Trump’s Unhinged Populism

Joseph Kukral, Op/Ed Editor

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Throughout history, American politics has often suffered from a strain of populist radicalism. Fortunately, while it has existed, moderate and reasonable minds have been able to constrain it when it has appeared to be most dangerous. When populists control the power of government, conventional principles of governance seem to become unimportant. Populism, when fully in effect, renders a sometimes toxic ideology that can contort government, transforming it from an effective institution based on principle to a weapon used to fulfill subversive agendas.

Populism often manifests as a result of far uglier movements, similar to what is occurring currently in our country; whether it be the angry, bitter protest against diversity by white nationalists or the contemptuous rebuke of wealth by democratic socialists. There has been a wide range of populist movements throughout American history. Some may recall the Greenback Party and its movement in the late 19th century, whereby aggrieved farmers organized in defiant protest of the bullion-backed dollar. The movement represents an acceptable form of populism. It espoused benign progressivism as it attempted to improve the market for farmers by advocating for the increase in the amount of currency in circulation. It did not intend to subvert democratic institutions or threaten principles that support our way of governance.

However, there have been instances in American history when populism was dangerous, such as when President Franklin Roosevelt tried to pack the U.S. Supreme Court. Once popular elements of the New Deal were declared unconstitutional, Roosevelt tried to circumvent the court, which not only undermined its integrity, but also threatened certain long-standing principles of governance. Ultimately, Roosevelt proposed a legislative initiative that would allow more justices to be added to the court. Many interpreted the proposed legislation as a political maneuver to bypass an entrenched minority to install a populist agenda. Regardless of whether one believes the New Deal was good legislation or not, undermining democratic principles to achieve a populist measure, as Roosevelt was attempting to do, is outright dangerous.

Populism has an appeal that is largely a function of emotion and extremism. In some cases, it can be an effective way to enact progressive reform, as was done by the Greenback Party. However, it can also manifest as an incendiary appeal to mobilize those who are marginalized or feel marginalized. It prods them to act in a completely destructive way in response to whatever harm they believe has been done to them.

This is particularly true with the assent of President Donald Trump. His presidency has been supported by a raw, cheap populism that feeds on fear. White nationalism combined with an implacable hate for political correctness and the highly educated, coastal class has driven millions to support him, regardless of whether he is the most qualified individual to hold the office of president. Supporters at his campaign rallies resemble an angry mob driven by fear and hate. They are drawn to his cult of personality and gladly participate in ritual chants aimed at denigrating other Americans and institutions that they believe are the source of their problems. A prominent slogan reiterated in these rallies is “Drain the swamp!” It is obvious why this slogan resonates so much with his supporters. Simply, a large portion of them despise the professional and coastal elites who have controlled Washington for decades. And no individual encapsulated elitism better than Hillary Clinton, who generated acute hatred from Trump supporters. Clinton bragged once that she won areas of the country in the 2016 presidential election that represented more than two-thirds of the nation’s total GDP. Evidently, a great number of Americans who had a significant economic stake at the time of the 2016 presidential election made an informed decision to support Clinton over Trump. Regardless of whether they liked her or not, they believed she would provide principled leadership and not unhinged populist ideology that could threaten the future of the country. That is the risk in casting out the establishment in favor of extremist idealism. It can lead to unqualified leaders like Trump who irresponsibly control the levers of government.

One of the many issues of the Trump presidency is that it’s populist, which inherently makes it ideological. Most Trump supporters did not vote for him because he is practical and pragmatic. He is far from it. He is certainly not the elitist policy wonk that Clinton is. Unlike Clinton, qualifications or pedigree do not hold any importance for Trump. Just recently, he named two absolutely unqualified dolts to be on Federal Reserve Bank board. Many believe the appointees, Stephen Moore and Herman Cain, are simply a way for Trump to stack the board to deliver policy decisions in his favor. Just as FDR tried to do, Trump is prioritizing his populist idealism over conventional principles of American governance. And that is what separates a country governed by a qualified elite from one run by an unhinged populist. An elite can usually be counted on to adhere to principled, reasoned thinking, whereas a populist acts on shoddy idealism to dangerous ends.