Forget Trump – A return To True Populism Is The Cure, Not The Disease

By Thomas Frank
The Guardian (6/23/18)

Why are the traditional parties of the left in the western world being defeated in so many places by outrageous blowhards of the right? The answer most often given is that rightwing politicians have discovered and embraced a diabolical form of super-politics known as “populism”. With its combination of magic words and evil deeds, this populism is breaking rules, beguiling voters and winning elections.

Populism is a subject I know something about. In the 1980s I studied the angry American agrarians who, a century before, squared off against railroad monopolists. I became fascinated with the populist culture of the Roosevelt era, with all its Fanfares for the Common Man and its admiration for working people.

“The right name for Trump’s politics is “demagoguery” or “pseudo-populism”. By lumping him together with the genuine reform tradition of populism, we do that tradition a violent disservice.”

What I saw around me in the 80s, however, was a sort of inverted populism, in which Republicans used the words of Thomas Jefferson to sell plutocracy and the will of the people was confused with the operation of the market. Later, I wrote about the phony populism that now dominates my home state of Kansas, and I followed the careers of right-populist superstars such as Richard Viguerie and Glenn Beck. I watched the country erupt during the bank bailouts and I was a spectator at gatherings of the Tea Party.

In my lifetime, the politicians who have most loudly proclaimed their solidarity with the humble producers have been rightwingers. Hypocritical rightwingers, yes, but by and large they have put the fiction over. Today it is the turn of Donald Trump, the “blue-collar billionaire”, to act as tribune of the plebs. In 2016, he won millions of votes from unfortunate toilers in hard-bitten places. Over the affluent zip codes of the US, meanwhile, a wail of aghastitude hangs in the air, a constant moan over Trump’s unfitness for the high office he holds. Aghastitude’s scholarly analogue is my subject here: the devil theory of populism. …

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