Donald Trump and the Rise of Populism

Trump’s Brand of Populism

Many people have wondered how Donald Trump attracted a hard core of followers despite all that was known about him. There were those who came to his side for strictly ideological reasons. Some were evangelicals who came en masse based on Trump’s promise to appoint conservative judges to overturn Roe v. Wade. Others saw him as someone who would replace Obamacare, reduce regulations and/or lower taxes. But his base also includes rare bedfellows — white supremacists and Barack Obama supporters.

White Supremacists and Previous Obama Supporters

At first blush it seems strange that those who saw something good in the country’s first black president found common ground with those full of hatred toward Latinos, Muslims, Blacks and Jews. The Oxford Dictionary defines populism as a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that the “established elite” disregard their concerns. From post election interviews we’ve learned that many Obama supporters who voted for Trump feel that way. This suggests they share a similar background experience that unites them. And that common experience is the source for the rise of populism in the United States.

I believe that this issue must be addressed if we want the U.S. to remain a Democracy with the values enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. I don’t say that flippantly or lightly. Populism can easily develop into nationalism and nationalism into fascism. A slide into fascism will mark the death knell of this country as we know it.

The Impact of Globalization

So, how did we get here? How did we get to the point that so many good citizens feel disenfranchised and how can we alleviate that alienation? For the answer, I believe we must first look back to when globalization became a reality.

Globalization is the process of integrating international trade so that people, ideas and goods move freely around the world. As part of this process manufacturing is shifted to less developed countries where labor costs are low. That brings investment and employment to those countries and less expensive goods to consumers in the developed world. But the downside is the loss of better paying jobs when factories are closed and manufacturing is moved to a lower cost country. While the world economy benefits, its victims — workers who lost their jobs — bear the negative consequences.

Globalization marked the beginning of the end of the silent compact between employer and employee. Historically the employer provided the jobs and the employee provided his or her services. It was a case of mutual loyalty including the community in which the employer was based. But a business must remain competitive and profitable. The lure of lower costs in another country became impossible to ignore. Capitalism dictated the move.

Government’s Failure to Address the Ills of Globalization

However, it was here that government first failed those employees. I do not suggest that laws should have prevented companies from moving. After all, if a company could not remain competitive and profitable, it would not survive. But there should have been special provisions to retrain workers so that they would have opportunities for other employment. The cost should have been borne by the departing company, which otherwise could have been assessed a penalty on its new foreign made goods coming back into this country.

In the process of globalization, corporations saw opportunities to reduce their federal income taxes through make believe accounting that transferred profits out of the United States to lower tax countries. This had the effect of denying revenue to our government, despite the increasing need for improvements in infrastructure that could have provided better paying jobs to compensate for the jobs lost.

Additionally, several companies used the technique of “inversion” to reduce their U.S. taxes. Using a variety of methods, these companies were able to reincorporate their parent company in a low tax country. Foreign sourced income would then no longer be taxed in the United States until the funds were repatriated.

The Changing Economy

While this was happening, the economy was changing. Automation was coming on line big time. Robots were doing work that previously people performed. Successful businesses of years past began falling by the wayside as online merchants replaced brick and mortar stores. And industries such as coal saw the use of its product dramatically diminish.

Broad segments of the population were affected by this displacement, but the governing class did not respond with compensating measures. Worse, many politicians did not recognize this as an important issue. To the disenfranchised, the political elite just didn’t care.

Obama, Clinton and Trump

When Obama entered on the American scene, he understood the issue. He gave hope to those affected by it and won much of their support in his two presidential campaigns. But the excesses of the past continued. Obama’s would be successor, Hillary Clinton, seemed unable to connect with this group and, fairly or not, people judged her one of the elite.

Trump the Charlatan

Enter Donald Trump, a charlatan of the first order, but a great self-promoter. Though he never used the same language as Bill Clinton, he led the disenfranchised to believe he understood their pain.

So, step back and try and place yourself in the shoes of those who had lost their jobs through businesses moving overseas, automation, or a changing economy. Someone caused this. Someone had to be blamed and Donald Trump knew exactly who that was. He made immigrants and immigration the scapegoat for all the ills the displaced felt. And more importantly to them, he promised he would reverse these terrible trends. He would bring back the good manufacturing jobs, all the while projecting he was one of them.

He proclaimed he was not an elitist like those other politicians. And his future supporters bought it. That is why an Obama supporter and a white supremacist could vote for him. They both believed his rhetoric. Get rid of the immigrants. Keep more from coming in.

Trump is not and never has been one of them. Throughout his career he has stiffed working people, not paying them for work done on his buildings. He has cheated people with his failed Trump University; used his charitable foundation improperly; and demonstrated he is one of the worst businessmen in the United States. I suspect we will eventually see that he has managed to finance his businesses by laundering money. Nonetheless, he knows how to connect with the average man. To them, he is their populist. They overlooked his sleazy character traits in 2016, and could easily do so again.

The 2020 Democratic Contender and Issues at Play

To beat him in 2020 the Democratic presidential candidate must connect with these disenfranchised voters. That means understanding their discontent and establishing a platform that addresses their concerns and does not aggravate them. This is more easily said then done. While there is broad unanimity on certain issues, the devil is in the details. For example, “universal healthcare” is likely a winning issue with this group, but I do not believe “single payer” is. I believe there is an unwillingness to accept radical change with the potential for unintended negative consequences.

The same can be said about climate change. While the great majority accepts the reality of climate change, I believe they also fear the consequences of radical changes that might cost jobs or raise taxes. The reelection of a populist prime minister in Australia demonstrated voters chose economic stability over greater action on climate change. They also chose someone who promised jobs and cuts to immigration. Notice the similarity among the issues and personalities with the United States.

And in countries around the world—as in Australia—populists have taken power by taking strong stands against immigrants. Notwithstanding the fact that the majority of Americans favor legal immigration, it remains a divisive topic. Immigration has been used as a scapegoat for the loss of good jobs. Though totally untrue, it will likely be used again in 2020.

Presenting the Key Issues

There are many issues on which to build a case for change. But Democrats must be judicious in how they present these issues. For one, keep away from radical solutions. Everyone agrees that creating good paying jobs is a winning subject. Establishing a solar industry in West Virginia and building sea walls to keep out rising sea levels are examples of creating jobs while dealing with infrastructure and climate change.

Put immigration in a positive light emphasizing its benefits, but concurrently calling for reform that recognizes economic reality, security needs and discouragement of illegal immigration.

Tax reform to address economic inequality is another area that properly presented can prove positive. Increasing taxes on corporations and the wealthy can be used to create jobs through building infrastructure and addressing climate change.

Meet the People

Most importantly, Democrats must go out and talk to people. They must make it clear that Democratic candidates are not elitists. They have to win over the disenfranchised and make it clear they see their value. Many, if not most, of the disenfranchised were and should be natural Democratic supporters. It is time to bring them home.

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