The phony “populist” delivers for the rich

January 4, 2018

Lance Selfa is the editor of U.S. Politics in an Age of Uncertainty, a collection of essays on the 2016 election and the start of the Trump era. Here, he evaluates the direction of the administration and the Republican Party following its first major legislative accomplishment at the end of last year: a massive tax-cut bill that benefits the already rich.

WITH HIS characteristic know-nothing braggadocio, Donald Trump congratulated himself for signing a massive corporate tax cut bill in December.

"All of this, everything in here, is really tremendous things for business, for people, for the middle class, for workers," Trump announced to reporters in the Oval Office. "I consider this very much a bill for the middle class and a bill for jobs." Later, he noted that "[c]orporations are literally going wild."

Almost every independent analysis of the tax bill would agree with Trump's statement about corporations "going wild." But a bill for the "middle class, for workers"? "A bill for jobs?" Not so much.

First, the tax law makes all of its cuts in corporate taxes permanent, while allowing cuts for individuals to expire in 2025. As a result, the Tax Policy Center estimates that 53 percent of Americans will be paying more in taxes in 2027 than they do today, with the bulk of the tax increases concentrated on the bottom 40 percent of U.S. households.

Donald Trump signs the Republicans' tax-cut rip-off into law
Donald Trump signs the Republicans' tax-cut rip-off into law

And second, even if most households see some tax cuts in the next few years, the biggest reductions by far will go to those in the top 5 percent of income distribution.

Remember all the talk of Trump's "populism"? His campaign rhetoric about standing for "the forgotten man"? What about his inaugural speech where he promised that "[e]very decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families"?

With an administration and Congress whose one major legislative achievement for the entire year was a bill that further shifts the tax burden from corporations to ordinary Americans, it's easy to see that Trump's "populism" was as much a con as Trump University.

THIS WON'T come as any surprise to Socialist Worker readers. We made the case--both before and after his election--that Trump's populist pose was phony.

Yet many in the mainstream media and political elite continue to write and talk as if Trump's actions in office will finally unmask him as a fraud to his "working class" base.

Conservative MSNBC television host Joe Scarborough's analysis was typical: "Trump was right to say then that the political system is rigged for the richest of Americans. Unfortunately, it is now Trump's working-class supporters who will pay the highest price for believing any promise that tumbled out of the mouth of the phony plutocratic populist."

There are a couple of problems with Scarborough's and others' takes on Trump. One is what they think "populism" is. The second is who they think Trump's base is.

At least in the U.S. context, "populism" entered the political lexicon by way of the People's Party of the 1880s and 1890s. The Populists envisioned an interracial alliance of small farmers that supported labor unions and advocated for reforms targeting corporate power and anti-democratic practices in the U.S. constitutional system. That movement was savagely repressed and politically defeated.

Today, "populism" is most often associated with a much narrower set of politics that casts itself against a "political establishment," leaving the term ideologically vague.

So in Europe, it's much more common to hear the word "populism" applied to far-right formations like the National Front in France or the Freedom Party in Austria. In the U.S., forces like the Tea Party and the "alt-right"--the aboveground attempt to rebrand traditional fascist and white supremacist politics--are lumped together with Bernie Sanders' appeals for policies directed at helping working people.

During the election campaign, Trump managed to play all suits of the "populist" deck--from the left (criticizing companies who shift jobs overseas) to the right (building the wall on the border with Mexico), with the center thrown in for good measure (the "rigged" political system).

For Trump--who generally believes in little more than his own aggrandizement--it was easy to discard any of these gestures, and so he dropped the "left" populist gloss, as Michael Grunwald explained in his must-read Politico review of Trump's first year:

[A]fter campaigning as an anti-establishment populist, Trump has mostly governed as a partisan corporatist, earning loyalty points from congressional Republicans by stocking his administration with movement conservatives and embracing their unpopular agenda, ditching his promises to protect Medicaid and close tax loopholes for hedge funds, while consistently siding with business owners and investors over workers and consumers.

IN HIS open embrace of racism and protectionism and his challenges to American ideological pretentions of being a "nation of immigrants," Trump has certainly upset a lot of apple carts in mainstream politics.

But his simultaneous implementation of pro-corporate, anti-working-class policies alongside a reactionary cultural agenda is hardly novel. Republican politicians have been trying to fuse those two things together since at least the 1960s, and they have solidified a voting base of about one-third of the U.S. population that responds to this message.

While there are plenty of data suggesting that religiosity is mainly a middle-class phenomenon, one can certainly imagine why people who won't benefit from Trump's economic policies favoring the rich support him because of his social agenda.

During the campaign, he promised leaders of the Religious Right that he would push right-wing social policies--and nominate right-wing justices to uphold them. That's one reason why there has been virtually no criticism of Trump from these quarters--and why self-identified white evangelical Protestants remain one of his strongest bases of support.

This point helps us to get at the question of who Trump's "base" really is.

To the likes of Scarborough and many of his colleagues in the opinion-forming elite, the stereotypical Trump supporter is a white, non-college educated, blue-collar worker who would still follow Trump even if he "shot someone on Fifth Avenue," as Trump once boasted.

While Trump did win millions of votes from people fitting this description, the notion that he has a uniquely "working-class" base is one of those myths that refuses to die, no matter how much evidence mounts against it.

As a newly published collection of essays on the 2016 election points out (full disclosure: I'm its editor), locating Trump's key support among white workers is sloppy and inaccurate.

For one thing, as author Mike Davis' essay shows, Trump's percentage of the white vote hardly differed from what Mitt Romney got in losing to Barack Obama in 2012. Moreover, as Kim Moody and Charlie Post point out, the population segment of "whites without a college degree" includes significant percentages of lower-level supervisors and small business owners who are normally thought of as the Republican rank and file.

Plenty of analyses of the Trump vote suggest it represented more of a middle-class backlash than a working-class revolt--especially when one considers, as author Sharon Smith does, the always-high level of working-class abstention in U.S. elections.

Trump received 46 percent of the vote in 2016 (to Hillary Clinton's 48 percent), and current opinion polls have him hovering not far from that one-third of the electorate that constitutes die-hard Republicans.

Trump's support has eroded considerably during his first year, as he likely lost all but the most committed conservatives. If there were large swathes of voters who believed in his pledges to "drain the swamp" or fight for the forgotten--and who, crucially, weren't already part of the GOP's hard-right voting bloc--they've most likely already abandoned Trump.

ACTUALLY BOTH mainstream parties in U.S. politics have different "bases" that they tend to. One is their infrastructure of wealthy donors and business supporters, and the other is their reliable voters.

With every passing year, owing to the neoliberal era's increasing polarization of wealth to the richest, it has become clearer than ever that the two parties carry out the agenda of the former base, while largely ignoring the latter outside of election campaigns.

But neither party could be elected if it openly proclaimed its support for the unpopular agenda of the U.S. oligarchs, so both engage in populist posturing to win the minimum support they need at election time.

As of late 2015, about 400 of the richest families accounted for more than half of the money given to candidates seeking their party's presidential nominations, according to a 2015 New York Times study. The concentration was greatest on the Republican side, where 130 families--the Adelsons, the Mercers and the DeVoses, to name a few--accounted for more than half of the money sloshing around the GOP nomination race.

Trump wasn't the first choice of American big business in 2016. Not only did Hillary Clinton appear the safer and "more electable" pro-business alternative, but Trump touted policies on immigration and trade that many sectors of business abhorred.

But once the shock of Trump's victory wore off, big business decided to make the best of things. Some business executives resigned from presidential advisory boards in the wake of Trump's racist response to the white supremacists' orgy of hate in Charlottesville, Virginia, last summer.

But overall, Corporate America has been conspicuous in its willingness to look beyond the daily chaos and outrages coming out of the White House. It's more concerned with tax cuts, deregulation, attacks on labor rights and whatever other "pro-business" policies Trump and the GOP can serve up.

"Our view is it's all about tax reform," Scott Reed, chief strategist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told Politico last August. "Success would help turn the page on all the drama of the White House so far."

WHILE REED'S forbearance may have paid off, it remains to be seen if passage of the tax bill will "turn the page" for the White House. It has certainly given the White House something to tout as an "accomplishment," while fusing the congressional Republicans closer to Trump.

For Trump's and the Republicans' real base--big business and reactionary billionaires--2017 turned out to be a pretty good year. Through all the chaos, the administration has managed to advance a right-wing agenda, even if the tally of its legislation has been modest. Consider these points, compiled from analyses published here, here, here and here:

While the Republicans couldn't "repeal and replace" the Affordable Care Act, the Trump administration has managed to weaken it further in many ways.

The White House has filled administrative agencies with hundreds of business lobbyists and appointed as agency heads people committed to undermining their missions to protect the environment, consumer and labor rights, and equal access to the Internet.

The administration worked with the Republican Senate to put more conservative judges on federal appeals courts than any presidency in its first year since the Nixon administration.

Trump and the Republicans have put forward a budget that envisions huge increases in military spending while cutting just about everything else. Though the budget hasn't advanced through Congress, it can serve as a template for further right-wing assaults on basic social services.

The White House cut the federal workforce, leaving even fewer people to carry out the basic functions of government--not the least of those being regulation of business.

Despite defeats in the courts under from protests, the administration has made considerable headway in making the U.S. immigration system more restrictive.

The bottom line: While Trump's business base may not have gotten everything it wanted, it got plenty. And it will be back for more in 2018.

THE SILVER lining in all of this is that it's increasingly clear to the two-thirds of the U.S. population opposed to the Trump administration to varying extents that this is an administration of the 1 Percent and for the 1 Percent.

If current opinion polls showing overwhelming preference for a Democratic-run Congress hold over the next year, the Republicans are in for a shellacking in the 2018 midterm elections. And if that happens, we will see the tensions between the two bases of the Democratic Party--its funders and its voters--come into view.

In 2016, Trump was fortunate to have gotten as his opponent Hillary Clinton, the personification of the Democratic Party establishment and its fealty to neoliberal capitalism. As a serious post-election "autopsy" authored by liberal Democrats put it:

The Democratic Party's claims of fighting for "working families" have been undermined by its refusal to directly challenge corporate power, enabling Trump to masquerade as a champion of the people. Democrats will not win if they continue to bring a wonk knife to a populist gunfight. Nor can Democratic leaders and operatives be seen as real allies of the working class if they're afraid to alienate big funders or to harm future job or consulting prospects.

As is so often the case, this conflict over the direction and future of the party will be fought out--and, in fact, already is--by proxy.

We can see it in intra-party disputes over strategic choices in 2018: whether to mobilize in the streets or register voters for the midterm elections; whether to champion Trump's impeachment or not; whether to focus attention on mobilizing base Democratic voters or to pursue moderate white suburbanites; whether to champion "Medicare for All" or to try to patch up the Affordable Care Act.

The Democrats know that if Trump remains as unpopular as he is, they don't really have to do much to reap the political whirlwind in 2018.

Democratic donors and most of the party leadership want nothing better than to restore a sense of normality to the political process. But they forget that for millions of people, "normal" politics is what led some of them to gamble on Trump, while millions of Democratic base voters stayed home in 2016.

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