joe biden

The Biden-Trump Race Is a Tale of Two Populisms

If you were running for president, he’d vote for you! Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

At a metal plant in Pennsylvania on Thursday, Joe Biden unveiled his plan for boosting America’s manufacturing sector (and/or neutralizing whatever lingering appeal Donald Trump’s protectionist populism might have in the Rust Belt). The presumptive Democratic nominee’s $700 billion proposal would dramatically increase federal procurement of American-made industrial materials for infrastructure and medical stockpiles, while also investing in U.S. firms aiming to achieve global competitiveness in green technology, artificial intelligence, and other “industries of tomorrow.”

Analysis of Biden’s speech has focused on the way it echoed many of the president’s signature concerns, including the necessity of the U.S. defeating China in “a race to the future” (sentiments that helped the former vice-president earn Steve Bannon’s seal of approval). But in his address, Biden did less to collapse the distinctions between Trump’s brand of populism and his own than he did to heighten them.

Donald Trump’s public persona is premised on the billionaire’s exceptional greatness. As a businessman, Trump sought to make his name synonymous with extraordinary success, wealth, and fame — and then licensed that name to properties looking to project an image of luxurious exclusivity to aspiring parvenus. As a politician, Trump assured voters that his exceptional “brain,” dealmaking ability, and toughness rendered him uniquely capable of fixing America’s problems. In Trump’s unscripted remarks, this personal egotism often bleeds into a classist elitism. Early in his presidency, Trump defended appointing a cabinet of millionaires and billionaires by telling a crowd, “I love all people, rich or poor. But in those particular positions, I just don’t want a poor person.” In pre-political life, Trump’s thoughts on “poor” (i.e. not rich) people were more luridly condescending. Speaking with Playboy in 1990, the real-estate scion explained that he would have pulled himself up by his bootstraps if he’d had to, but that this was sadly beyond the innate capacity of most blue-collar workers:

The coal miner gets black-lung disease, his son gets it, then his son. If I had been the son of a coal miner, I would have left the damn mines. But most people don’t have the imagination — or whatever — to leave their mine. They don’t have “it.”

When on script, Trump will valorize certain (predominantly male) segments of the working class. But the most prominent and authentic version of Trumpian populism doesn’t celebrate the economic contributions of the common laborer, so much as it articulates the cultural grievances of the petit bourgeoisie. Like so many exurban car-dealership owners across the country, Trump is a man whose (real or imagined) gifts have gained him distinction from the rabble — but failed to secure him the admiration of a cultural elite that disdains his tastes and values. The mogul’s iteration of this aggrievement might be peculiar; “outer-borough billionaires who never felt fully embraced by Manhattan’s high society” is not a significant voting bloc. But the emotional and ideological texture of Trump’s experience is common to a wide swath of the GOP’s business-owning donor and activist base. And the constituency for putative populist attacks on secular, cosmopolitan elites extends beyond the ranks of the monied into the evangelical and nativist movements.

Biden shares certain qualities with Trump. Both are 70-something white men who speak in plainspoken, rambling sentences, and are short-tempered when challenged. Nevertheless, in many respects, the former vice-president’s persona is antithetical to Trump’s. The president sells himself as a devious genius; Biden, as a decent mediocrity.

The presumptive Democratic nominee is not anyone’s idea of a spellbinding orator or policy wonk. His Senate career is full of (often lamentable) legislative accomplishments. But he was never all that famous or beloved on the national stage. His first two presidential campaigns were notable only in their ineptness. He’s known primarily for serving as a political superstar’s affable, competent subordinate. He won the 2020 primary by being broadly palatable, not singularly inspirational.

But affable competence ain’t nothing; in fact, the core premise of Biden’s populism is that it’s damn near everything. In Pennsylvania on Thursday, the Democratic nominee extolled the heroism of the ordinary laborer and denigrated the arrogance of well-heeled classes:

It was at my grandfather Finnegan’s kitchen table in Greenwich that I learned money doesn’t determine your worth. He’d say, “Joey, no one in the world is more worthy than you and everyone is equally worthy.”

… and folks, we know who built this country, hardworking folks like you grew up with. And you know who built the middle class? Unions built the middle class. That’s why we have a middle class. I had an uncle who’d said, “Joey, you’re labor from belt buckle to shoe sole.” Well, I’ve taken pride in that because the only way my dad would say you deal with power is with power. In corporate America — and I come from the corporate state of the world, Delaware — the only way to deal with abuse of power is with power and labor, unions are the only one that have that capacity to do it. 

Biden’s rhetoric here is a flat rejection of Trump as person, politician, and idea. In his account, greatness isn’t achieved by distinguishing oneself from the herd of coal miners’ sons who lacked the “it” necessary for rising beyond their station; it’s won by fulfilling your obligations to family and community.

Trump promises to use his extraordinary genius to secure workers a better deal; Biden vows to give them the tools to secure one for themselves, just as they did through organizing in past generations. If Trump’s populist persona speaks to the chauvinism and cultural resentments of the reactionary small-time capitalist, Biden’s is aimed squarely at the self-esteem and class antipathies of the ordinary worker.

It’s easy to overestimate the significance of messaging choices in ordinary election years. In the present one, it seems safe to assume that Biden’s oratory will be of little electoral consequence; polls suggest that voters are primarily concerned with the whole “uncontained mass death event” thing.

That said, it’s true that two of Trump’s few advantages are that voters trust him more on the economy, and that his base is more enthused than Biden’s. If the Democratic nominee is able to execute his indictment of Trumpian elitism on a debate stage, it’s conceivable that he could nullify the incumbent’s last sources of vitality.

The Biden-Trump Race Is a Tale of Two Populisms