Trump began his inauguration speech by crowing that with his election ordinary Americans had seized the government back from a corrupt and money-stealing elite. That is familiar campaign language, but by now it is clear that it is also his most basic and deliberate lie.
The time has come to state unequivocally, once and for all, that Trump the populist has never been anything more than a crooked marketing ploy.
Let’s be serious. Even in the best case for Trump’s crazy growth projections, the most his supporters could hope for are low-skill non-union jobs somewhere in the US in industries that are price-competitive only with protection. And that says nothing about job loss and skill-mismatch due to automation. There is very little bargaining power in that world. Trump is NOT bringing back the good old days.
You can only believe in his “glory days” if you forget reality and assume his new Labor secretary is talking about somebody else. Working conditions will be regulated by a Trump Labor Department where anything goes. The minimum wage will be set by people who would rather that it didn’t exist. The medical care plan comes from people happy to shut down ACA without any replacement. Nothing on the table to help with college costs. Pre-college education subject to the whims of a fanatical religious ideologue whose only qualification is the $200 million dollars contributed to the Republican party.
Populism is defined by the broad population it serves. It is forward-looking, aimed at creating good jobs in businesses that make sense and preparing people to fill them. Trump, with the denial of science and lack of real commitment to education, is doing neither. There is no recognition even of the role of government in softening the consequences of change–all we have is protectionism and deregulation as the solution to all problems. If Trump stands for anything it is a kind of “business populism”–less competition, less regulation, upper-income tax cuts, fewer constraints on dealing with employees. As has been pointed out, that is the stuff that makes business people happy about their own prospects, but with a bleak underside for the well-being of workers and the success of the US as a whole.
Going back to Trump’s statement, there is of course much that is wrong with the current American political system, most basically the sheer amount of money in politics. However, Trump’s extraordinary indifference to ethical issues and conflict of interest makes clear that he has no interest in fixing it. And if Trump’s proposal for self-funding infrastructure work really comes to pass, we will actually see public functions such as airports and bridges become private, fee-based enterprises. We’re talking about private monopolies where the potential for corruption and exploitation is mind-boggling. Power has been seized all right, but by Trump’s ilk for their own benefit.
One must also recognize that Trump’s statement packs an implied threat–for the Republicans in Congress and anyone else who might get in the way. “I have whipped up my base to the point where they identify themselves with me, and I can do it again. America is ready to think I am them, and anyone who crosses me stands accused as a member of that corrupt and money-stealing elite.”
That is no idle threat–Trump is a smart, skilled, and unprincipled demagogue. Trump the shill populist needs to be exposed every chance we get.
We end this piece by calling attention, as many have, to the grimness of Trump’s rhetoric. That much at least is true—Trump’s vision for the United States is certainly grim. His new economy based on non-competitive low-margin industries protected by high trade barriers is the diametric opposite of making this country great. That is not just a matter of bad economics. Coupled with the denial of science and the disinterest in engagement with rest of the world, it is a repudiation of the open-minded, can-do attitude that has made this country what it is. And it is a blot on all of our futures.