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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Donald Trump and populism

Yes, Donald Trump is a disgusting human being. Can we agree on that and move on to some useful political analysis? Apparently not.

MSNBC commentators are so fixated on his sleaze that they won’t even acknowledge, much less try to understand, that his approval rating remains above 40 percent. And I hear people say they don’t care who gets the Democratic nomination in 2020 as long as s/he can beat Trump.

I suggest that we think about Trump in the context of American populism. Trump is not the first of its exponents to give it a bad name. Forerunners like Gerald L.K. Smith (1898-1976) were also racists, America Firsters and, in personal temperament, fascists. But populism is a multi-valent phenomenon, with its good, bad and ugly. Further, it’s a predictably recurring phenomenon, gaining strength when concentrated economic and political power align to screw the majority more thoroughly than usual.

On May 14, 1985, Jim Hightower, then Texas Secretary of Agriculture, addressed the National Press Club in D.C. In his opening sentence he rang some of the notes common to all populists: “I am a practicing populist, a democratic politician from the hinterland — come here today to the cultured East to bring what might seem an unconventional message from the frontier.” Populism is always rooted in the “hinterland,” the less urbanized South and Midwest. To populists, the “East” is not so much a place as a culture of Ivy-educated, well-to-do financiers and professionals more connected to their counterparts abroad than to their fellow Americans west of the Hudson and south of the Potomac.

Hightower continued: “[T]he great center of American politics is not square dab in the middle of the spectrum, equal distance from conservatism and liberalism. Rather, the true center is in populism. Which is rooted in that realization that too few people control all the money and power, leaving very little for the rest of us. And they use that money and power to gain more for themselves. Populism is propelled politically by the simmering desire of the mass of people to upend that arrangement. Now, this is hardly a centrist position, if by centrist you mean moderate. But it is at the center of most people’s political being, and it is a very hot center indeed.”

Hightower overestimated both the revolutionary impulse of populism and the breadth of its appeal. But the hot centers of the 2016 presidential election were the Trump and Sanders campaigns. Trump humiliated his establishment Republican opponents, and Sanders made an amazing showing despite his lack of name recognition by Southern black voters and Hillary’s early lock on the super-delegates. Their candidacies aroused levels of enthusiasm no others approached.

For the Democrats to reject populism because Trump cynically appropriated it would be an enormous mistake both electorally and morally. It would be a mistake electorally, because the mass of voters — left and right — don’t want another “centrist,” a Bill Clinton or a Barack Obama, as their president. It’s not their social tolerance and modest support of human needs programs and environmental protection that makes them widely objectionable. It’s their support of Wall Street and neo-liberalism. And that’s the place at which the electoral and the moral merge.

But a populism that regards, and expresses sympathy for, “common folks” merely as victims is not a good politics. It’s not even enough to put government to work for them. It must entail a program of grassroots empowerment. More of that in my next two columns.

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Daily Tidings every Saturday.

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