Americans are constantly hearing phrases such as “Drain the Swamp” from right-wing politicians and concerns about “the rise of populism” in our country from leftist political scientists.
Is populism a good thing? How has it affected domestic and foreign affairs since the Trump Administration began? In what ways has Trump leaned towards authoritarianism and autocracy?
Imagine this: millions of hard working Americans, some taking on extra hours to feed their families, some not educated enough to advance in their given fields, and some who feel powerless against the decisions of big government. They are burdened by the toll that free trade and open borders have imposed on their communities and growing more distressed by the day that so many are receiving a “free ride” from the government while their own socioeconomic status remains stagnant. They are sick of the government giving money and focusing efforts on other countries when their own people are in need. They consider themselves “common people” or the working middle class. Most of them do not consider themselves racist, but are voting to help better their own lives.
This scenario is not just about the half of Americans who voted for Donald Trump, but is meant to draw attention to the part of America that feels left behind by technocrats and plutocrats who have been in government, seemingly for forever. Populism appeals to these people because the rhetoric surrounding criticizes “the other” and has strong hints of nationalism or socialism.
Although there are strong and valid concerns that populism tends towards autocracy, several landmark policies and movements have been enacted in the name of populism.
This includes the Greenback Party, who initiated the 8-hour workday and a pro-labor platform in 1874, subsidizing farmers and agriculture, and proponents of women’s suffrage, public education, and the construction of interstate highways. These are viewed as historically positive actions.
Still, this does not answer the question is populism good for society overall. Donald Trump, who ran one of the most populist campaigns in American history, hurt rural farmers’ incomes through foreign intervention and constant and aggressive trade wars. The loss of some agricultural products being exported at a much lower rate has caused surpluses and income decreases due to overall less international and domestic trading. The Commodity Credit Corporation (CCC) was created under FDR’s New Deal to help bring the agricultural market to equilibrium. According to The Action Institute, these subsidies have yielded disappointing results in the past. Regardless, the US Secretary of Agriculture announced that the CCC will be used again to purchase “unexpected” surpluses of affected commodities such as fruits, nuts, rice, and meats. This program will increase the national debt, hurt welfare benefits, and most family farms.
This is disappointing and antithetical to the many farmers and blue-collar workers who voted for Trump, under the belief that he would serve the common man. Unfortunately, small farms and low wage workers in the agricultural industry will be hit the hardest. Is this America first?
Donald Trump began the trade wars based on the notion that this would increase domestic trade, despite warning signs he was given. His goal was to increase domestic trading to eventually raise the national GDP. He argued that this was his “America first.” However, experts and economists from all over the world alerted the Administration of the issues with surpluses, regressive tax policies, health care plans, and trade relationships.
This begs the question: Does Trump’s agenda trump what’s in America’s best interest?
As Muller explains, there is a very thin line to cross over to autocracy. One reason for this is the decline in political efficacy and sharp increase in partisan polarization. Trump and many other populist leaders in power are elected on anti-government and anti-politics campaigns. Anti-politics cannot generate substantive policies. Second, populist leaders are supposed to be anti-elites, but in order to win the office, these leaders often must compromise and work with members of the elite for donations, approval, or power. Elites “acting behind the scenes” is the first step away from democracy.
For example, Trump has created a plutocracy within his administration. Most of the members of his cabinet are wealthy, well-known people were already a part of his network. Betsy DeVos, for example, despite her lack of experience in the public education system, financial aid, or special education.
This is not just a partisan issue. Many of Trump’s aides are related to him in some way. Jared Kushner, for example, was a lifelong Democrat (donating over $100,000 to democratic campaigns including Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama) until he was offered a position in the White House. He was named Senior Advisor to the President and given top secret security clearance despite some red flags that were never investigated.
Trump has also made strides in delegitimizing the media as well as other institutions and his opposition. Although the US in not in the same position as Hungary or Venezuela, there have been small yet concerning inclinations away from democracy.
Is populism good? It can be. But it is unchallenging for a populist leader to exploit the ideals of the party.
How has it affected foreign and domestic affairs? Populism is xenophobic and isolationist; ties being cut with many countries with whom we have had long lasting relationships. Trade and international law have begun to erode.
Domestically, political efficacy and general trust is being slowly diminished. Trump’s average approval rating is at its lowest ever at nearly 22%. Do these policies lean towards authoritarianism? Many do to various extents.
These are obviously unfinished and extremely simplistic answers. These are complex questions. Please feel free to elucidate in the comments.