Trump makes a bad populist leader because he has no real intention of helping the common man, and must maintain this facade in ways that test the normal bounds of executive power – like by lying and enacting superficial policies that are meant to keep him in good graces with his base. What about bringing back coal mines, and deporting those illegals that took our jobs, you say? Both of those represent purely ideological victories for the party, not any substantive improvement for middle america – except for coal and steel workers I suppose. So, the rise of neoconservatism isn’t the only concern. Trump may represent a shift in the head of state from genuine policymaker, to practitioner of political theater – the term bad actor seems apt for this situation.
Populism is not always bad. If America had a system with complete voter representation, successful outsider candidates would almost certainly align themselves with democratic socialist policies that would actually benefit blue collar America. The notion of calling Trump populist is somewhat strange in this sense as he was unable to win the popular vote even with very little voter participation relative to other democracies (Pew Research). Yet Trump is often portrayed as the epitome of a populist candidate, the common man’s president. This is really an an incredible feat for someone that almost certainly didn’t pay his share of income tax, didn’t pay many of the people who are contracted to work on his hotels, and didn’t even show a modicum of respect for POW’s that fought in a war he waived out of.
The dissonance between reality and portrayal demand that Trump and his staff control the media narratives aggressively with the most optimal spin for his image. This need to bend the truth has in essence created two subjective realities, one for his opposition and another for those who believe Trump and his staff to be the most credible source. Of course this is not good for democracy, because Trump has immense political incentive to simply lie when it would benefit him as his voter base has been gas-lighted to believe what he says even in the most extreme conditions. What’s more, is that the muddling of the truth makes it impossible for there to be productive bipartisan dialogue. What is the point of arguing about the role of illegal immigrants voting in the last election, when the evidence both sides make their conclusions from is not the same? Facts should not be partisan.
The only population Trump truly represents is the super rich. From a purely rational perspective, his strategy would be the most effective to become president in America: gain the support of poor people by lying, offer substantive benefit to the rich through tax cuts. As a result you reap the votes of blue collar America and support from donations and PACs of the super rich. It is a win-win that was not discovered by Trump, though he is certainly proving its efficacy.
Despite all the bad things said about Trump, I don’t think the man who is best known for his role as a reality show boss has especially devious plans about turning the United States into some hybrid authoritarian democracy like Russia. Trump seems far more likely to abuse his executive power in order to obstruct the legal process of his impeachment – and some would say he already has – than to follow through on a premeditated plan to stage an executive coup. But that is not to say his presidency is without detriment to American politics.The executive coup has given way to more subtle form of legally consolidating power in modern times (Varol). Trump and the Republican party have a gamut of ways to act within the system to unfairly ensure that executive checks are balanced in their favor, like by stacking the Supreme Court with conservative justices, or simply having the unspoken threat of being fired should you oppose Trump. His intentions may be less devious and more interested in self preservation, but they will have long standing effects on America nonetheless. He has exposed the tolerances of our democracy to abuse, and has established the alt right as a legitimate party.
Trumpian politics are not good for America. This is not necessarily a moral conviction on his use of conservative rhetoric to incite blue collar America, but is more a statement about the lack of quality and nuance behind trump’s policy. The things Trump does, be it raising tariffs on steel and aluminum or ranting against all the undocumented immigrants that voted against him, are widely disagreed upon by experts, and serve no purpose besides their popular appeal. This is beyond the typical fears of populism like the rise of conservative values and tyranny of the majority. It is a bastardized reality TV version of Rousseau’s general will, meant to distract us from the fact that while Trump and his rich friends get richer nothing is actually happening for those in need. Well, unless you are a coal miner or are working in an industry where your primary competition in the labor market is immigrants. That’s a significant portion of the population, right? Thinly gilded policies are exactly the kind of thing that will prevent America from becoming great, because they are short sighted and are aimed at increasing popularity, not long term progress.
These issues are not without solutions, whether the solutions are practicable is another matter. A voting system with direct representation and mandatory participation would force candidates to campaign at the entirety of the United States, not just the areas which will provide enough electoral votes for them to win. Additionally, it would ensure a diverse voter base, without the racial and socioeconomic bias we see today. Next, candidates should be allotted the same amount of money for campaigning so no unqualified wealthy outsiders – read actor/reality TV star – can fund themselves beyond their own merit. The infamous Citizens United decision, which affords corporations the same rights of people to donate to campaigns, would no longer pull American politics towards corporate interests. Lastly, a single term limit could render the effectiveness of political theater, or doing things just because they look good to your voter base and will get you elected for a second term, moot. As the old expression goes, presidents should plant the seeds for trees whose shade future generations will be able to enjoy sitting in, not seeds that will just get them another four years in office.
Photo by Ian MacNicol