Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters.
Like smokers trying to quit a pack-a-day habit, some journalists are finally trying to drop the long-running practice of portraying President Donald Trump as a âpopulist.â
Sparked specifically by Trumpâs blatant economic flip-flops this month regarding trade deals, currency policy concerning China, and the Export-Import Bank,Â more members of the press seem willing to concede that Trumpâs attempt to govern as a populist has quickly ended.
Los Angeles TimesÂ columnistÂ Doyle McManusÂ announcedÂ that Trumpâs âpopulist revolutionâ is âalready overÂ — at least for now.âÂ The WeekÂ agreedÂ that Trump is âbeating a hasty retreat from populism.â And evenÂ The New York Times,Â which has been an aggressive promoter of the âpopulistâ meme,Â recently notedÂ that Trump, âhas stocked his administration with billionaires and lobbyists while turning over his economic program to a Wall Street banker.â
But like any stubborn habit, the âpopulistâ one wonât be easy to quit. Note that while thatÂ TimesÂ article detailed Trump’s obviously non-populist agenda,Â TimesÂ reporters regularly use the label to describeÂ him in other pieces.
This month alone, theÂ TimesÂ hasÂ referencedÂ TrumpâsÂ âpopulist appeal,â credited a âpopulist economic messageâ for his political rise, grouped him with âfellow populist Marine Le Pen,â and described both him and Turkeyâs president as âpopulist leaders.â
And theÂ TimesÂ isnât alone in clinging to the narrative. TheÂ Christian Science Monitor last week reported, âTrump the populist is back.â
Reminder:Â PopulismÂ represents a politicalÂ struggle on behalf of regular people against elite economic forces. Today, Trumpâs brand ofÂ pro-corporate, anti-worker politicsÂ represents the exact opposite.
The clues have not been hard to find, as Trump quickly stacked his administration with a cavalcadeÂ of pro-business multimillionaires and billionaires. But that was just the beginning.
The president andÂ his Republican allies haveÂ spent much of this year trying toÂ repealÂ health careÂ for 20 million Americans, passÂ massive new tax cutsÂ for the wealthy, eliminateÂ a State Department program âwhich sends food to poor countries hit by war or natural disasters,â greatly expandÂ the Pentagonâs budget,Â potentiallyÂ blockÂ overtime pay for workers making less than $47,000 a year,Â defundÂ Planned Parenthood,Â defundÂ public broadcasting,Â abolishÂ the government block grant program that helps fund Meals on Wheels for the elderly, andÂ roll backÂ rules protecting net neutrality.
So no, Trumpâs not a âpopulist,â even if he has âstyled himself as a man of the people.â (Trumpâs residence in New York City, whereÂ the first lady currentlyÂ lives, isÂ an apartment thatâs decorated in 24-karat gold.)
The whole Trumpâs-a-populist trope has been a media mess for more than a year now.
And why âpopulistâ? Why is that almost always the catch phrase journalists reach for when âwhite nationalist,â ânativist,â and âauthoritarianâ are likely more accurate descriptions of Trump?
The truth is, âpopulistâ servesÂ asÂ a crutch. And when itâs still used today, the identifier represents a lazy shorthand used to describe Trumpâs grab bag of often contradictory political positions.
Last year, the narrative served as a campaign mirage: the BrigadoonÂ of American politics. Trumpâs âpopulismâ 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.Â Yes, Trump cynically embraced populist rhetoric. But journalists ought to be able to see beyond campaign ploys like that.
To this day, the concept allows journalists to engage in more “both sides” analysis, comparing and contrasting Trumpâs âpopulismâ with the approach of Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders, who actuallyÂ doesÂ promote a populist, pro-people agenda.
SandersâÂ signatureÂ political crusadeÂ revolves around making sure all American have access toÂ health care. By contrast, Trump continues to plot the overthrow of the Affordable Care Act, which would cause millions of Americans to lose their insurance coverage.
How does any working journalist look at those two sets of facts and conclude, yeah, Trump and Sanders are both populists?
Even more troubling have been the press pronouncements that some ofÂ Trumpâs deeply nativist proposals areÂ somehow populist.
As The New York TimesÂ wroteÂ [emphasis added]:
For the first two months of Mr. Trump’s presidency, Mr. Bannon occupied an unassailable perch at the president’s side — ramming through key elements of his eclectic andÂ hard-edge populist agenda, including two executive orders on freezing immigration from several predominantly Muslim countries.
This is especially upsetting. Trump’s goal ofÂ banning people from Muslim countries from entering the United States, and his scheme to build a $20 billion wall to fix a nonexistent immigration crisis, have very littleÂ to do with âpopulism.â But they doÂ have a lot to do with nativism and the idea that white America is under siege and that the federal government must take unprecedented action to protect its fragile sovereignty.
PortrayingÂ thatÂ as âpopulismâ — as Trump sticking up for the little guy — is dangerous and deeply misguided.