Donald Trump Is Getting Serious About Populism

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Donald Trump campaigns for the Iowa Caucus
Photo: Tannen Maury/epa/Corbis/© Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

In the brief period that the national political media has not been fixated on him, Donald Trump has undergone an important metastasis. His populist rhetoric has firmed up and identified a different and somewhat more specific band of enemies, including (but not limited to) oil companies, insurance companies, defense contractors, and wealthy “bloodsuckers” in general. The conservative analyst Byron York reports on Trump’s new rhetorical direction in a story headlined “As vote nears, a more radical Trump emerges,” and the report is highly perceptive, except for one crucial detail: The new version of Trump is less radical, not more.

One of the important underlying facts of American politics is that rich people tend to have more socially liberal and economically conservative beliefs than the country as a whole. The elite criticism of the structure of party politics usually boils down to demanding that the parties reflect elite beliefs even more closely than they already do. Hence the endless demands for a socially liberal third party that will reduce spending on retirement programs, or the fantasy that America is entering a “libertarian moment.” The truth is just the opposite: The underserved political market is voters who want less libertarianism. They oppose free trade, want to keep every penny of promised Social Security and Medicare, distrust big business, think immigrants hurt the country, and generally distrust the rest of the world.

Trump’s campaign initially emphasized his nativist position on immigration, which caused him to be identified with the Republican right. But Trump has repositioned himself increasingly as the candidate of the populist, disaffected center. Even though Trump has proposed a huge tax cut for the rich, he draws support from Republican voters who are most heavily in favor of raising taxes on the rich. (They have no other candidates to choose from within their party.)

Trump’s populism has slowly intensified. “I don’t get along that well with the rich. I don’t even like the rich people very much,” he recently said. “It’s like a weird deal.” He has proposed to let the federal government negotiate lower prices for Medicare prescription drugs, a plan horrifying to conservatives (and drug companies). Like other Republicans, he proposes to eliminate Obamacare and replace it with something undefined but wonderful. The reason Trump’s vague repeal-and-replace stance makes them so nervous is that he once advocated single-payer insurance, and he has emphasized, in a way other Republicans have not, the horrors of leaving people who are too poor or sick to afford insurance on their own. Trump’s shorthand description of the travails of the uninsured before Obamacare — people “dying on the street” — alarms conventional conservatives precisely because it captures the broad reality of the suffering that justified Obamacare in the first place, and which would intensify if the law is repealed. The Republican fear is that Trump’s vague promise to replace Obamacare with something terrific is not just a hand-waving tactic to justify repealing Obamacare. Their fear is that he actually means it. Trump’s populist positions may place him farther away from the Republican Party’s intellectual and financial vanguard, but they draw him closer to its voters.

The clearest sign of Trump’s intentions is the conscious fashion in which he has tried to co-opt the appeal of Bernie Sanders (who, like Trump, has opened up a populist attack on his party’s consensus). Trump’s argument is that he agrees with Sanders on trade, but only Trump can put his critique into practice:

The one thing we very much agree on is trade. We both agree that we are getting ripped off by China, by Japan, by Mexico, everyone we do business with,” Trump said.

“The difference is: I can do something about it. I’m going to renegotiate those trade deals, and I’m going to make them good. I mean, they’re going to be really good,” he said.

“Bernie can’t do anything about it, because it’s not his thing,” Trump continued. “He won’t be able to do anything about it. I’ll create absolute gold out of those deals.”

Here is the significance of those words. Trump has been promoting himself as a critic of existing trade agreements for a long time, but he has not been tying his ideas to those of Bernie Sanders. That’s because Sanders does not have a lot of loyalists who are thinking about casting a vote in the Republican primary. But what if Trump is not thinking exclusively about the Republican primary? What if he is moving toward an endgame of a third-party run on behalf of a constituency that extends into both parties?