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The Left Is Helping Donald Trump Give Populism a Bad Name

Instead of praising Trump’s working class bona fides, progressives need to expose him as an ideological fraud.

Dominick Reuter/Getty Images

“The Republican Party wants my liberal vote,” a surprised and slightly flattered Thomas Frank wrote last week in The Guardian. Frank’s takeaway from the Republican National Convention was that Trump “deliberately echoed the language of Franklin Roosevelt” and “denounced ‘big business.’” Meanwhile, Frank said, “certain of his less bloodthirsty foreign policy proposals almost remind one of George McGovern’s campaign theme: ‘Come home, America.’”

To be sure, Thomas Frank will not be voting for Trump this fall, because of “his bigotry [and] his love of authoritarianism,” among other demerits. But Frank was more impressed with Trump’s pitch than Hillary Clinton’s. Unhappy with her vice-presidential choice of free trade–friendly Tim Kaine, her emphasis on national security, and the robust presence of Wall Street executives at the Democratic National Convention, Frank concluded: “Let’s see: trade agreements, outreach to hawks, ‘bipartisanship,’ Wall Street. All that’s missing is a ‘Grand Bargain’ otherwise it’s the exact same game plan as last time, and the time before that, and the time before that.”

This dynamic—denouncing Trump on one hand, but saving your most poignant criticism for Clinton—presents a potentially treacherous problem for the left. The Bernie Sanders campaign allowed progressive populists to make big inroads within the Democratic Party, demonstrating their influence by drafting much of the party platform. And with the Trump campaign copying some of Sanders’s positions and rhetoric, progressive populists can further make the case that their vision has the political resonance to expand the Democratic Party’s reach. But if Trump is more associated with populism than Clinton, and then loses decisively in November, populism could be tainted by Trumpism, weakening the left’s leverage over Clinton. 

It’s a paradox: Trump’s rise buoys the progressive populists today, yet his defeat could damage them tomorrow.

This theory will be tested as soon as the election’s over. If President Barack Obama and the Republican congressional leadership conclude that a Trump defeat has defanged populism, and interpret a victory for Clinton as an endorsement of elite technocratic wisdom, they may be tempted to bring the controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal to the floor in the “lame duck” session. Its ratification would need only a simple majority vote, without threat of amendment or filibuster, thanks to the “fast track” legislation that passed last year.

You might be thinking: How could Congress take such a political gamble when both major party candidates oppose TPP? Because while Trump is putting TPP close to the center of his campaign, Clinton’s post-primary rhetoric and actions suggest she is not planning to match him on populist fervor. Yes, she let Sanders write much of the platform. Yes, she praised him and the platform in her acceptance speech at the convention. But she was awfully quiet about the platform details, including its calls for a $15 minimum wage, restoration of Glass-Steagall bank regulations, a financial transaction tax, and, most notably, rejection of TPP.

Meanwhile, she picked Kaine as her running mate despite his vote for the “fast-track” bill. She nodded to free-trade anti-Trump Republicans last month when she slammed Trump for explicitly threatening a “trade war” with China. She gave billionaire independent Michael Bloomberg, who has been critical of populist broadsides against Wall Street, a plum speaking slot at the convention. After the convention, she held a rally in Pittsburgh with another independent billionaire, Mark Cuban, who praised Clinton as a boon to capitalism and entrepreneurship. Her first post-convention interview was with Fox News Sunday, a clear sign she is looking to build a broad bipartisan coalition that limits dependence on the left.

It would be too simplistic to conclude Clinton’s centrist maneuvering means she is kicking the populists to the curb; the fact that she has publicly embraced America’s most famous democratic socialist is proof she knows the left can’t be ignored. But once in the Oval Office, she doesn’t want to be under its thumb. Like most politicians, she wants governing latitude. If she is victorious, don’t expect her to shout that her victory is a mandate for progressive populism at its purest. And if she wins with the help of a heterodox coalition, various groups will engage in a fierce battle over interpreting the results, leading to a muddled narrative about her mandate.

How should the left respond? One way would be to put maximum pressure on Clinton throughout the rest of the campaign, and tether her as much as possible to the platform. The other, more profitable way, would be to savage Trump as an ideological grifter, seeking to poach economic populism to serve his bigoted ends.

The Clinton campaign strategy is baked, surely after exhaustive research, deliberation, and testing. While she is receptive to the left when it organizes effectively and picks its spots well—such as with Keystone, TPP, and the minimum wage—the fall sprint to Election Day is not the best time to tangle with a candidate over positioning and tactics, since it risks intra-party division as voting nears.

That leaves targeting Trump. In practice, that means not lauding him for having his finger on the pulse of the white working class. The left should tightly focus on lambasting him for sowing division among an American working class that encompasses many races and religions, and for offering nothing to the global impoverished while he treats economics like a crude zero-sum game, pitting American workers against the world instead of promoting an international trade regime that would lift up workers everywhere.

Such an approach would help insulate populism from the taint of racism and rank nationalism, making it harder to argue that populism itself was defeated at the polls. But beyond neutralizing such a counterattack, a clear separation between progressive populism and Trump’s warped brand is necessary if the Sanders movement is to grow and prosper.

Remember, it was Sanders’s inability to build a robustly diverse coalition—not the DNC, not the media, not voting machines—that doomed his presidential insurgency. Eight years ago, Barack Obama took down the vaunted Clinton machine by building a coalition of white liberals, young voters, and African-Americans.  Sanders missed a key piece of the progressive puzzle (though he was competitive with African-Americans under 30 years of age).

There are various theories why he struggled, one of which is that his insistence on prioritizing income inequality was, in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s words, a “class first” strategy that didn’t sufficiently emphasize systemic racism. Clinton exploited the opening, declaring just before her string of Deep South victories, which gave her a pledged delegate lead she never relinquished, that the economic populism agenda was “not enough. We also have to break through the barriers of bigotry.” The Sandernistas can’t remain stuck in the “class first” mindset. Touting Trump’s white working class appeal, instead of challenging his populist bona fides, is falling back into the trap.

There was a time when Democrats were skittish about confronting the white working class over race. In 2003, Howard Dean famously said, “I intend to talk about race during this election in the South, because the Republicans have been talking about it since 1968 in order to divide us, and I’m going to bring us together, because you know what, you know what? White folks in the South who drive pick-ups with Confederate flag decals on the back ought to be voting with us and not them because their kids don’t have health insurance and their kids need better schools too.”

At the time, this statement, which was paired with a criticism of President George W. Bush for being racially divisive, was widely praised. Then nine months later, Dean got in hot water with the less carefully crafted statement, “I still want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks.” He subsequently retired the talking point. But the fact that Dean’s launch toward frontrunner status followed his initial Confederate flag statement shows how desperate the left was to piece together a winning Electoral College coalition.

Regardless of how much effort you think Democrats should put towards wooing the white working class, Democrats no longer need to genuflect to them at the expense of racial issues. The white share of the American electorate is at 69 percent, down two points from 2012 and falling. The Democratic Party is reliant on nonwhite votes, and the future success of any progressive “revolution” is as well.  The job of the Sanders movement is to prove it can build a better, more potent multiracial coalition. It has to design a rhetorical framework that drives a wedge through the white working class, leaving behind the incorrigibly racist with a shrunken Republican Party.

Some in the Sanders movement presume that its youth means its future success is preordained, and that the mere regurgitation of its existing vision is all that is needed to survive and thrive. But such a sanguine conclusion rests upon a false narrative of the campaign that refuses to recognize where it fell short. In reality, the Sanders movement has work to do.

Surely the left will oppose Trump. But will it fight Trump with one hand tied behind its back, as Frank effectively does in his column—perfunctorily bemoaning Trump’s transgressions while saving its passionate outrage for Clinton and the Democratic establishment? That won’t accomplish the mission of fully disassociating economic populism from Trumpism. You can fight with Clinton later. You have to fight Trump now.