Reclaiming populism from the Right: How Trump’s failures create an opportunity for Democrats

In Nation
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Though it has now been five months since Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, the debate over how he won continues unabated. And if you ask a Democrat, chances are he or she will point to Russia and Vladimir Putin, FBI director James Comey, fake news, or maybe even the Green Party’s Jill Stein as the reason for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s demise.

Not surprisingly, in an with New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof last week, Clinton herself maintained that the two biggest factors in her loss were Comey’s last-minute announcement on the investigation into her use of private email, and Wikileaks’ publishing of the “Podesta emails,” which were reportedly obtained by Russian hackers. Of course, there is no doubt that these factors played an important role in elevating Trump and undermining the Clinton campaign.

It was a perfect storm.

If fake news had somehow been eliminated from the web shortly before the election, or if Comey had opted not to make his ill-advised announcement (or, better yet, if Anthony Weiner had not ), and if Jill Stein had decided to drop out of the race in October, perhaps Trump would not be sitting in the White House today. Unfortunately, none of this happened, and one could go on forever discussing what-if scenarios. History is replete with what-ifs, but only novelists and Orwellian propagandists can rewrite history, and at the end of the day the biggest what-if scenario for 2016 is whether Trump would have even had a shot at winning had he not been blessed with the perfect opponent in Hillary Clinton.

Even with the perfect storm of fake news and Wikileaks and Jill Stein, it is unlikely that these factors would have been enough to tip the election in the reality TV star’s favor had he not been facing a candidate who played right into his populist rhetoric. As Trump campaign CEO and current chief strategist Steve Bannon  shortly after the election, “Hillary Clinton was the perfect foil for Trump’s message.”

“From her e-mail server, to her lavishly paid speeches to Wall Street bankers, to her FBI problems, she represented everything that middle-class Americans had had enough of,” Bannon explained.

In other words, Trump won because he was a populist candidate whose rival perfectly personified the establishment. And the billionaire only rode a populist wave into office because he was fortunate enough to have a creature of the establishment as his opponent.

Though it is yet another what-if scenario, of course, but had the opposing candidate been an actual populist — like say, Sen. Bernie Sanders, who , — there is to believe that Trump would have been easily defeated last November. And for this reason progressives have pushed for the Democratic Party to embrace a populist tone in the so-called “resistance” against Trump and the Republican Party.

Contrary to what many beltway insiders continue to tell themselves, the current populist explosion is not a short-lived fad based on the irrational emotions of the unwashed masses. It is a legitimate revolt against an unjust and undemocratic system that serves the rich and powerful. Thus, the party that can offer a popular plan for reform — along with genuine populist candidates — will succeed in the future. And while Trump and the far-right had the populist edge in 2016, progressives can easily gain the advantage in 2018 and 2020.

While Trump skillfully positioned himself as the populist candidate in 2016, he was never more than a demagogue peddling false promises, and demagoguery rarely translates into effective governing. That the president’s first months in office have been mired by continual political setbacks and embarrassing policy failures, then, is hardly surprising. And after just three months of predictable failure, President Trump appears increasingly willing to discard populism completely.

Indeed, it has become clear over the past week that the Trump administration’s leading purveyor of right-wing populism, Steve Bannon, has become an isolated figure in the White House. On Tuesday, after a week of reported infighting between Bannon and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, the president  that the chief strategist’s days may be numbered, and his influence: “I like Steve, but you have to remember, he was not involved in my campaign until very late. …I’m my own strategist.”

This is bad news for the alt-right, but potentially great news for progressives who hope to reclaim the title of populism from the Right.

The disastrous first months of the Trump administration have already gone a long way towards discrediting right-wing populism altogether, and Trump’s embrace of Wall Street (almost all of his top advisors are now Goldman Sachs alumni) and the GOP establishment creates a perfect opportunity for the Left. Just as Hillary Clinton, with all her political baggage, was a perfect foil for candidate Trump, President Trump, with his Goldman Sachs-government, could be the perfect foil for progressives and the Democratic Party.

That is, of course, if the Democrats can manage to unite around progressive candidates and a populist platform. And here too there is reason to be cautiously optimistic.

This week, Bernie Sanders and the newly elected DNC Chair, Tom Perez, in various swing states. Politico Magazine also  on Wednesday that Democratic leaders are currently formulating a broader economic agenda for 2018 that will be “populist,” with a greater focus on infrastructure and trade. This signals that Democratic Party leaders are starting to get serious about populism, though time will tell how serious they really are.

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