It Was Never Populism. It’s Nationalism

Today at the White House CEO event President Trump, leaning on the say-so and presence of big Wall Street CEOs, started ripping up the reforms put in place to prevent a repeat of the 2008 financial crisis. “We have some of the bankers here. There’s nobody better to tell me about Dodd-Frank than Jamie, so you’re going to tell me about it,” Trump told JPMorganChase CEO Jamie Dimon.

This should tell us several things. The most important is that ‘populism’ has always been the wrong name for what Trumpism represents. The unifying message of Trumpism is nationalism, and particularly an aggressive, zero-sum nationalism. It is also summed up simply in “Make America Great Again.” The style may be ‘populist’ in some generic sense. But the message and agenda is nationalism. That is the focus around which all the actions of these rancorous 13 days come together into a unified whole – aggressive attacks on friends and foes alike, threats of tariffs against non-compliant foreign states, clampdowns on immigration, etc.

You’ll notice that President Trump often talks about “workers” but it is almost always in the vein of protecting American workers from abuse by foreigners. Especially since the Trump virtually never speaks about wages. And he never spoke about wealth inequality, financial security provided by programs like Medicare and Social Security, let alone worker protections or labor unions. One might add job security, affordable education for children and retirement security generally to the list of the undiscussed. The real theme is one Trump articulated clearly yesterday in his National Prayer Breakfast speech: “We have to be tough. It’s time we’re going to be a little tough, folks. We’re taking advantage of by every nation in the world virtually. It’s not going to happen anymore. It’s not going to happen anymore.”

We may say that Trump is flipflopping or being hypocritical by embracing the individuals, policies and priorities of the country’s financial elite, who he notionally campaigned against. Both are true in a way. But that doesn’t tell us enough. The Trump message was about nationalism, power and aggression against the nations of the world who are ‘taking advantage of” us and laughing at us. That kind of aggression against outsiders, with their domestic counterparts, the ‘elites’, can overlap with economic concerns. They’re quite distinct.

But a proper understanding of Trumpism is also a political opportunity for Democrats. Trump is cozying up to the Wall Street barons he campaigned against. He’s about to throw 25 million Americans off their health care. “We expect to be cutting a lot out of Dodd-Frank, because frankly I have so many people, friends of mine, that have nice businesses and they can’t borrow money,” he said again today, while he also talks about vast tax cuts for his wealthy friends and tax increases for many ordinary working and middle class families. This is a perfect evocation of government by the richest, for the richest, by the rich – and from the President’s own lips. The complete indifference to the supposed interests of the people who voted for him has so many examples it’s almost comical. Democrats need to be building this storyline now.

Before concluding, let me make a point about nationalism. Nationalism is not a bad word or a bad thing, in itself. I don’t believe so at least. If you do, it is important to recognize that a strain of non-retributive nationalism is the default assumption of the great majority of Americans. Any politics which doesn’t recognize that is doomed to fail. But there are xenophobic and non-xenophobic breeds of nationalism. As I’ve noted several times recently, an aggressive, defensive nationalism is in some sense natural and generally harmless for small, weak countries. They often are taken advantage of and ill-used by the nations of the world. It can be a realistic basis of national policy. But when strong countries, even the strongest country in the history of the world, start indulging fantasies of weakness and grievance things can get dangerous quickly. Weak and small countries by definition can’t do that much harm. Their grievance and sense of victimization is inextricable from their very weakness. But when grievance and rage at outsiders takes hold among the strong, they are capable of committing great evil, precisely because of their power. Victimology is a powerful drug.

We should recognize what this is, the danger it represents and the open routes to mobilize politically against it.

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