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Trump’s Populism Is a Sham

His cabinet picks prove he's going all in for corporate America. Can Democrats take advantage?


In the last few weeks, Donald Trump has engaged in seemingly contradictory behavior. On the one hand, the president-elect is using the bully pulpit to champion workers and challenge big business. He has threatened to punish companies that offshore jobs, accused Boeing of gouging taxpayers with its contract with the U.S. Air Force, and criticized the pharmaceutical industry for high drug prices. On the other hand, Trump has proposed a cabinet made up of conservative plutocrats, many of them multimillionaires or billionaires, who are committed to the very policies that Trump is railing against.

Trump’s expected pick for labor secretary, Andy Puzder, is a perfect example of the latter. The CEO of fast-food conglomerate CKE Restaurants, which owns Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, Puzder is a fan of paying workers as little as possible, opposes the minimum wage, and says that immigrants are superior to native workers because they are more grateful. He’s also a fan of automation, telling Business Insider that machines are “always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case.”

The contradiction between Trump’s populist rhetoric and Puzder’s anti-worker agenda is rooted in the coalition that Trump built during the election. He won the electoral vote by appealing to working class whites who previously had not voted or voted for Democrats, but he also had the support of many conventional business-friendly Republicans. To hold this coalition together, it looks like Trump is going to square the circle via political theater—using the spotlight he enjoys as president-elect to single out individual businesses for populist ire, while handing the levers of power to corporate leaders like Puzder.

This two-faced formula was successful enough to win Trump the presidency, so simply denouncing him as a con man won’t suffice. Instead, Democrats need to answer his fake populism with real populism.

In a string of tweets on December 4, Trump laid out his business plan with some specificity:

The U.S. is going to substantialy [sic] reduce taxes and regulations on businesses, but any business that leaves our country for another country, fires its employees, builds a new factory or plant in the other country, and then thinks it will sell its product back into the U.S. without retribution or consequence, is WRONG! There will be a tax on our soon to be strong border of 35% for these companies wanting to sell their product, cars, A.C. units etc., back across the border. This tax will make leaving financially difficult, but these companies are able to move between all 50 states, with no tax or tariff being charged. Please be forewarned prior to making a very expensive mistake! THE UNITED STATES IS OPEN FOR BUSINESS

Precisely half of this is believable. The tax cuts and deregulation Trump is promising are all too real, since the Republican majorities in Congress are on board, as is Trump’s proposed cabinet. The “retribution or consequence” for destroying jobs is just for show, and will consist largely of Trump sounding off on Twitter. Republicans on the Hill, for instance, were quick to reject his proposed 35 percent tariff. “I do not want a trade war,” said Kevin McCarthy, the House majority leader. 

Trump’s recent deal with Carrier is a good example of how limited his anti-corporate stance will be. After attacking the air-conditioning company on the campaign trail over its offshoring plans, he announced recently that he had saved more than 1,000 Carrier jobs in Indiana. As the details emerge, though, it’s increasingly clear that Trump “lied his ass off,” in the words of union leader Chuck Jones. The deal would still see United Technologies, Carrier’s parent company, move around 1,300 union jobs to Mexico while keeping around 800 in the U.S. And thanks to Governor Mike Pence, Trump’s vice president–elect, Indiana is giving the company a government handout in the form of millions in economic incentives.

Trump seems to be using a similar sleight of hand with regard to the pharmaceutical industry. “I’m going to bring down drug prices,” he told Time. But he offered no details.  Meanwhile, Trump’s reported pick to run the Food and Drug Administration, Jim O’Neill, is an associate of Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Theil and a believer in radically deregulating the process by which drugs are approved for the market.

So far, Bernie Sanders has developed the most effective political response to this pseudo-populism. In a Washington Post op-ed about the Carrier deal, the Vermont senator didn’t just upbraid Trump for his fraud but also offered a genuine policy alternative: 

If United Technologies or any other company wants to keep outsourcing decent-paying American jobs, those companies must pay an outsourcing tax equal to the amount of money they expect to save by moving factories to Mexico or other low-wage countries.  They should not receive federal contracts or other forms of corporate welfare. They must pay back all of the tax breaks and other corporate welfare they have received from the federal government. And they must not be allowed to reward their executives with stock options, bonuses or golden parachutes for outsourcing jobs to low-wage countries. I will soon be introducing the Outsourcing Prevention Act, which will address exactly that.

On drug pricing as well, Sanders has an admirably detailed set of policy prescriptions which includes allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices, importing prescription drugs from Canada, closing the existing loophole that prevents some seniors and the disabled from getting a discount, and forbidding drug companies from making deals that allow them to keep generic drugs off the market.

Aside from offshoring and drugs, there are a host of areas where Democrats could start pushing a more populist message that offers concrete alternatives to Trump’s theatrics: support for unionization, raising the minimum wage, and a real infrastructure plan that involves not just tax incentives for private firms (as Trump’s does) but actual government spending.

Sanders was successful in pushing some of these priorities onto the Democratic Party platform, but the Clinton campaign never made them points of contrast with Trump in the general election. Instead, their message was overwhelmingly focused on his personal unfitness. The argument about Trump’s unworthiness for office did win Clinton a popular vote victory, but wasn’t enough to secure the office for a variety of reasons. Some voters were willing to overlook Trump’s flaws because they liked what he was promising, while others were convinced (or let themselves be convinced by fake news) that Clinton was worse. Voters’ motives aside, we can safely conclude that the argument about unfitness for office wasn’t enough.

Once Trump is president, he’ll begin making policy. It’ll be important for Democrats to criticize those policies, especially when they betray his populist rhetoric. But beyond calling attention to Trump’s hypocrisy, Democrats had better be ready to do what Clinton neglected: make a full-throttle case that they have answers to the problems Trump is only pretending to solve.