elements of the “Trump movement” came to light:
– The fear of the working class
– America’s desperation for solidarity

– The role of the saviour

Trump boasted his supposed efforts to save American manufacturing as well as to alleviate inner city poverty. At the same time, Trump condemned the sad state of America’s social safety net promising to invest in infrastructure and somewhat shockingly, fight for lower prescription drug costs and paid family leave. Trump’s populist rhetoric whether it is sincere or not, reflects the precarious state of American workers.

Wages haven’t risen in decades as unions were destroyed and replaced with precariously low paying part-time employment that lacks benefits which the American government uniquely fails to provide. This insecurity creates unimaginable terror amount working people and this fear creates the need for solidarity that Trump exploits. As Linda Gordan described in her examination of the Ku Klux Klan as a case study of right wing populism, populist movements are characterized by this designation of “the people” as victims, and the exploitation of the resulting anger and fear to demagogue against supposed threats.

The State of the Union reminded the America an “other” exists to fear which they must stand united against. In a particularly disgusting form of political theatre, Trump paraded the families of victims of gang violence during his speech showing his supporters that their fears are close to home and that they must stand in solidarity with their nation and their president. 

American society across political lines glorfies economic success and achievement of the “American Dream” as a sign of moral virtue. Trump exploits this fact by presenting himself as a virtuous saviour of the common man due to his position as a wealthy businessman.

In the face of the Trump movement, the establishment Democratic party is powerless to provide a meaningful resistance. Like its Republican counterpart the Democratic party is dominated by corporate and elite interests/money preventing it from serving working people. A Democratic supermajority under president Obama failed to provide Americans with paid maternity leave or universal healthcare. Instead the Obama administration bailed out the banks, expanded American military involvement to 7 countries, and made the Bush tax cuts permanent.

This leaves the Democratic party in a position where it has no answer to the fear of the American working class and can only figh Trump on his racism and incompetence. To the blue-collar worker who is crippled by fear the desire for solidarity trumps the natural sense of disgust towards Trump’s racism and to his most fervent supporters Trump’s flirtation with the alt-right is his greatest appeal.


Photos credited to Vox and Huffington Post respectively 

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