Populism may make poor governance — But it certainly makes good politics.
Besieged in the White House as he may be, by his gathering opposition, I still wouldn’t count out President Trump. His kind of populism may make for sloppy governance, but it also makes for good politics.
We are seeing worldwide an upsurge of electoral politics that purports to represent the interests of everyday people against those of their arrogant and uncaring elites.
Most everywhere in the representative democracies, charismatic politicians flaunting their contempt for party Establishments are reaching out directly to distinct voting blocs via the new social media.
And the electoral groups most susceptible to their blandishments are workpeople and precariously-middle-class white collars being reduced in their incomes and their status by the migration of lower-skill industrial jobs to the developing countries.
A failure of conventional politics
Populism arises typically from the failure of the conventional party system and its institutions to soothe people’s political grievances.
In our time, populist movements arise most often from the inability of newly-independent states to overcome their crises of modernization. The modern state needs a foundation of literacy, a degree of urbanization and familiarity with the new technology; and these are not easy to acquire. This last half-century is littered with collapsed democracies that have reverted to varieties of authoritarianism.
The first recorded populist party, organized in the United States in 1891, voiced agrarian protests against the oppressiveness of the brash, industrializing American power.
Wheeling and dealing
Trump—a model of the modern-day populist leader—is a wheeling-and-dealing real-estate billionaire able uniquely to use the computer-mediated technologies to utter his constituencies’ often-incoherent rage and despair at their situation.
On the website Twitter alone, Trump is reputed to have 17.5 million followers. He also excels in “live” speeches on the campaign stump.
Though a Democrat Party challenger has yet to replace the defeated Hillary Rodham-Clinton and the aged socialist Bernie Sanders, President Trump is already laying down the network of his re-election campaign in 2020.
His immediate goal is to preserve—and build up—his mass base. So that he is making public policy oriented to the feelings, desires and wishes of his mass base—in utter disregard of constant criticism from the elite US media. This strategy also explains the contempt he displays for the barons of his own Republican Party.
Trump’s campaign promise to build a Mexican Wall as the center-piece of his anti-immigration policies may have been stymied by successive judicial vetoes. But in the economy Trump still threatens a retreat into protectionism that could set off trade wars with America’s NAFTA neighbors, Canada and Mexico, as well as with China and even the European Union.
Nearly a year into Trump’s first term, he has yet to set directions in both foreign and domestic policy. His White House is faced with a nuclear stand-off with North Korea; a potential fracture of the European Union, and extreme volatility in the Middle East.
Yet a recent poll by Monmouth University (New Jersey) found that of the 41 percent of Americans who currently approve of the job Trump’s doing, 61 percent said they can not see Mr. Trump doing anything that would make them disapprove of him.
US at a turning point
Trump’s America is at a turning point. No longer is it the benign melting pot of races, ethnicities and cultures that it prided itself as being. Not only are America’s minority cultures increasingly self-aware. They’re also increasingly aggrieved over the majority culture’s refusal to recognize their languages, cultures and ethnicities.
Meanwhile, for the white majority, the rise of minority cultures—brought about by decades of “affirmative action” and “positive discrimination”—now threatens the loss of the white majority on which has rested America’s social stability.
This is why the immigration issue is so critical—since to restrict immigration is to slow down the unavoidable loss of the white racial-ethnic-cultural majority.
The accumulated grievances on either side of these issues will ensure a measure of internal instability in America’s frontline states during these coming decades.
The rise of identity politics, apparently encouraged by both the Democrats and the GOP, is a critical failure in a nation that prides itself in its multi-culturalism, its egalitarian democracy and the opportunity it offers its people to make the best use of their lives.