The "Populist" Rise of Donald Trump (And Bernie Sanders)

This writer recently came across an article on Alternet– my weekly trek into the deranged mind of your average loony tune Leftist- and came across an article reprinted from Huffington Post (another source for Leftist dribble) by Robert Kuttner that made some sense.  One cannot argue with his basic thesis regarding the rise of populists, although he goes clearly off the rails when it comes to comparing St. Bernard of Vermont and the Voldemort of the Republican Party.

He essentially argues that populists, particularly on the Right, arise in popularity when three factors emerge- (1) a generally lousy economy for most citizens, (2) the political system ceases to solve problems and loses legitimacy, and (3) some foreign menace develops where the electorate seeks a strongman.  One could make a case that these three factors are at work today.  Although statistics indicate that the economy is better than it was four years ago, way too many feel left behind.  Wages have not grown under the Obama administration and this is becoming the accepted new normal.  The approval ratings of Congress are in the tank and Obama’s, although improving, are not really that much better.  And Islamic terrorism, rightly or wrongly, is seen as an existential threat to America.  We are one terrorist attack away from changing the entire debate.

Where Kuttner further expounds on his theory, it sounds as if he is describing Donald Trump and perhaps he fit his article’s evidence around Trump.  But, Trump is certainly a master at manipulating mass media be it Twitter, other social media, or his plethora of television interviews and free airtime.  They (populists) also “trigger cognitive dissonance-” once people see someone as the outside savior, it matters little what that person says or does, how vile or crude their comments, or how vacuous their positions.  In short, their savior has arrived.

There are certainly some valid comparisons between Trump’s rise to political power and those of famous fascists in history such as Mussolini and even Hitler.  Had not Hitler had nefarious designs on world domination, he largely delivered on his promises.   For example, Hitler and Mussolini greatly expanded the welfare state in Germany and Italy.  One caveat before continuing: I do not mean to suggest that Trump is the second coming of Hitler.  Hitler was one of the worst characters in world history and no matter how badly we perceive Trump, there was only one Hitler, thankfully.  Instead, this more about the interface between societal, political and economic dynamics that allowed Hitler to rise to power.

Hitler’s whole rise to power was predicated upon outside forces subjugating Germany.  Like anything, there are shreds of truth to the statements.  The onerous Treaty of Versailles with its reparations and instillation of German guilt certainly allowed Hitler to portray Germany as a victim, just as Trump portrays the United States as a victim of bad trade deals, or hordes of Mexican rapists and criminals pouring across the southern border.  Hitler was going to make Germany great again and where do we hear that now, or see it emblazoned on red hats?

Most importantly, upon deeper analysis, we find that most Right wing populists are definitely not one thing- conservative.  After all, the term “Nazi” was short for nationalist socialist.  And Trump would certainly fit that mold.  He has supported a national single payer health care system, would likely expand the social security safety net, and has even proposed clamping down on free speech through liberalizing libel laws.  His whole economic package is a socialist trade policy of restrictive tariffs and his railing against campaign finance would shred the First Amendment.  He plans to pay for some of his programs through a special tax on the super-rich.

It is no secret that Trump is not conservative in the true sense of the word.  This writer considers conservatism to rest on four basic pillars- respect for Constitutional government, respect for property rights, respect for contractual relationships, and respect for small and limited government.  Trump clearly violates all these tenets.

Regarding a respect for Constitutional government, this writer doubts he has even a rudimentary understanding of the document.  Sometimes, he is guilty of the Freudian slip when he refers to an administration as a “reign.”  He seems to believe that he can unilaterally slap tariffs on goods from Mexico or China or elsewhere.  There are other areas- notably his views on Free Speech vis-a-vis liberalizing libel laws, and campaign finance.  And while true conservatives like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio understand these things, Trump would be Obama executive actions on steroids.  Part of it is because that is how he runs his business being the CEO, but being the President of the United States is different than being a CEO.  Either this is intentional or Trump is just plain obtuse when it comes to the Constitution.  Either way, the outcome is equally scary.

As for a respect for property rights, we will not even go there.  Simply, he views eminent domain as one of the most beautiful things ever even it means confiscating property to build high rises and parking lots for limos.  With contractual relations, he has no respect for them whatsoever as his past business dealings have indicated.  While he claims he, like other businessmen, use the bankruptcy code to their advantage, he fails to understand that there are a slew of vendors, small businesses and creditors screwed out of their contracts.

Finally, Trump has no inclinations to reign in an expansive federal government.  His solution is to stop “waste, fraud and abuse.”  When asked how, he says to trust him without any specifics.  At least Ted Cruz can list agencies on his website to abolish; one doubts Trump realizes they exist.

To this writer, the most audacious aspect to Trump is that he hitched his wagon to the conservative star and mouths what he believes is some checklist of items that automatically converts him to the savior of conservatism.  But the worst aspect is the cognitive dissonance aspect and how people fall for it hook, line and sinker.  Jerry Falwell, Jr. condones it saying that all the social issues make little difference if ISIS were to attack the United States.  This requires a quantum leap in logic and basic intelligence to adopt this worldview which seems to define the average Trump supporter.  Is it any wonder that Trump has attracted the lowest common denominator in the American electorate- the racist, white supremacist?

As for Bernie Sanders, he really is not that much different.  He too rails about much of the same thing that motivates Trump- bad trade deals, the alleged influence of money in politics, but in Sanders’ case the big bogeyman is not the Chinese, Muslims, or Mexicans but Wall Street.  That is the only thing that separates the two.  And the cognitive dissonance that spurs the supporters who want to “make America great again” or who “feel the Bern” are the same.  Simply, despite the rhetoric, there will be no change to the libel laws, there will not be a 45-foot wall along the southern border, over 11 million people will not be deported, and Muslims will not have to “register” just as Sanders cannot realistically deliver on his many promises.  But they sure sound good no matter what side you are on in the political divide.

Instead, it is those three original factors- economic uncertainty, a dysfunctional legislative process, and a foreign menace- that motivate both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.  In that respect, they are no different.  Except at least Bernie Sanders proudly proclaims himself to be a socialist.  Trump hides behind fake conservatism to mask his socialism.